Saturday, July 23, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XV (Gibraltar)

After my initial exploratory trip to Europe in 1975, I got a number of opportunities to re-visit some countries and also discover new ones both on official and private visits. One of the most interesting trips had been to Gibraltar, a small country situated around the famous Rock of Gibraltar. The visits to this place which also enabled me to see parts of Spain and Portugal were purely private. According to Wikipedia, "Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean. A peninsula with an area of 6.843 square kilometres, it has a northern border with Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the major landmark of the region.
At its foot is the densely populated city area, home to almost 30,000 Gibraltarians and other nationalities. The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. Gibraltarians resoundingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in referenda held in 1967 and 2002. Under its 2006 constitution Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defence and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the UK Government". The 426 meter high Rock of Gibraltar, which is supposed to be one of the Pillars of Hercules is the most famous landmark. The Rock is also known as Jebel Tariq in Arabic. The Rock is home to 250 Barbary Macaques and a number of caves which are a big tourist attraction. In Islamic history, Gibraltar is very significant. It was the point through which General Tariq launched the campaign to conquer Spain. It is said that after General Tariq landed on the coast of Spain at Gibraltar, he ordered burning of his ships. After this he addressed his troops saying that there was no retreat for them. They had no means of return and had to move ahead and live there! Saudis have now built a beautiful mosque near the spot where General Tariq had landed. On the actual spot there used to be a mosque which has been converted into a shrine of the Lady of Europe by Christians. Incidentally, the Pakistani operation of infiltration of 16 AK Force personnel as "freedom fighters" in 1965 under the overall command of Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik into Kashmir was also named "Operation Gibraltar!"
My connection to Gibraltar has been my sister's family. She and her husband are both doctors working in Gibraltar. My first trip to the place was through Spain. I had been invited in 1993 to Les Diablerets in Switzerland to accept the Merite Alpin award for my role in Himalayan Mountain Rescue. After the function was over, I decided to visit my sister in Gibraltar. There was a direct flight from Geneva to Malaga in Spain which was about two to three hours drive from Gibraltar. My take off from Geneva was not very comfortable. Sylvain Saudan drove me from Chamonix to Geneva Airport. It was heavily raining. At the Airport having knowledge of flight problems in Kashmir, I asked Sylvain if the flight will take off. He smiled and said it was not Srinagar.
Flights in Europe hardly ever get cancelled due to bad weather unless there is a blizzard or something! My Swiss Air plane took off in time and I could see the snowflakes through the plane window. I had never seen a plane take off in falling snow! Just after ten minutes we were above clouds and it was bright and sunny. We were served an excellent lunch during the flight. The plane landed at Malaga Airport around 3 in the afternoon.
My sister had phoned me and informed that they would be sending a car to pick me up from the Airport. The exit from immigration and customs was smooth and quick. As soon as I stepped out, an elder looking Spanish approached me and asked if I was Ashraf. On my confirming, he told me that his name was Angel Carreras and was a taxi owner who had been sent by my sister to pick me up and take me to Gibraltar. Malaga is a very touristy town. This is the entry to the famous beaches of Spain. Most of the time the drive was along the Mediterranean coast. There were very beautiful houses along the road right up to Gibraltar. The Spanish countryside is quite green dotted with small villages. Almost all the houses are white! On the way, Angel showed me the palatial house with a mosque built by the Saudi King for his personal use!
We reached Gibraltar in the evening around six or so. The entry at the border was also very quick and smooth. I wish we too had similar quick entries on Indo-Pak border! My sister and her husband were eagerly waiting for me and were very happy to see me in Gibraltar. Next day I was taken on a sight seeing trip. The first thing is to drive up the rock. It is a winding drive. In some places it is steep. Rock has caves and plenty of monkeys.
The Rock had been a fortification of the British against Spanish incursions. There are miles of tunnels called siege tunnels going all round inside the rock. There are observation posts and also openings for firing canons. The Saint Michael caves are very interesting natural formation.
Many attempt to scale the caves. There is also a Moorish Castle which is a big attraction. One very rewarding experience is to visit Alameda Botanical Garden. I was also taken to a crystal glass factory which is making crystal glass in various shapes. There is an interesting story about the 250 monkeys on the Rock. It is said that they saved the British from a night incursion by the Spanish. When the Spanish invasion took place during night, the monkeys made a lot of noise and alerted the British troops! There is a local saying that when the monkeys leave, the British will also leave. There are about 3,000 Moroccans working in Gibraltar. Morocco is just across and the nearest point is Tangier which reached by ferries. A very popular trip is to visit Casablanca.
Another experience which most of the tourists undertake is a Dolphin Safari. There is a boat tour which takes one into the sea to watch flying Dolphins! Apart from Moroccans, there are many Jews. There are also about 2,000 Indians in Gibraltar. They are mostly involved in business. They own most of the provision and cloth shops. A unique feature of Gibraltar is its Airport. The runway extends into sea and the main road crosses the runway. It is interesting to watch the vehicular traffic being stopped to allow a plan to land! This was my first contact with Gibraltar. I visited the place again in 1996 and 1998 and got an opportunity to visit parts of Spain and Portugal which I will describe in next episodes.

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