Seen from afar, the Rock of Gibraltar looks impressive. That’s why a famous insurance company uses its likeness as a logo to signify strength and stability. The Rock stands guard over the straits at the western end of the Mediterranean. It towers over everything around it. 1396 feet high, it stands on a tiny peninsula of land less than three square miles in area. That peninsula adjoins Spain, which lost Gibraltar to the British in 1704 and wants it back. The locals have other ideas however. 98.5% of them voted in a 2002 referendum against a proposal for Spain to share sovereignty of Gibraltar with Britain.
I visited Gibraltar in 1961 with an amateur boxing team. We had a match against the British garrison. After the soldiers had comprehensively thumped us, I took a closer look at Gibraltar. Impressive though it may be from a distance, even the delightful Gibraltans admitted to me that there wasn’t a whole lot to see or do. There were some little apes scampering around the upper levels of the Rock.
The legend is that Gibraltar will stay British, as long as they are there. Their numbers fell during World War II, so Churchill imported many more to maintain morale. The apes specialize in running off with tourists’ wallets and tearing off windshield wipers, which is funny when it’s not your wallet or your car, but you lose interest after a few minutes. One can only watch little apes for so long. So what else is there to do? Not much. One can stare at a dark smudge on the horizon and thereafter truthfully claim to have seen Africa. One can also see the ingenious way that a water supply is generated, when rainwater hits the upper levels of the Rock. Then there is an intricate system of caves and tunnels within the Rock to visit. That’s about it.
Fortunately, in 1961, the border between Spain and Gibraltar was still open. At that time, Spain was treading carefully in the hope that its unattractive neutrality in World War II would be overlooked. By 1969, Spain had gained the confidence to close the border completely, even to foot traffic, as part of its campaign to reclaim Gibraltar. As a result, it became necessary to take a hydrofoil to Tangier in North Africa and another hydrofoil from Tangier to Gibraltar, in order to reach Gibraltar from Spain. The border was partially re-opened in the 1980s but, to this day, passing through it is anything but smooth and quick.
As I swept through the border one fine July morning, all those complications lay far in the future. I entered Andalucia, which is the region of Spain adjacent to Gibraltar, and within half an hour found myself in San Roque, which has the smallest bull ring in Spain.
It is one of the few bull rings in Spain, without little alleyways for the matadors to duck into to escape the bull. I welcomed that absence for this reason. The fight between matador and bull does not occur on what Anglo-Saxons would call “a level playing field”. My problem with bull fighting is not with the death of the bull. Indeed, the steaks that I enjoy eating involve the death of animals in slaughterhouses. However, my problem with bull fighting is that I like a fight to be fair, and a bull fight is not fair. I saw the bull fight in San Roque. The spectacle and pageantry were unforgettable, but why is it necessary for men called picadors to stick spears into the bull to weaken it, before the matador feels able to fight it! Therefore, that day in San Roque, I was glad there were no alleyways in which the matadors could hide. It “leveled the playing field” just a little. Spain’s great love now is soccer, rather than bull fighting which Queen Sofia of Spain is said to hate. Spain won the soccer championship of Europe in 2008 and now produces the finest soccer players and coaches in the world. And they don’t even need to use picadors on their opponents before the match!
San Roque turned out to be a charming little town of about 25,000 people, typical of everything that makes Andalucia so attractive. It sits on a hill looking across the sea towards Africa. It has steep narrow thoroughfares, flanked by whitewashed buildings. It has been interestingly impacted by Arabic, Spanish and British cultures. There is plenty to do and see. It is certainly a place to visit. Bob