Sometime in the past decade I was introduced to the work of Patrick O’Brien, the English author of the Napoleonic War Admiralty series featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his sidekick, surgeon Steven Maturin. You may have seen them in the Russell Crowe movie “Master and Commander” or “The Far Side of the World,” both loosely based on novels in the 21-book series.
In any case, I unearthed the series in CD form at a Goodwill and have spent many wonderful hours being lost in the early 1800s Mediterranean … Port Mahon (on the Spanish island of Menorca), Santa Cruz de Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) and, of course, Gibraltar.
For some reason, of them all, Gibraltar has always drawn me. I have been fascinated by it for years. In 2014, on the Maiden Passage of the Regal Princess, we passed Gibraltar late at night, barely able to make out the iconic “big rock.” I was so disappointed, although I relished the idea that at least I’d seen it. Well, kind of.
In 2015 literary Gibraltar again drew me, in Jacqueline Winspear’s “A Dangerous Place,” which is set in this amazing territory during the time of the Spanish Civil War.
And, indeed, there is still a Spanish civil war going on in Gibraltar. This 2.6 square mile island-like peninsula is famous for – among other things – Barbary apes, tunnels and an ancient lighthouse site. It is the lone, and lonely, British possession in this area, connected to Spain with ties physical, cultural and economic.
Every day, thousands line up to commute across the UK/Spanish border, driving across the tiny airport runway en route to jobs in the other country. The inhabitants speak Spanish. And English. They eat Spanish things. And English ones. Some of them disparage the other culture, but clearly some embrace it, too. It’s an odd mix.
Yet the iconic rock is there; has been long before Spanish or Brits came to settle. It is riddled with tunnels – about 34 miles of tunnels from various wars, from the 1880s to World War II and the Cold War.
We were amazed by the Great Siege Tunnels, by the beautiful and colorful Cave of St. Michael, by the thieving (but adorable) apes. In short, the holes in the rock were amazing, interesting and fun.
We had an amazing guide, Adrian Traverso, who is passionate in his love of Gibraltar, and whose excitement about his home was contagious.
But for me, the greatest attraction – besides the rock itself – was the lighthouse. I was literally and figuratively blown away by it. Africa is 60 miles away from Europa Point, the promontory that holds the lighthouse. 60 miles! How amazing.
I so wanted to see Africa from the north, but it was hiding from view behind a bank of clouds (like the top of the rock, as you can see in our pictures). I have been to Africa twice – once to the South, Mozambique and South Africa, and once to the East, Egypt, but the opportunity to see it (or, more accurately, where it is) across the famous Strait of Gibraltar was priceless.
The whole area was amazing. The lighthouse was a beautiful sentinel standing atop picturesque cliffs, and backed by both a mosque and a Catholic shrine.
Because of its unique geography, it was windy and chilly – we had to hold onto our hats and cameras. But standing there, in a place I’d dreamed of for years, and read about many times, was worth the wind any day. I could practically see the HMS Surprise zipping through the Strait, with Captain Aubrey at the helm. Literature and history and geography. You just can’t get any better than that.