Little Britain

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2007, 12:00am

The top of the Rock? You'll do it in a couple of hours,' a cafe owner assures me when I ask about hiking up the local landmark. 'Make sure you give me a wave when you get there.'


Walking up to the highest point in Gibraltar is strenuous but satisfying. Southern Iberia unfurls below and coastal towns shimmer in the heat haze all the way to Malaga. In the opposite direction, the outline of Morocco suggests intrigue. Barbary apes shadow my ascent, melting into the foliage when I approach them.


Anchored at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, the Rock of Gibraltar is a huge lump of limestone that's a bastion of Britishness still subject to a disputed claim by Spain. It's where tapas meets toad-in-the-hole.


Homesick Britons drive down to the colony from the Costa del Sol to stock up on essentials from home and can be back in Torremolinos in time for lunch.


Few tourists stray the couple of hundred metres into the Spanish settlement beside the border.


At first glance, La Linea de la Conception is an unexceptional blue-collar town, spoiled by unattractive high rise apartments. However, the Spanish gateway serves as a perfect foil to Gibraltar. La Linea offers plenty of distractions. There's an impressive selection of museums and a crowded calendar of Andalusian festivals to enjoy throughout the year.


Watersports enthusiasts spend days windsurfing, waterskiing and scuba-diving, while golfers work on their handicap at Alcaidesa, the only links course in Spain.


Fishermen and sun worshippers share 14km of sandy beaches that end abruptly at a sturdy fence marking the official boundary with Gibraltar.


It's reminder of a political impasse that shows little sign of easing. Less than cordial relations between Britain and Spain culminated in head of state Francisco Franco closing the frontier indefinitely in 1967.


Only after Spain's inclusion in the European Community in 1985 were the gates finally reopened. (Officials adopted the pragmatic strategy of allowing Spanish citizens to cross into the colony to work, while opposing the right of Gibraltar to exist as a British outpost.)


One consequence of the continuing standoff is that neither tourist office is willing to promote sightseeing possibilities on the other side of the border, but travellers should find it easy to travel from one side to the other.


Mornings are best in Gibraltar. It's a 20-minute stroll from the heart of La Linea to the frontier. The air is scented by the strong coffee brewing at Cafe Immaculada. There are no signposts to Gibraltar on the Spanish side. Fortunately, the Rock is hard to miss.


On foot, immigration formalities are smooth. Bright red double-decker buses wait just beyond the customs hall, and you half expect the destination boards to read Piccadilly Circus.


They whisk passengers along Winston Churchill Avenue to Cathedral Square, not far from retail land- mark British Home Stores.


After juggling languages, currencies (pounds are accepted, as well as euros) and daily newspapers, it's time to fuel up for a busy day of exploring.


Governor's Parade is a quiet plaza a couple of blocks from the bustle of Main Street. Al fresco breakfast choices come in three distinct flavours, highlighting Gibraltar's historical collision of cultures.


Customers at Pickwicks tuck into sausage, bacon and eggs; next door at El Teatro, chocolate con churros (dough pastries served with thick cups of chocolate) fly out of the kitchen; and Marrakech serves oven-warm flatbreads, wild honey and mint tea.


Sightseeing is easy in Gibraltar. Taxi tours are a good way to develop a sense of the territory, but setting out on foot is equally rewarding. The principal attractions can easily be reached by starting at the top of the Rock and working your way down.


Military personnel lead fascinating walks through the honeycomb of tunnels gouged out of the cliffs that have ensured the successful defence of Gibraltar throughout the ages. The views from strategically sited cannon ledges aren't for the faint hearted. Another main attraction on the way down is St Michael's Cave, which was used as a military hospital during the second world war.


Rich with stalagmites and stalactites, the natural grotto is now a venue for concerts. Nearby, the City Under Siege exhibition recreates the conditions suffered by Gibraltarians during prolonged Spanish assaults. Sub-tropical Alameda Gardens marks the end of the descent and offers tranquillity, refreshments and shady benches to rest weary limbs in preparation for the night ahead.


Experienced tourists know that La Linea is the place to be after dark. Gibraltar buzzes by day, but is deserted by sunset - when Andalusians are starting to make plans for the evening.


When the pubs in Gibraltar's Irish Town are calling last orders, the cake shops, cafes and tapas bars along the pedestrianised main street in La Linea start humming with life.


Lodging options are plentiful on both sides of the border. In Gibraltar, the Rock Hotel has a stylish cachet and an illustrious roll call of former guests, including Prince Charles, Sean Connery and John Lennon. Something as opulent on the Spanish side would require a drive towards Marbella.


However, La Linea has perfectly serviceable accommodation and it makes sense to stay overnight. Beds are easy to find, rates are reasonable, and by choosing a hotel near Calle Real, you'll be a few paces from your bed when you start to flag.


Getting there


British Airways (www.ba.com) flies from Hong Kong to Gibraltar via London


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