Rocking At The Southern Edge Of Europe
International travel is back, not quite as we remember it, but it is back. With the relaxing of the rules we decided to take a short break during half-term to test the waters. In order to enter Gibraltar you need to have booked a lateral flow test to be taken on arrival. In order to book this you need to have completed your passenger locator form, but in order to complete this you need to have checked in for your flight as it asks for your allocated seat number. This lead to quite a hectic time once on-line check in opened 24 hours before the flight. Coming back British Airways require you to use a third party app that checks you have all of the correct documentation. I made an assumption that the UK Passenger Locator form would also require you to enter your seat details so didn’t attempt to fill this in before check-in, however it was possible to book the Day 2 lateral flow test without doing the locator form. 24 hours before our return flight I tried to check in but got an error message, this kept happening in both the app and on-line. Eventually I checked what was required on the locator form and found that it only wanted a flight number, and once I had completed this and added it to the third party app I was able to check-in! Don’t you just love consistency!
On arrival in Gibraltar, despite ours being the only flight, there were some delays clearing border control due to the extra form checking. Once through we went to take our lateral flow tests which was all done very efficiently and we were now free to head to the hotel and actually start the holiday.
The first shock to the system is that upon leaving the airport and heading in to the town you find yourself crossing the runway. If this wasn’t weird enough the barriers came down when we were only 2/3 of the way across. Luckily they close the barriers well ahead of time and we were in no danger of having a plane land on us! Our hotel could be seen from the airport so it was only a short walk, and whilst checking in we received a text message to tell us our tests were negative.
We spent the rest of the late afternoon and evening wandering around the Ocean Village area, an on-going development of residential blocks, bars, restaurants & shops. This was our first experience of Gibraltar and frankly it lived down to the expectations that I had prior to visiting. Very much an ex-pat feel to the place with lots of English and Irish bars, restaurants boasting of all-day breakfasts and a certain type of person, that I can’t quite explain, but that you’d fully expect to see here. And traffic. So much traffic. I wasn’t quite prepared for how busy the roads would be in a place so small!
I knew before going that there was no longer any brewing taking place in Gibraltar so my beer expectations were low, and like everything else my expectations were met, with endless bars serving exactly the same range of beers you’d get in any pub at home, although as they were mostly brewed by Heineken España they constituted ‘ticks.’ The one bright spot came when we stumbled across The Bottle Shop, a wine shop that also advertised craft beers and indeed half a dozen beers from the Spanish Attik Brewing tucked away in the fridge. One of each was, unsurprisingly, purchased. We found one more bar in the area that advertised craft beer but that turned out to be a couple of BrewDog beers and a few from Tiny Rebel. Eventually we found a quiet back street restaurant with an Argentinian menu, obviously, for dinner before heading back to the hotel for a good nights sleep.
The main reason for choosing Gibraltar as a destination was the chance to add Barbary Ape Macaca sylvanus to my world mammal list and this requires a trip up to the top of the rock where the introduced population is resident. Before heading up we headed out to try our luck on a dolphin trip. Not that luck is really required as they are readily seen, and in fact the company we went with promises a full refund if you don’t see them. It was only an hour long trip but we were rewarded with close up views of a large pod of Short-beaked Commin Dolphins Delphinus delphis.
After the boat we started walking through the main part of town taking in the sights, including both cathedrals! before getting to the cable car station. Despite clearly asking for two adult tickets we ended up being sold two OAP tickets, I’m really not sure how to take that. It’s definitely worth paying for the combined cable car and nature reserve ticket as it gets you entry to everything at the top including Saint Michael’s Cave. As mammal ticking goes this was one of the easiest as the apes are used to humans, are everywhere and are constantly looking for ways to mug the visitors! The plan was to take the cable car back down again later but as we started exploring it became more and more obvious that we would end up walking down but at least we had chance to see everything and do some birding on the way. The guys we met at the Bird Observatory were very friendly and a useful source of information as to what was around. The highlights were multiple great views of Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala and a large flock of Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris that roost in the area. Unfortunately we were unable to locate any Barbary Partridge Alectoris barbara.
It turns out that the walk down and back in to town is long. Very long. Coupled with it being a deceptively hot day we were both suffering quite a lot by the time we got back. We fell in to a pub, which could have been in any town in England, and had a dinner off the typical English pub menu before heading back to the hotel for a well deserved sleep.
We both woke the next morning, our final half day, and found that our legs no longer worked. At all. And wouldn’t for several days. It’s obviously been a long time since we’d done such strenuous exercise. We left our bags in the hotel, staggered in to town and caught a bus down to Europa Point, the southern tip of Gibraltar, and very nearly Europe. For such a small place Gibraltar has a very comprehensive bus network, but still the traffic is bad! We were lucky to have quite a clear day which meant we able to see Morocco in the distance. Weird to think that we were looking at not just another country but another continent. Sight-seeing done we headed back in to town for our final lunch before the usual end of trip time killing exercise at the airport. More difficult here than at most airports. Luckily I managed a final couple of Heineken España ticks before the flight home.
All in all it was a good trip. I had low expectations so it wasn’t really possible for me to be too disappointed, and indeed some aspects of it, such as the caves, exceeded expectations. And, yes, the hassle around locator forms and covid tests does make travel more of a challenge. But, boy, is it worth it to get away on holiday again! Roll on the next trip…
There is one final footnote to add. Five days after our return we were contacted by NHS Track & Trace to say that we had been identified as a close contact of somebody who had tested positive for covid, presumably a fellow passenger. Luckily we are both triple jabbed and I was able to book and take a PCR test within an hour which came back negative, but nevertheless a salient reminder of the times we live in.