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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Gibraltar - Part 1

26 December 2007 – Boxing Day

How does one go about visiting the Rock of Gibraltar, famous in North America at least for Prudential Insurance ads – “As strong as the Rock of Gibraltar”? Why not find a couple of fellow Canadians spending Christmas week in nearby Málaga? But how would one find some Canadians? In our case they found us through our Blog, and realizing that we would be in reasonably close proximity invited us to join them for Christmas Day, an excellent idea but one that would involve a round trip of about 500 km. and the challenge of finding legal, safe overnight parking for our motor home in an unknown city. So we opted to meet about ½ way on Boxing Day – which brought the four of us to Gibraltar .

So who was this intrepid, Internet-savvy Canadian? Kwantlenites will recognize my friend and fellow-founding faculty member, now a retired member of the Psychology Department, Lee Woodson, whose wife Monique, a teacher in a French Immersion school with the Surrey School District, is on a one year exchange to a school in a valley town in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. (E-mail Lee for details of his daily life).

The nation that rules Gibraltar controls one of the Pillars of Hercules, and thus access into and out of the Mediterranean. Aficionados of WW II movies will remember the graphic analogy to the human body used in the classic submarine movie Das Boot (The Boat) to describe the narrowness of the Strait of Gibraltar when the crew of this German sub are ordered into the Med.

Control of Gibraltar also meant, by extension, control of access of to and from the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the “shortcut” to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and at the eastern end of the Med, the Black Sea. It also provides a base for naval activities into the Atlantic, such as the Battle of Trafalgar (see earlier post this month). This map illustrates the borders in early 1940; areas named in red are allied with or controlled by Germany or Italy. Blue denotes areas controlled by or allied with Britain or France. Italy declared war on France on 10 June 1940. Two weeks later the success of the German blitzkrieg, “speeding” around France’s static and “impregnable” Maginot Line on the French-German border and roaring through tiny Belgium and on into France resulted in the capitulation of Britain’s major ally. The fall of France in the third week of June 1940, brought the already precarious British position in the Mediterranean to the critical stage. Part of the solution was the neutralization of the French Mediterranean Fleet. One method involved the Royal Navy attacking and sinking French ships at anchor.For more information there is a very good 16 page summary covering the Mediterranean situation through 1941 at this site

Gibraltar is steeped in history and the mixing of peoples here dates back many thousands of years. In 1848 an ancient skull was unearthed in a quarry, 8 years before an identical skull was discovered in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf , giving rise to Gibraltar’s claim that “Neanderthal Man” should have been “Gibraltar Woman”.

Ancient mariners were stopping here by the 8th century BC and leaving gifts to the gods, as at Sagres (see 22 November 2007) before venturing into the Atlantic. Julius Ceasar defeated the Phonecians within site of Gibraltar. The Muslim invasion of Europe began in 711 in the Bay of Gibraltar when the Visigoths sided with Muslims by loaning their ships to the Berber Chief, Tarik Ibn Zeyad who landed by what he named Tarik’s mountain – “Jebel Tarik” which would ultimately be corrupted into “Gibraltar”.

Gibraltar remained under Moorish domination for over 700 years, apart from 24 years under Spanish control in the early 1300’s, finally being recaptured by Spain in 1462. In 1704 it was captured by a combined Anglo-Dutch force and was ceded in perpetuity to the Crown of Great Britain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. Three hundred and five years later it is still a British possession despite numerous attempts by Spain to reclaim it, the latest significant one being Franco’s 13 year closure of the land border with Spain (1969-1982).

Today the land border with Spain at La Linea, adjacent to Algeçiras remains open, although once through British Customs you can be stopped by the airport runway if a plane is arriving or leaving. Just inside the border we picked up a guide, a true Gibraltarian, born and raised on the Rock, and it is in his van that we waited for the runway to reopen.

Coming back we walked to the border across the runway in the blustery westerly wind.

This airport played a very important role during WW II and during the 13 year Spanish blockade. But today there is a very minimal British military presence with a small representation of the RAF and virtually nothing to show of the Royal Navy.

The Rock is a jagged limestone outcropping from the Jurassic age. Some 426 meters (1400 ft.) high, about 5 km long, averaging 1.25 km in width, and about 16 km in circumference, Gibraltar is a little less than 6.4 square km. So it is not a big piece

of property. Nonetheless it is impressive.

Separated from the other Pillar of Hercules, the mountains of Morocco in North Africa, by 14 nautical miles of the Strait of Gibraltar makes it the southernmost point of continental Europe.

The porous limestone means there is always green foliage on it even when the nearby Iberian Peninsula is bone dry. The porous limestone always feeds the stalagmites and stalactites in the caves, the most famous being the extensive St. Michael’s Cave. It was long believed to be bottomless giving rise to the myth of a natural tunnel under the Strait to Africa.

Consisting of an upper hall connected via 5 passages dropping between 40 feet and 150 feet to a smaller hall, St. Michael’s Cave is extensive. Indeed a series of chambers lie below the main cave reaching a depth of 250 ft. below the entrance. Blasting a second access point for a tourist exit, so that the claustrophobic wanting to exit don’t have to stumble over those descending, revealed another series of descending chambers leading to a small lake. While beautifully breathtaking in its eeriness and majesty, the Cave is difficult to photograph without fixed lighting.

The size of the stalagmites can be seen in this one which became too heavy on one side at some time and fell to the cave floor. In 1792 a slice 18” thick was cut off its top end leaving this 4’6” (1.35 m) cross-section. The light brown rings and patches show periods of excessive growth, while the darker areas show growth during periods of less rain. The two thin lines of crumbly white substance are thought to come from periods of glaciation.