Category Archives: travel

Review: Gibraltar

This is a travel blog now.

Just joking, I still hate travel bloggers. And there’s nowhere more ‘wanderlust’ than the glorious sights and sounds of the overseas British territory of Gibraltar.

Again, I’m joking. But I did actually go to Gibraltar this week and I have some thoughts about it. So I’m just going to leave them here if that’s ok with you.

Why Gibraltar?

Good question! Every single person I’ve told about my holiday has asked why on Earth I’d go to Gibraltar. The answer is a bit complicated, but basically boils down to this: I wanted to go somewhere abroad, it’s an easy country to visit, and it’s always kinda fascinated me.

This is a postcard I bought in 2010, and I always found it really interesting. You can see pretty much all of Gibraltar there (it’s only 2.6 square miles big). And you’ll notice that it’s dominated by a MASSIVE GREAT BIG ROCK. Just the idea of there being a settlement living under the shadow of this nightmarish geographic landscape is really cool, in my opinion.

And in person it’s even more amazing. Here’s the view from outside the hotel I was staying in:

Wherever you are in Gibraltar, the Rock looms over you. Ever-present, ominous, quasi-Lovecraftian in nature. Like imagine if Brighton just had a huge mountain in the middle of it, and everything had to be built around it. It feels like some rule has been broken. It’s distinctly unnatural, and genuinely spooky at times.

But yeah, that’s probably reading too much into what is basically just a big rock. It’s just very impressive.

It’s also COVERED IN ADORABLE MONKEYS.

Well, I say ‘adorable.’ They’re still wild animals, they’re just used to being around humans. So they’re not friendly in any sense. They mostly just ignore you, unless you have food – in which case they turn into the most vicious claw and tooth machines ever known. So yeah.

There’s even more mysteries to be found within the rock itself. Like these gnarly caves:

Or these old war tunnels:

There’s apparently more miles of road within the Rock of Gibraltar than outside/around it – which is pretty nuts. A lot of it is still secreted away, and used for various military purposes. So that’s fun too!

So that’s the Geography of Gibraltar. What of its history? Turns out it’s ALSO REALLY INTERESTING.

Gibraltar was first permanently settled upon around 711 AD by the Moorish, led by Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad. They named the place after him too: ‘Jebel’ being Arabic for ‘mount’ and ‘Tariq’ being the dude’s name. Thus Jebel Tariq (Tariq’s Mount), becoming Gibraltar over the years.

HOW INTERESTING IS THAT.

Oh, and Gibraltar stayed under Muslim rule for about SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS. The legacy of these centuries can still be seen today with things like a pretty battered Moorish castle on the Rock, a beautiful mosque to the south, and – of course – the monkeys, brought over from North Africa.

Then like French and Spain and the Netherlands for some reason and the British fought over it for a few hundred years. And since 1713 it’s been under British control.

I spoke to a few Gibraltans, and they’re a very proud people. They’re proud to be British but not in the flag-waving ‘well EDL’ sense that we associate with that phrase. Gibraltar is a unique part of the world, with a dense history. The people there understand how unusual their situation is and couldn’t be happier to be living in a little part of Britain out in the big wide world.

It’s hard to capture exactly what I’m trying to say here, but my overriding sense was that the people aren’t just a bunch of nationalist ex-pats who have a weird thing for British colonisation – which I think is the assumption most people have. They’re mostly pretty cool.

So let’s quickly talk about the whole British thing. Sigh.

In Gibraltar I went to Morrisons, Marks &  Spencer, Costa Coffee, Debenhams, and a WH Smith. How horrific I hear you cry, going all that way just to go to the same shops we have here. Remember, Gibraltar is a British territory. It’s not actually Spain. Of course it’s going to have the same shops as us. Likewise with the red letter boxes and British policemen. What do you expect them to do differently?

If it helps, don’t think of it as abroad at all. Just think of it as another part of the UK that takes a while to get to, and has much much nicer weather. Because that’s basically what it is.

BUT HOW WAS THE FOOD RICHARD

Meh. The default cuisine seems to be ‘fish and chips’ – partly as a result of the whole ‘British heritage’ thing, and partly because it’s a coastal region so fish is like all they’ve got. I had some VERY NICE seafood though – like these skewers.

Or this very tasty paella:

I also had this weird thing, which is a fillet steak stuffed with king prawns:

The brininess of the prawns kinda ruined the steak for me, but I had to try it. Holidays are all about new experiences after all, right?

But yeah, don’t go there for the food. Go there for stuff like this:

This is Catalan Bay – a small village on the eastern side of the rock. There’s a few bars/restaurants along the seafront and a big hotel (where I stayed), but apart from that it’s super quiet and mostly residential.

When I first arrived I thought I’d screwed up. I was on the wrong side of the Rock to the rest of town. That meant I couldn’t easily just walk in and check things out. But this turned out to be a good thing. The main town area is really busy, loud, and touristy. On the other hand, this quiet little bay was pretty much perfect for just chilling out. And buses ran every 15 minutes into town (a 15 minute journey itself), with a day rider ticket costing £2.50.

I’d recommend doing the same if you visit. Staying in town looks like it might just be a bit too aggro.

So in conclusion

Gibraltar is a really interesting place. It’s got a rich history, fascinating geography, and a unique blend of a tropical climate with British culture. It might not be for everyone, but it’s for more people than I think would expect to like it. And I’m glad I went.


Why Gibraltar?

I want to return to this question. I didn’t just go to Gibraltar because I wanted to look at a big rock and some monkeys. It was also a personal challenge to myself. I’ve never been away on holiday on my own before, and I wanted to see if I could do it, or if my anxiety would win. Because being alone on holiday is involves a whole load of things that trigger my anxiety:

  • Travelling alone
  • Eating alone
  • Being alone in public
  • Navigating unfamiliar places
  • Logistical organisation (booking flights, hotels, etc)

And I find it really hard to relax in general. The GAD-7 questionnaire for anxiety (which I have to do every week at the moment) asks if you’re having trouble relaxing as part of the scoring. And honestly, I find it difficult to relax most of the time! Like, I can’t just go and sit down and chill – I have to be occupied. (I’m no good at just ‘going to sit in the sun’ for example, which makes summer difficult). On this holiday, I wanted to see if I could actually do it: relaxing, in an atmosphere that is extremely conducive to relaxing.

That’s why I picked Gibraltar. Having a familiar language, and a shared currency means visiting it was super easy. The usual things I worry about on holiday (the language is a big one!) were eliminated. I could just get a taxi from the airport, explain where I wanted to go, and pay using the same notes and coins I already had in my wallet. The place is small enough that you can’t really get lost, and there wasn’t too much worry of being ‘late’ for anything. (There was just one point where I got anxious because I couldn’t find a coach I needed to get). Basically, I set myself an easy target.

I even managed to relax! I spent half a day just sitting in one of the restaurants by the sea, drinking beers, eating seafood, and reading in the sun. And I felt kinda… content? Like I didn’t need anything else in that moment. And that’s weird for me. I wish I could feel like that more often.

So I succeeded. I proved to myself that my anxiety doesn’t have to stop me from doing things. And I learnt that I am capable of feeling relaxed (in the right circumstances). Of course, now I’m back in London I’m immediately feeling stressed and worried again. But at least I know it’s possible.

The Cuba Diaries

Notes from my holiday to Cuba, madly scribbled into a tiny moleskin notebook over breakfasts of guava and omelettes.

Quick glossary – Casa = airbnb-style homestay accomodation // Viazul = inter-city coach.

Monday 3rd

Travel to Cuba. Up well early (OJ forgot her railcard). CBG -> KGX -> GTW. Nando’s breakfast. Plane with Norfolk man. Watched X-Men and Independence Day. Chaos at airport; immigration, baggage reclaim, customs, currency all mad. Taxi possibly ripped us off too. Arrived at casa in Havana. Host is lovely. Watermelon juice on arrival. Lightning!

Tuesday 4th

First day in Havana. Breakfast at Casa. Walked to Central Havana / Old Town. Seafront. Talked to lots of people. Walked around. Saw plazas + parks. Cathedrals. Coconut ice cream. Lunch: burgers + sandwiches. Walked around some more. Saw some art. Went to Havana Club museum. Drank mojitos at Hemingway’s bar (La Bodequita). Came back. Spent ages searching for water. Found some water. Sat on casa rooftop terrace. Went to local restaurant for dinner. Pizza and ‘smoked pork.’ Tired!

Wednesday 5th

Second day in Havana. Had a lie-in. Walked to the ‘Musee de la Revoluccio.’ Accosted on the way. Did a mini-art tour. ‘Free’ but they wanted a tip… Quite interested museum – lots of exhibits. Took a taxi along the Malécon to the John Lennon Park. Pics with statue and beers at the ‘Submarino Amarillo’ bar. Watched some 80s music videos. Walked to casa. Out to the Hotel Nactional for cocktails (Pina Colada and Cuba Libre). Amyée booked our casas for the rest of the trip. Dinner at ‘Waoo!’ (Tomato bread, stuffed plaintains, and tamales!)

Thursday 6th

Up early. Said goodbye to Amyée (and paid up – $101). Taxi to Viazul terminal. Four hour coach ride to Vinales, stopping in Las Terazas + Pinar del Rio on the way. Finally arrived in Vinales and met casa owner Roberto (no english!). Went on a long hike through the farms/fields. Saw a cigar being rolled – got to smoke one. Went through caves and saw rocks that look like things (lol).

  • Fidel Castro
  • Snake
  • Eagle
  • The Queen
  • Monkey
  • Dinosaur
  • Dolphin
  • Musical rocks (made sounds when you hit them)
  • Tortoise
  • ‘El Diablo’

Last stop was a farm where we learned about pineapples, sugar cane, coffee (very enthusiastic guide). Back to casa then over to another one for dinner – but we didn’t have enough change to pay. Tired – so early night.

Friday 7th

Woke up late. Long breakfast at casa (fruit, bread, spam?, cakes). Left about 1 to find the hop-on, hop-off tour bus. Waited two hours but it didn’t show up… saw the plaza though. Gave up and bought a beach trip for saturday and the sunday viazul for Trinidad. Got a taxi to the Cuevo del Indio, an underground cave. Taxi driver came too for some reason. Walking and a boat tour. More rocks that look like things. Dinner at a restaurant – roast chicken and fried chicken (no mojitos). OJ didn’t feel well.

Saturday 8th

No breakfast. Day trip to Cayo de Jutia. Shared a bumpy taxi ride with 3 others. 1 1/2 hour journey, driver stopped a few times to pick us fruit, take pictures, check out a secret beach. Beach itself was v. busy. Didn’t get a lounger, just sat on towels. Sea very warm. Drank some Bucaneros. Lunch was seafood and rice. Did some reading. Left at 4. Back at casa. No dinner. Mojitos on the balcony, listening to music. Talked to Roberto about art and music. Early night for the sunday Viazul.

Sunday 9th

Got up early (~5.30 am) to catch the Viazul. Roberto made us coffee and sandwiches and we said goodbye. Coach trip took around 8 hours, stopping in Pinar del Rio, Cienfuegos, and a few road stops. In Trinidad, got a bike-taxi to our casa (suitcases tied to the back!) and met our new host. In the evening, went out to a bar for tapas dinner with beers. THen we watched a live band on the steps of the main square with cocktails and beer. Got very lost on the way home. Trinidad is a maze…

Monday 10th

Wasn’t very well during the night and felt a bit funny all day (must have eaten something dodgy…). Saw the main sights of Trinidad – Plaza Mayor, etc. Did a photo tour (walking) from the guide book. Went to the city museum and climbed the tower there. Sat on the main steps again with fizzy orange. tried to book Viazul but was shut. Came back to chill at casa for a few hours. Dinner at ‘Le Taco Loco’ – food took a while to come, but good fried beans and rice. Hassled by a pack of stray dogs on the walk home.

Tuesday 11th

Breakfast at casa. Went to Viazul to reserve seats for Santa Clara. No excursions available to the parks, so we had to get a taxi there and back. Haggled down from 40 to 20 CUC. Parque el Cubano mostly empty (few Australian tourists). 45m hike (3.6km) to a big waterfall. OJ stopped for a drip in the river along the way. Went swimming in pants – at the waterfall. Deep and scary. Went behind the waterfall and saw bats. Walked back and had sautéed potatoes and bean soup snack. Chilled at casa, and owner directed us to another casa for dinner. Strange place. 5 course meal (chicken nugget, veg soup, chicken, rice pudding, and spirits). Trapped inside behind the music. $31 CUC. Most expensive night out yet! Last night in Trinidad…

Wednesday 12th

Got up early to be out of the room by 10. Left bags at casa and headed to bakery for breakfast (sandwiches). Went for a trek to the top of a hill with a radio tower; man there told us all the sights. Stayed there for a big and left. Walk up and down very tiring, so we went back to the central steps to rest. Bought some biscuits at the bakery again and went back to casa. Got a bike-taxi to Viazul and travelled to Santa Clara. Nice city, our casa is lovely. Went for an explore around the main square – Parque Vidal. Very pretty. People tried to sell us wifi. Found a little bar on the Boulevard (side street) and had a beer ($1 CUC!) ‘El Presidente’. OJ had a mojito. Back to casa for dinner at 9. OJ had pork, I had lobster. So much food, and really good. Basically a whole lobster for a tenner. Overcome by food, and tiredness, I went straight to bed.

Thursday 13th

Huge breakfast at casa and went out to explore Santa Clara. First stop: Che memorial, mausoleum, and museum. Very good, and free. Then across town to another Che statue (smaller but better) and trainwreck museum. Back to town centre for a wander. Tobacoo factory was closed for tours, but bought some cigars/drink for presents anyway. Stopped for a pizza (after awkwardly going into a bad dingy restaurant and leaving) and returned to casa, where the owner was watching Downton Abbey. Taxi took us to coach station but casa guy had booked us on the wrong coach. We got a spot on the right one but had to wait two hours. Went across the road for an ice cream, accosted by taxi touts on the way. 3 hours on coach to Varadero (coach stank and seats were uncomfortable). Our casa coudn’t take us as their sister had randomly come to stay, but they led us to another one up the road. Went out for late 10pm dinner – beef lasagne pretty good! Then sat on the beach for a bit. Then to bed.

Friday 14th

Day in Varadero. Walked down the beach (very long) after popping to the bus station to book our Viazul to Havana. Bit rainy so we took shelter in an Italian restaurant for brunch – penne and spaghetti. Then back to the beach; it started raining again right away. Took shelter again in a cafe with some coffees. When it stopped, we finally went to the beach and chilled for a few hours. Big waves and hot sun (and possibly dolphins?). Long walk back along the beach into the evening. Set out to the Beatles Bar, but they didn’t do food. So went to ‘La Fondue’ for… fondue (beef fillet). Nice. Then back to the Beatles Bar. Very enthusiastic covers of Beatles songs (and many others), until we got bored around 11. Taxi back to the casa.

Saturday 15th

Chilled out morning. Had omelettes and sat on the beach for a bit. Walked our cases up the road to the coach station, stopped for a hamburger and coke on the way. 3 hour bus back to Havana – dude in front put his chair back the whole time 🙁 Taxi to Amyée’s, but she didn’t have a room for us anymore. Her friend down the road offered us a place instead. It’s not as nice, but Amyée says we can still have breakfast at hers. She recommended a club across town, so we went there. ‘Fabrica del Arte Cubano’. Total hipster place. They wrote what your ordered on a card and you pay at the end. Good system. Decent art. Last full day tomorrow.

Sunday 16th

Last full day in Cuba. Breakfast back at Amyées. Fell down the stairs afterwards. Queued up for ages to change some money, but we didn’t have our passport, so back to our casa, then back to the money change place… Then a long walk down the Malécon into old town. Just had a look around and booked tickets for a show and dinner in the evening ($100!). Walked back to casa to chill for a few hours. Running low on funds again. taxi back to old town for show. Decent dinner and free drinks. Show was lively with good music. But they kept trying to drag us up to dance. Nope. Taxi driver wanted $20 to take us home. We settled for 10, but turns out the bank had given us a wrong 10 (by mistake?). Oh well…

Sunday 17th

[Didn’t write anything here. But we came home without incident. Most interesting moment was probably when an American stopped me in the street and asked if I was one of the McPoyle brothers from IASIP. Not sure which one.]