transplanted goose

Postcard from Portugal #3

September 14, 2005 - 9:15 PM

We're back from Spain and Gibraltar. It was a full 2 days, so I thought I'd better get this written and sent before we start our next adventures.

But first a few notes about Portugal I forgot to include in my past 2 emails. Because we're staying right above a beach, we are able to watch the activity on the water, which includes the fishermen. It seems that on every beach along the coast, even the most touristy ones, you'll find fishing boats and fishermen. I've watched the fishermen mending their nets, hanging out smoking and talking, heading out on the water, and coming back in. The coming back in part is pretty exciting. They use small boats with outboard motors, and there are 1 or 2 fishermen on each boat. They speed toward the shore and right onto the beach, at the very last second lifting the motor to avoid burying it in the sand. It must take a lot of practice to be able to display such precision. At night we can see the lights of the fishing boats winking along the horizon. I'm not sure what they're fishing for, although sardines are *very* popular, served in every restaurant. But you can also find mackerel, bream, and salmon fresh and on display. They'll even give you your choice from the trays.

On the beach toward the end of the day, you can also see the shellfish divers coming in, wearing wetsuits and carrying flippers, the floats they use to let boaters and others know they're working in the area, and their catch. Mussels and clams seem to be very plentiful. I've also watched men wading in the surf, with a basket and net hooked around their waists. They drag the basket through the sand, sifting through the rocks, shells, and other debris to find the shellfish, then depositing the shellfish in their nets. It's quite fascinating to watch. Of course, there are also the amateurs - beach goers using their heels and hands to dig in the sand whenever they see a telltale spout from a burrowing clam. Some of them are successful, but if you've ever been clam digging, it's a lot of work for seemingly little reward.

But on to Seville. The coach (an 18-seater) picked us up at 6:45am. There were already several people on the bus, all British. At a stop in Vilamoura, we picked up our guide, Celia, then just before we crossed into Spain, the final members of our group, a young couple from Toronto, on their honeymoon. From there it took about 2 hours to arrive in Seville. On the way, our tour guide described the region of Andalusia, which she claims is the most beautiful region of Spain, and also home of all the things for which Spain is famous - the Costa del Sol, bullfights, bulls, matadors, flamenco, sherry, oranges, olives, cork (we saw huge groves of cork oak trees, in various stages of harvest - the cork is harvested every 9-11 years), horses, and the country's oldest cities (including Seville, Granada, and Cordoba). The streets in the city of Seville itself are lined with orange trees - the famous Seville oranges, which are very bitter. Every year in February and March, the city harvests the trees, then sells the fruit to the U.K., where it's turned into marmelade and sold back to Spain.

The city itself is quite beautiful, and growing. It straddles the Guadalquivir River, but until recently, most of the city was situated on the left bank of the river. The right bank held only a small neighborhood, which is now home to the city's most famous flamenco dancers and musicians. The oldest part of the city includes the park Maria Luisa, which contains a number of buildings built for the 1992 world exhibition, as well as a gorgeous fountain. We spent most of our time near the cathedral, the royal palace, and the old Jewish quarter, which is full of very narrow streets, shops, restaurants, and residences. We visited the cathedral, mostly so we could climb the tower (no steps, just ramps, because they used to ride horses to the top, but 96 metres tall) and get a great view of the city. Well worth the effort! We spent some time shopping, had a quick bite to eat, then walked down to the river. That about took up the 3-1/2 hours we were given to explore.

Then it was on to Algeciras, on the south coast, where we spent the night. Algeciras is one of the two main Spanish ports (the other is Tarifa) from which ferries depart for Morocco. (It was disappointing to be so close and not able to get there, but the rest of the trip more than made up for it.) Our hotel was directly across the street from the ferry terminal, and because we were on the top (10th) floor we had a fantastic view of the Rock of Gibraltar. The hotel was not the best, and the area of the city was, as Janice put it, "kind of scummy," but we only spent the night there. We did explore a bit of the city, climbing to the main square and cruising the surrounding streets, then walking to the large department store. But we still didn't find anything to spend our money on. On our way back to the hotel (and this is for Juanita) we discovered large groups of runners, taking advantage of the empty parking lots in the port. Mostly male, but a few women. Dinner and breakfast - both disappointing - were at the hotel. We were both too tired to find another place.

This morning we left for Gibraltar at 8:30. One couple in our group had forgotten their passports, so we left them on the Spanish side of the border. We flashed our passports to first the Spanish police, then the British police (Gibraltar is a colony of the U.K., a bitter point with the Spanish government, which, realizing their mistake in letting it go, apparently would love to have it back, but the people of Gibraltar have provided an unequivocal "no" on that point, several times). We then tranferred to a "mini-bus" (that was bigger than our coach) for a tour of the city and the rock. Our guide, Pepe, was born in Gibraltar, but during World War II was sent to London with his mother and brother, returning only after the end of the war. The official language is English, but everyone also speaks Spanish.

The city itself, while in some respects typically Mediterannean, with its concrete buildings, narrow streets, and lack of logical street plan - is a melange of cultures - Spanish, Moroccan, British, Indian, and more. The oldest parts of the city are behind walls dating back as far as the 14th century. Development outside the walls is on land reclaimed from the sea, a project that began in 1938. Even the airport runway is reclaimed, and is bisected by the main road onto the rock. The rock itself has hidden, mysterious depths - networks of tunnels and caverns running throughout. It is the stuff of legends and myths. Some say there are tunnels connecting the rock to northern Africa. Others believe that the Rock of Gibraltar and one of the mountains in northern Africa, visible across the Strait of Gibraltar (although not today - today we were treated to clouds, wind, and rain), are the two pillars of Hercules, who, in order to demonstrate his great strength, pushed them apart, separating Europe from Africa.

The most famous cave on the rock is Cave St. Michel. When you visit the cave, you are treated to a light and sound show describing the history of the cave and the rock. In the summer, they hold concerts in the ampitheater of the cave, and it's easy to understand why - the acoustics are fantastic, as are the stalagmites and stalagtites (hope I got that right!) you can see as you walk through the cave.

Also a favourite part of any visit are the resident macaques, which live on the middle and upper portions of the rock, above the town. We were warned not to touch, but they are quite comfortable around humans, and are the only pickpockets on the rock. We saw several mothers with young babies, as well as several teenagers and older ones. These monkeys are the only free monkeys in Europe, and are protected by U.K. law. It's believed that should the macaques leave Gibraltar for good, the rock will suffer. So the people of Gibraltar take very good care of them, even using part of the military hospital as a clinic for the monkeys.

There's more I could say, but I'm tired. It's after 9pm, and I haven't eaten dinner yet. So until next time...


© 2005, colleen bell about / words