Back in Gibraltar for Christmas

2 November 2020 to 1 January 2021

It felt good to be back in Gibraltar but first impressions aside it was clear that this tiny self governing Rock with its population of only 34,000 was not going to escape the clutches of the global pandemic raging across the frontier.

In November life carried on much as usual with shops, bars and restaurants open. The number of people infected with COVID19 dipped right down to 37. But on 11 November the Government confirmed the first death from the virus, a woman in her 90s. The people of Gibraltar had got away very lightly until then but, as the winter months approached, it wasn’t going to stay that way for long.

Whilst we still had relative freedom we took the chance to explore this fascinating place some more.

If we thought we had thoroughly explored Gibraltar back in 2016 we were wrong. New gates, ramps and steps revealed themselves in town

and even the familiar Castle Steps introduced us to the wonderful new mural at the Octopus House.

Our new favourite (non cardio) walk became the one along Rosia Bay across the beach at Camp Bay and through the three tunnels down to Europa Point for coffee and tostadas con tomate and gazing across to Africa.

The constantly changing weather patterns Gibraltar creates mean the view is never the same.

Thanks to my friend Chris we discovered a new route up the Rock via the very patriotic steps at Devil’s Gap. She claims it is easier than our usual route up via Jews’ Gate but we’re not convinced!

Up at the top we discovered some new and old attractions. I had been into St Michael’s Caves with my parents but I was keen to revisit with Stefan for his first time. The caves remain some of the most spectacular we have been to (and we have been to a lot!) and getting to spend time in them completely on our own thanks to the pandemic was all the better.

One attraction that was only under construction when we were here last was the Skywalk. Officially opened in 2018 by Mark Hamil (get it??), it is a rather terrifying glass platform hanging over the eastern slope of the Rock. I left Stefan to brave the see through floor and stayed above where we got a brand new perspective across the top of the Rock.

On the way down we found more ancient monuments beneath the Moorish Castle that we hadn’t seen before. Through the thoroughly modern Moorish Castle Estate we happened upon the defensive walls and gates of the castle built by the Muslim rulers of the Rock a very long time before the British came along.

A surprise visit from our friends Ursula and Alex delivered some other firsts for us. We were so excited to see them. It had been almost 4 years to the day since we last saw them, celebrating an early Christmas with them when they visited us here. With their friends and our new marina neighbours Dörte and Jens we took a hike up the Rock together. Except at Jews’ Gate me and my vertigo took the more familar path whilst Stefan went with the Germans to tackle the Mediterranean Steps. Climbing from 180m above sea level to 426m at the Rock’s southern most tip, the Steps climb the sheer eastern slope to emerge at Gibraltar’s highest point, O’Hara’s Battery.

The Battery yielded yet more brand new views along the top of the Rock, down to Sandy Bay and, of course, across to Africa. It’s not hard to see why this vantage point was so important in defending Gibraltar.

Built in 1890 and last used in anger during WWII, the gun was last fired in a training exercise in 1976. We’d like to say that we didn’t make any jokes at all about the war as we explored this military installation with the Germans but that would be entirely untrue!

On the way down, me and my vertigo did manage the Windsor suspension bridge where our pit stop for a drink and some cake drew us to the attention of a friendly, or maybe just greedy, local!

Emerging back into town via the Devil’s Gap Steps we just had to stop to make the Germans pose for a photo! Ursula and Alex’s visit was brought to a very abrupt end when news came that new restrictions were coming into force at the border and they had to bolt back to Portugal but we promised to see them there as soon as we possibly can.

By just before Christmas the infection rate in Gibraltar was rising and there had been 6 deaths. In this place only a little bigger than the town I grew up in, each death was announced with a little bit of information about the person and with great collective sadness. Just as everyone was getting ready for their Christmas parties, bars and restaurants were abruptly shut and schools closed their doors early for the Christmas holilday.

Gibraltar did its best to add some festive cheer for our second Christmas on the Rock. On board we dug out our decorations. Our Alameda Gardens tree made its homecoming and our ceramic Sicilian tree somehow had survived a life at sea unscathed. Thanks to a livestream from Amersham we even witnessed a visit from Father Christmas!

Our Gibraltar Christmas Day was spent in much the same way as we did in 2016, starting with a hike up the Rock to wish the monkeys a very happy Christmas. This time though we were joined by Dörte and Jens. Before we left we introduced them to the uniquely British tradition of crackers. They were as bemused as Ursula and Alex had been 4 years ago! Up at Ape’s Den we found a monkey apparently enthusiastically singing a Christmas carol and some young ones playing hide and seek in the drain.

The rest of the day was spent on Zoom with friends and family and cooking and eating a thoroughly British Christmas dinner courtesy of Morrisons!

By the day after Boxing Day cases of coronavirus were up at 482 and nearly 2,000 people were in self isolation. We went out for a walk with Dörte and Jens down to Europa Point as we contemplated the worsening situation. Having to wear our masks even whilst walking away from crowds takes something of the joy out of it and makes it very hard to smile at the camera!

A curfew was announced for New Year’s Eve but by then it felt all a little too late as cases had nearly doubled to 752. Restrictions at the border meant our plan to retain Pintail’s EU VAT paid status was thwarted and a lockdown on the Rock seemed just horribly inevitable…

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