13 March 2010

Gibraltar (part 2)

We continue our recent trip to Gibraltar with Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

During our time in Gibraltar we made use of a number of bus services and took full advantage of the very low fares - a single fare on either operator's services is 60p; a day ticket on City Buses is £1.50 (4 routes) and on Euro Hopper it's £1.20 (1 route). Throughout our time in Gibraltar, we only ever saw City Buses operate their Darts, which were introduced on 10 April 2004. The entire fleet of 18 Dennis Darts was introduced then, providing 100% low-floor operation throughout the Province in one fell swoop. They replaced much smaller, Transit-style buses and were a much-needed improvement.

City Buses uses Wayfarer ticket machines. One of our day tickets is seen here - a great buy at just £1.50.

Until October 2001, Gibraltar's vehicle registration plates all began with a G followed by up to five digits. Now, they continue to start with G, though followed with a number from the range 1000-9999, followed by a letter. 'A' is allocated to the first batch from 1000-9999, 'B' for the second, and so on. During our time there we spotted registrations such as G 8622 C, but never any ending in D, so the Province hasn't exceeded issuing 27,000 registrations just yet! The City Buses' registrations all ended in 'A', so form part of the first 8,999 to be registered when the system was introduced. Although the Darts don't carry a visible fleet number, they appear to be referred to as the four-digit number in their registrations.

The nationalised bus network in Gibraltar. We made use of all routes, except Service 2.

There is no railway in Gibraltar and those without a car either arrive by coach, plane or ship/boat. The harbours are numerous, though most cruiseliners bringing day-trippers dock at the main ferry terminal, nestled just south of the runway. An alternative location for the even larger vessels bringing tourists is the Gibraltar Cruise Terminal to the far west. Those affluent enough to own their own boats and yachts make use of two docks - the Queensway Quay Marina and the Marina Bay. One thing Gibraltar has proportionately less of is beach. Four main beach areas exist, though all are limited: Eastern Beach starts where the easternmost edge of the runway ends; a little further down is Catalan Bay and then Sandy Bay. Major building work is taking place in these areas, with new hotels and holiday apartments being added. They offer excellent views of the Mediterranean and Costa del Sol, though have the 1,400-ft rock in their back gardens. This side (east) does feel a little more cut-off from Gibraltar than elsewhere.

It is impossible to circum-navigate the rock by road. City Buses' Service 3 operates to the most southerly point - Europe Point, from where Morocco and Tangier can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar. There are a couple of very tight turns along the route south, most notably when turning left from Main Street into Govenor's Lane. Any bus larger than this would simply not be able to undertake such a tight turn. City Buses' Service 4 links the eastern side of the Province with the far west, which is where the greatest concentration of English can be found. It is also where Gibratar's only supermarket - Morrisons - is located. The route passes the coach terminus, home to Calypso Travel, where their fleet of ex-German double-deckers is housed - along with some open-top examples, though inoperable in March.

One of a number of ex-German double deckers operated by Calypso Travel under the Euro Hopper name. Only one route is operated by this company, linking the airport with the coach park for 60p single, 90p return or £1.20 unlimited. Their service would be the route of choice for hardened bus enthusiasts as they still employ a Leyland Olympian.

City Buses operate a couple of Toyota Hiace people-carriers on Service 2, which links Moorish Castle with the city centre.

Two ageing double-deckers can be seen here. They didn't move all weekend, nor did the coach in the background.

A trip to Gibraltar is nothing without meeting the Barbary Apes at the rock's summit. There are in fact two summits to the rock - the most northerly houses military equipment and is accordingly off-limits; however the southern peak is where tourism flourishes. A cable car links terra firma with the top. We made use of this 1960s installation within hours of arriving, as we knew rain was forecast the following day. The fare was £8 return, though £10 if you wanted access to the nature reserve at the summit. We were both willing to forgo nature for a £2 saving - and in any case, no sooner had we stepped out of the cable car, we were greeted by the apes. The implication on the ground is that the apes are only visible in the nature reserve. This is not the case.

There are two cable cars running at any one time, travelling almost to the 1,400-ft summit. We felt the £8 return fare was reasonable. Taxi drivers offer a more personal service for £20.

The Barbary Apes have popularised Gibraltar because they are unique to Iberia. They are not the only troops in the world though. Detailed descriptions of the main apes are to be found in frames on some of the visitor centre's exterior walls, where we learned the Barbary Macaque is native to Morocco. The views from the top of the rock are excellent. We could see for miles despite there being an annoying haze. The rock's military summit would regularly be engulfed in low cloud, though only for a minute or two before clearing to reveal the Spanish horizon in the distance. Neither of us really knew what to expect at the top of the rock and can happily report that anyone uneasy at the prospect of being in close proximity with the apes should rest assured: they're very dosile and just don't seem interested.

The Barbary Macaque are not afraid of hights - below is Gibraltar and in the distance, some 1,400 feet below, is Spain.

We returned to Blighty on Sunday afternoon. We conveniently walked to the airport, though had visited there earlier in the day to witness a Monarch Airlines plane take-off from this truly fascinating and unique locality. Our easyJet plane departed at 1510 and the departure gate closed at 1440. Due to a delay earlier in our plane's schedule for the day, we were delayed by 1:05. There wasn't much to do once airside. Luckily Gibraltar's staple TV stations mirror those here in the UK, with the addition of some Spanish ones at the end of the list, so a repeat of Only Fools & Horses on UK TV Gold was in order.

A completely unassuming airport is to be found at Gibraltar. A new terminal building is currently being constructed next door. Plans are also well-advanced for a road underneath the runway, too.

I absolutely love watchin human behaviour when at airports. Normal, respectible, well-mannered people can turn into selfish, desperate lunatics. The concentration of people sitting down was heaviest near the departure gate. No sooner had the first people caught sight of our plane landing, everyone stood up to form a queue. By chance, we were both sat in this area anyway, so joined the queue and eventually those with Speey Boarding et al were called forward. They were afforded a bus to themselves, which is fair enough. The next 60 or so were then loaded onto the next bus. Clearly, the driver knew how many he could fit on, but those already inside wouldn't move down. There was stalemate. A broad Cockney accent could then be heard exclaiming "Cor, I fink we're full up, mate". It fell on deaf ears. A lot of intense staring took place and those in the aisles finally realised that it was they who were holding everything up and begrudgingly moved down.

There are two airport shuttle buses at Gibraltar. Seen here is the scrum for the second one.

From here we were taken to the plane and I could see men in suits ready to pounce as soon as the doors were opened. I even told m'colleague to look at how a couple of people reacted once they were allowed off. The most undignified spectacle of ageing, flabby men with suitcases bolting off the bus and running as fast as their legs would carry them was what we witnessed. It was so funny. There was also a point when regular fliers realised that it might actually be quicker to run to the back of the plane and climb aboard there.

The scrum for the plane calmed while on board one of the shuttle buses. It soon resumed when the doors opened.

Once enconsed within easyJet's Airbus A320, we awaited further passengers before we finally began taxiing for take-off. The terminal is to the east of the road and with an easterly wind blowing today, we had to taxi across the road to the furthest point west before turning 180 degrees and then the captain gave it the beans. Similar to the Monach Airways plane, the point at which we took off was as we passed the road. Once airborne, we were informed that the Senior First Officer was at the controls.

Flights from London to Gibraltar take about 2:45. You lose an hour flying out, but gain an hour returning home. Although temeratures in Gibraltar hadn't exceeded 14C all weekend, they were a far cry from the 1C we experienced in London. Another experience we endured was that of an American lady projectile vomitting at 36,000ft. Apparently, the desire to be sick came on so suddenly that she had no time to reach for the sick bag. The smell was quite something. However, amidst the ensuing hoo-hah, the dedication, patience and skill of the stewardess in dealing with it all was exemplary. She took her time with the ill lady, to ensure she wasn't suffering from any other unwanted effects and then helped her bag up all her soiled items. She then spent 40 minutes with antiseptic gel cleaning everything.

After the American lady was taken ill, this was the only view I had so was able to watch the stewardess work tirelessly for 40 minutes, making matter right. An excellent job was done.

From memory she was called Kerri (or 'kerri' as easyJet insist their name badges should look) and worked tirelessly througout. Unlike our southbound trip, we had only 3 members of crew - one less. Aviation law dictates that there must be 1 member of crew per 50 passengers. Our Airbus A320 had 156 seats, so 4 crew are needed; however, easyJet had 'taken out' six seats, lowering the aircraft's capacity to 150 passengers and thus only 3 crew were legally required. Before the vomit incident, service was fairly slow, though for the 40 minutes during which time our dedicated stewardess was on her knees scrubbing away, only 2 members of crew were serving the 140+ passengers. Neither m'colleague nor I purchased anything, so weren't affected directly.

M'colleague made a shrewd (cheap) purchase before we travelled - and look at the expansion of said item once we were airborne. I told him to open the bag gingerly as a bang or pop could give the impression of a terrorist attack!

I did think our landing at Gatwick was going to be decidedly bumpy, though in the event, it was very smooth. I made use of the biometric passport control when passing through customs. My passport was placed on a reader, which opened a gate into a holding area; I was then required to look at a camera, which compared the eyes on the passport photo to my own and I was then released. On this occasion, m'colleague's more traditional passport control experience was faster than mine, though when there's a queue and those with a biometric passport know the drill, it will be a massive boon. Within a decade, biometric passports will be the norm.

We returned to St. Pancras using a First Capital Connect Thameslink service - this time a Class 319, which looked a lot more modern inside than its exterior appearance would suggest - and then made use of the Euston Flyer public house on Euston Road before out 2130 East Coast train to Peterborough left. One comparison that needs making is the cost of beer in Gibraltar compared to the UK: since there is no VAT in the Province, two pints ALWAYS totals less than £5; the Euston Arms charged me £9 for two pints and two packets of crisps - that's 100 pennies more than a year's LEYTR subscription!!

We both said we'd return to Gibraltar again, though at a different time of year. Neither of us wanted to go when it was even cooler, nor did we want to go in the height of summer when temperatures can reach 35C+. One thing we did both agree on is that it is a truly unique locality - from geography lessons at school, I remember Gibraltar being a pink speck on the world map, a reminder of the former British Empire. It continues to be a pink speck on the world map, though now a much more vibrant - almost flourescent - pink. (GL)

Both parts of our Gibraltar trip have been posted as one on the new-look The LEYTR Jaunts blog. Click here to view.