07 March 2011

Gibraltar 2: 'Probably nice in the summer'

Part 1

It was that time again when myself (one of the LEYTR Editors) and two Associates (one who whom is currently a non-believer!) took a long weekend in one of the UK's colonies - one to which we did venture precisely last year. Read that account here.

We covered many aspects of Gibraltar last year, though their novelty value had not been lost at all, since for two of us it was only our second visit here and the other's first. Last year, I would have been tempted to write that Gibraltar is a little bit of Britain by the Mediterranean. Following our second visit and exploring areas we'd not touched last year, it became clear that this isn't necessarily the case. True Gibraltarians have a natural allegiance to Her Majesty and permit the UK Government to oversee their foreign affairs and because of the history and the political and physical obstructions Spain made by closing its border, the manner in which modern-day Gibraltar has developed has striking similarities to the UK, but their culture and way of life is simply not like that of any British town or city.

Their police force - the oldest in Europe outside London - dress in a uniform that the casual observer would say is identical to that in the UK; the Royal Mail's familiar red pillar boxes are littered throughout; their currency maybe named the Gibraltan Pound but its worth is identical to that of the UK and they accept Sterling on a like-for-like basis; and all the major shops found in the UK are in evidence in Gibraltar. Other smaller similarities include the vehicle registration plate font, the pedestrian crossing 'push' button consoles, road signs and the TV channels offered.

One striking difference is that the colony has its own nationalised bus company, providing an extensive and inexpensive service. Not many of those left in Great Britain!

The Gibraltar Bus Company

This year, with our Saturday easyJet departure being at 0910 it was virtually impossible to travel to Gatwick North by public transport for the time the gate supposedly closed at 0840, so - and with there being a threesome comprising this year's Big Boys' Beano - we made the journey by car. The cost, when split three ways and including parking at the airport, was worryingly cheap when compared to the cost of an advance-purchase ticket by train: £18 compared to just over £40 each by train.

I have a theory about gate closure times that demonstrates why the low-cost airlines in particular receive such bad publicity when someone turns up just 1 minute late and yet they are not permitted access to their flight. Clearly 'rules is rules', but in the countless times I've flown with easyJet, there has never, ever been a case when the gate has physically closed when it is stated to do so, let alone people actually be boarded by then. Human nature being what it is, frequent flyers will know this all too well and so will choose to chance it on many occasions - perhaps with success - but when they come a cropper and that one-in-100 departure actaully conforms, there is a film crew present and Tony Robinson will later narrate the plight of the hard-done-to customer.

I'm not suggesting easyJet change their policy. Delays due to the intensity with which the company schedule their planes is a likely contributor to these incidents and while offering more slack in turnaround times would perhaps remedy a number problems, the company will no doubt say that more planes would then be needed to meet their schedules, the cost of which would be passed onto the customer.

Back to the jaunt and it was at 0500 that we left the LEYTR area and headed south along the A1, A14, M11 and the London Orbital M25. We crossed over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford just after the free toll ended(!) and continued clockwise along the M25 until the M23 junction, then south for a junction to the Airport. We were booked in at NCP's Flightpath long-stay car park within the Airport perimeter, for the sum of £30.30 inclusive for three days. Directions here from the M23 Junction 9 were straightforward and we found ample parking, though the automatic number plate recognition did not work and so I would have to visit their customer services office before departing.

The Flightpath's website claims that their complimentary coach transfers operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and that there will be a bus every 10 minutes with a journey time of 3 minutes to the main North Terminal building. We knew there was no chance a coach would be deployed and the journey time was 100% greater than that advertised, but it was free and our Mercedes-Benz O530/Mercedes-Benz Citaro arrived within seconds of us walking to one of the nearby bus stops.

BP08 WND stands here at the North Terminal at 0755 after travelling the mile or so from the Flightpath car park. It offered a smooth ride and was equipped with the usual luggage racks for the suitcases its passengers are likely to be bringing.

New to the Airport Parking Company of Amercia (APCOA) of Uxbridge, the vehicle carried legal lettering for Tellings Golden Miller, who presumably operate Service 74 linking the Flightpath car park with the terminal. It's worth pointing out that APCOA make no obvious reference to their American roots on their UK website, nor do they make reference to what their name actually stands for. Nothing sinister here, it is because the company is also Europe's longest-established parking service provider, whose European base is in Stuttgart, Germany.

Our journey was swift (even 6 minutes is very reasonable!) and we headed straight into the North Terminal and then to security as we had no baggage to check-in and we'd used easyJet's website to check-in many weeks beforehand. Unlike many you see passing through airport security, I fully understand the need for the laborious and tedious process of scanning all items to be taken on board. It doesn't bother me in the slightest. The majority of those on board the London Underground trains during the suicide bomb attacks of 7 July 2005 survived and a number of board the Stagecoach Service 30 bus also walked away; no such comfort is afforded those aboard an aircraft at 38,000 feet!

We boarded our Airbus 319 at gate 57J and although the plane was visible when we got to the gate at 0830, we weren't allowed to board until 0900, though the captain later told us there was an error with one of his sensors and that he believed it to be a computer glitch rather than anything more serious, but an engineer was currently giving it the once over and we would hopefully be on our way very soon.

As it was we departed 30 minutes late at 0940. Taxiing to the main runway took almost 10 minutes. For the first time in many years, I didn't film the take-off. I was situated in an aisle seat and for those a little nervous of flying, I felt this position offered as comfortable ride as possible, with no distractions such as an awkwardly-positioned horizon that can usually be seen from the window when banking at low level.

And then we were all bored to tears for the next two-and-a-half hours (in fact a little longer as we didn't arrive at the airport terminal in Gibraltar until 1332 local time). The descent into Gibraltar was identical to that of last year: we travelled west along the Mediterranean coast until the Rock came into view and then circled it in a clockwise direction before coming in from the west. Quite a strong south-easterly was in evidence and it was a little bumpy on the final approach, but nothing to give nightmares. Once again, the surreal spectacle of passing cars waiting to cross our path was seen as the plane crossed Winston Churchill Avenue before taxiing to the terminal.

Our Cobus 3000 transported us all of 200 feet into the terminal building. Our captain even hitched a lift 'up front' with the driver, though he alighted after just 50 feet. Apparently he wasn't allowed to walk across the runway like the rest of us.

Talking of which, the new terminal building is well underway and looks immense. Dare I suggest a little too large for the likely traffic Gibraltar Airport sees? Not that this is necessarily a bad thing - better build something too large than too small! Its planned opening is for later this year and will herald a new name for the airport: Gibraltar International.

We waited for our delayed flight to leave at 1400. The video below is of the Airbus taxiing west along the runway, crossing Winston Churchill Avenue.

It performs a U-turn at the end of the runway before the captain gives it the beans, heading east for take-off. This is illustrated in the video below. It's worth noting that I was using a new camera, so apologies for the poor focus at the end and the sudden movement immediately afterwards. Despite this, it is a very unusual procedure for an aircraft to undertake in such a populated area.

Once again we crossed the live runway, seconds after a plane had used it, in order to get to the city itself. The congestion created by a take-off is spectacular, with queues to rival the stresses felt by a London driver. Unlike London though, there is no alternative here whatsoever. A number of online sources claim an underpass has often been mooted, though there appears to be very little firm detail if one is ever likely to happen, let alone how feasible it would be.

Apart from the imposing rock casting a shadow, the first thing any motorist notices is the cost of fuel - somewhere that does not charge VAT. Less than £1 per litre of diesel brought a wry smile to my face. I filled up the day before we left and it cost £1.32 per litre.

On this occasion we were booked in at the Bristol Hotel, the city's oldest hotel, according to its website. This wasn't a million miles from where we stayed last year (O' Callaghan Eliott) and while looking a little more tired in places, was about on par with last year.

One of the biggest problems we faced last year was the weather. Day 2 was a monsoon (literally) combined with gale-force winds. This year we hoped for a little better, though the weather forecast for Day 2 was virtually identical to that of the year before, so we made sure we crammed in as much as was possible at the end of today. This involved a trip to the top of the Rock as well as a tour of some of the marinas, that we didn't have time to do last year.

The cable car attendants all seem very jolly and are very much 'up' for some banter. If this isn't forthcoming they get on their two-way radios and have some of their own. The cost for a return trip to the Rock's summit was £9, which had increased since last year. Other options exist, including one-way tickets and combinations to visit the nature reserve in which the famous Gibraltan Apes can be seen in their natural habitat.

As it happened, there appeared to be a free-for-all today and the gate to the nature reserve had been left open, so we wandered in for a look. Despite the constant warnings and notices, tourists do not heed that the apes will take anything they assume to be food from your person and will bite you if you resist. This was demonstrated beautifully by a foreign family into whose open bag an ape delved to take a large chocolate bar and a packet of crisps. We were told last year that the apes aren't thieves, but simply believe that you have brought them food and so relieve you of it.

Top of the Rock. The most northern summit is only used by the British military.

It was blowing an absolute gale at the summit and the weather conditions changed very quickly indeed. At one point you were engulfed in cloud; the next, the sun was out.

From our superior vantage point we could see the terminus of Service 4 at Both Worlds. This was taken using full zoom. We would visit Both Worlds tomorrow and a shot in the opposite direction would be taken.

The Rock's effect on its hinterland was very evident here, too. While the prevailing wind is from the west, the Mediterranean Ocean allows warm, moist air to hit the rock's south-east face, which forces it upwards where is quickly condenses into dark cloud which then hangs over the city and bay for days on end. Today, a depression was sat out to the west and the anti-cyclone ensured that the wind was coming from the south-east, mixing with the local Levanter.

A Rock-shaped cloud hangs over the city and bay. Clear to the south (left) and to the north (right, though out of shot).

This prompted one of our party to come up with the oft-used phrase of the weekend: "This is probably nice in the summer".

To be continued....

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