Day 1......Friday afternoon, as I'm taking care of last minute work details, Adam calls. He was out of school at noon today, and had his backpack stolen on the way home! Of course, all of his books that he needed to study with during vacation were in the bag. So I left early from work, picked him up, and drove him around looking for it. We finally gave up and went back to the school to see if he could find teachers to lend him copies of the books, and in a stroke of luck, his bag was there waiting for him. Seems a postman found it in a mailbox, and was nice enough to return it to the school!
So now we were ready to go, but a lot earlier than we wanted. We were dropped of at the airport just as it was starting to rain and we expected a long wait until our flight. But luck was with us again, as an earlier flight to Philly was just getting ready to leave, so the agent sent us on that one, "in case the weather got worse". Now we were down in the Philly airport with a long wait, but there are plenty of things to do there - PHL is almost like a shopping malls with airplanes now! So after dinner and a little bit of time browsing, we finally board the plane to London. And after 8 hours of movie watching and sleeping, we arrive at Gatwick. From Gatwick it's a quick train ride to the center of London, and in the middle of a light rain, we walk the 2 blocks to our hotel.
We have had such good luck booking cheap hotels through the internet, that our luck was bound to run out sometime. Well, it was this time! We find the hotel, but it is too early for our room. So we leave our luggage, and go back to the local Burger King for breakfast. We spend an hour there reconfirming all of our destinations for the day and eating breakfast sandwiches (that come with ketchup on them unless you request otherwise). We walk back to the hotel, and get our room key - the room is actually in another building a block away. So we trudge on down to that building, and find our room is still being cleaned. The room is no bigger than Tyler's room, including the bathroom! I could barely close the door to the bathroom if I was sitting down on the loo, and the shower was hardly 2 feet square, with a drain on the floor and a curtain to seperate it from the rest of the bathroom - there was only a 1/4 inch lip between the shower and the floor, so every shower we took flooded the whole bathroom. But at least the heat was on full blast, with no way of lowering it, so it was a nice balmy 90 degrees. The place was "clean", only because someone just vacuumed, but the carpets and walls were still dirty and old. And there was only one bed!!!
Everything else we could live with, but one bed is pushing it. We trudge back the block, tell them they've made a mistake, wait for them to find my email confirmation of TWO beds, and get another key. Back down the block to the new room, which the maid is now cleaning!! We give her a few more minutes to finish, and we are finally able to unpack and shower and change. We tell ourselves that it is only a room, and we are not here to spend time in the room. As long as there are no creatures with more legs than us in the room, we'll be ok - after all, we are only blocks away from the train station, and not paying too much. And we're only here for one night now, then two nights later.....
So off we go....back to the train station to buy our weekend pass for the tube, and try to buy our train tickets to Luton airport, the small airport on the north side of the city. The tube tickets are easy, but the train tickets have to be purchased at the station that services the north of London - London has 6 different train stations, and a million different local carriers. It was never a concern when we had rail passes, but now it is. Luckily, the station we need to get to, King's Cross (the one used in Harry Potter, but we couldn't find 9 3/4) is near the British Library, our first planned stop. We use the tube to get to the Library, where we get to see a copy of the Magna Carta and an original Guttenberg Bible. Even more impressive is the display of original Beatles lyrics, and the multimedia exhibits on the history of rock music! After oohing and ahhing for a while, we find the train station, confirm it has a locker to store luggage, find out where to buy the tickets (it depends on what train we decide to use to get there), and then get back in the tube to go to the British Museum.
The British Museum - home to all of the best confiscated and pillaged booty the English could haul home from their far flung Empire. The Greeks are still upset that they stole whole sections of the Parthenon for display. I guess this was before the phrase "Politically Correct" came to be. We could have spent weeks in there, but in the finest Griswold fashion, we managed to chop it down to two hours! We had a few "must sees", including the Rosetta Stone and the Ancient Far East exhibits - whole 30 foot tall stone statues of winged horses with heads of men taken from Persia, and whole pieces of Egyptian pyramids "relocated" for the enlightenment of the British public. The museum is almost sensory overload - even the building that houses it is a work of art.
The Musuem is in an area that has a lot of "authentic English Pubs" for the tourists, so we decided to stop in one for some fish and chips. Since they were all actually pubs, we were not allowed to stay, since Adam is a minor! We ended up going to a small middle eastern restaraunt. We stared at the menu forever, trying to figure out what things were. Finally, Adam ordered what turned into a ham sandwich, and I had the Falafal Suprise - "The suprise, my friend, is that there is no meat in it, so there is nothing to worry about". It was very good, but I wish I had the nerve to ask what the two green balls that looked like hush puppies were made of. I'll just take his word that there was no meat involved :)
With another hour or so before dark, we went back into the underground and took it to the Science Museum. There is one exit for the Science, Natural History, and Royal Albert Museums, with a long underground passage connecting them all - a subway to the Brits. The Science Museum was packed with kids, and it was too late to take advantage of any of the special exhibits or the Imax (that was showing the Simpsons in 3-D...WooHoo! ), so we just wandered around for a while looking at the Space exhibits. They had an interactive basement that looked like an updated version of the Franklin Institutes hands-on exhibits, so we spent the rest of our time there, playing with all of the cool toys!
After a long first day, we went back to the hotel and spent the night watching tv and getting ready for our flight the next day to Gibraltar.
DAY 2... We woke up the next morning, packed up all of our luggage again, and walked down the block to the hotel for breakfast. This hotel had promised an unspecified continental breakfast - this translated to cornflakes, toast, and coffee or tea. We checked out after reconfirming that we were coming back next Friday night (we thought about cancelling, but then we would have to find a new place to stay before we left London, and places seemed to be full), and went back to the underground to get to King's Cross Station. We bought our tickets for a train to the airport, checked our luggage so we wouldn't have to carry it, and then went out again. We had hours before the train left, so we went over to see Buckingham Palace. We had missed it on our first trip. We immediately went looking for the red coated guards with the furry black tall hats - they always keep a straight face, and are not supposed to react to anything except their job as guards. Having just seen a Mr. Bean video before we left the states in which Bean abuses one of these guards to get a silly picture, we decided that we too, in the interest of Anglo-American relations, should try to make the guards react and catch it on film. But, as luck would have it, they were nowhere to be found. We did see the little "guard-shacks" that they stand by, but the guards were dressed in blue military uniforms. I think that when the Queen is home, the Scots guards are on duty - the typical red-coated, tall black hats. But the Queen was in Scotland - bloody nice of her to let us know - so they too were in Scotland. So we spent the morning walking around the palace perimeter, stopping in some small souvenir stores where you could buy "The Queen's official fill-in-the-blank", and walking through the park.
We then made our way back to the train station to catch the train to the airport. By the time we arrived in Gibraltar, it was already dark - we could barely make out "the rock",and were in for a shock in the morning when we realized our hotel was right next to it! We took a taxi to the hotel and checked in to a beautiful room, about 5 times bigger than the one in London, with a giagantic tub in the bathroom. Since we were hungry, we decided to try and go get something to eat. We wandered out of the hotel and walked down to the Queensway Quay, a small dock area for private boats that had a few restaurants. Since it was Sunday night, everything was already closed. On the way back to the hotel, we saw a sports pub that had a half dozen or so people inside, and some of them were kids! We went in, but they had stopped serving food for the night. So I grabbed a pint, and Adam had a soda, and we decided to just head back to the hotel and eat the snacks we packed.
DAY 3.... We woke up late and made our way downstairs for our "English Breakfast". That is when we realized that this was a very large and very old resort hotel. It had probably seen better days, but it still had a huge restaurant and bar, and a large common parlor for guests. There was no heat in any of the rooms, but ours had a large fan and a portable heater stored in the closet. The best part was we were paying less than we paid for the closet in London, and less than half what all of the other hotels wanted in Gibraltar. After we ate, we went outside, and that is when it hit us - we were almost directly against the side of "the rock", but couldn't see it last night in the dark. There was an open air pub/cafe across the street from us, and we were right next door to the Botanical Gardens and the Cable Car.
We decided to take the cable car directly to the top to start our tour. Luck was with us, as we found out that the cable car had been closed the last two days due to high winds, but it was open this morning. The car takes you up a steep side of the rock to a height of about 1000 ft - I think the highest point is 1400 ft. - and there is a "top of the Rock" restaraunt up there. Since it was so early, there were only a few other people with us, and we had the place to ourselves. We were finally able to get our bearings from the top - you could see the airstrip we landed on, and how it jutted out on both ends into the bay and the Med. You could also see the border with Spain, and look across the bay to Algericas, the Spanish Port city, or in the other direction to see the Costa del Sol in Spain. Most of the flat land near the border had been "reclaimed" from the sea. The mountain is very steep on the Med side, and a little less steep on the side facing the bay. We found foot paths that took us along the top ridge, away from Spain, and soon we were walking where very few tourists go. Every once in a while the paths would get a little too close to the edges!
We found some "ruins" of old buildings, and were suprised to see our first monkeys - the Barbary Apes, who are actually African Macaws. We didn't think they came up this high, and most tourists see them on a lower level. The apes were climbing up on top of the buildings to sun themselves, and basically ignored us, like they were union workers on a break telling us to come back later for the real show :) When we walked odwn the path a little more, we found our first baby monkeys. All of the apes were so used to people that you could stand a few feet away from them and they didn't care. The little ones would play near you, usually ignoring you, but one stuck his hand in Adam's pocket to see if there was anything to eat!
We continued to walk down the paths, having no idea where they led - they had an annoying habit of zig-zagging up and down at 45 degree angles. We found some older forts, and climbed even higher to get some spectacular views. We must have walked close to the opposite end of the mountain when my poor legs couldn't take the slopes anymore. We knew that they only thing left at the other side of the rock, the side jutting towards Africa, where the caves (that we could see on a tour later) and the radar sight (that is government property and off limits), so we turned around. When we realized how far we had walked, and how we had sloped downwrd more than up, we saw that it would be mostly uphill to get back. That's when we discovered the stairs leading down! Boy I wish we never saw them!
They looked like they led all the way down, but they were so steep it was hard to tell. A hiker was finishing coming up, so we thought they couldn't be that bad, and started down. The stairs were hardly 2-3 feet wide, and made of crumbling concrete. There was a concrete 3 foot tall wall on the right side, and a blue rail on the left. If you looked over the left side, you usually saw a 50-70 foot drop before you hit the side of them mountain, which is so steep that you would just continue to tumble down if you fell. About half way down the first flight, the rail was missing for 30 feet. We continued, and it just kept getting worse. The rail was missing for more than half of the rest of the way, the stairs got steeper and less maintained. We easily walked down 500 feet this way, about half way down the side of the mountain before we reached another road. The view from the top had made us think we'd be there by now, since it was so steep you couldn't always see the rest of the stairs. So now we were only halfway to the town, still well above the buildings, and there were no more stairs !!!! I swear they probably hung the "Do not use - Danger" sign at the top as soon as we got down. We saw a model of the rock in the museum that marked the stairs - if I had seen that first, we never would have used them.
So now we were halfway down, and back to roads that went up and down as they moved back towards the Spanish side. We saw some sanitation workers, and they told us that there was a "shortcut" footpath made of white stone. IF we followed this road, we would find it soon, and it would lead us to town. After another half mile,we saw the path - it looked more like a landslide than a path and had the word's "El Diablo" in it's name. Well, fool me once......We kept to the road instead. Being that high above the city, but so close to it, it was easy to see the hotel as it got farther and farther from where we were, but eventually, we found a more civilized path down, and ended up in the old section of Gibraltar. Even better, there was a small grocery store with ice cold drinks right there - civilization at last !!!!
Adam used his amazing direction sense to get us back to the hotel. We stopped at the Ape's Den across the street for some "proper" fish and chips before going back into the hotel for a much needed soak in the tub and a short nap. We made reservations with the tour company to go to Spain the next day, and found out that the movie theater around the block was showing Harry Potter that evening, so we spent the rest of the day relaxing. Later that afternoon we walked down to the pedestrian only shopping area to see what goodies we could get, then went to movies and called it a night.
DAY 4 Tuesday we took the bus tour to Ronda, Spain. Ronda is an old town situated about 1700 feet above sea level in the Ronda range of mountains. It has a rich history as a "bandit" town - all of the roads through or over the mountains were narrow, and it was very easy to set up ambushes of travellers. Ronda was a great place for these banditos to live, since it was so hard to get to by the military, and you could easily see anybody coming for miles before they arrived. It also has the distinction of having Spain's oldest still used bullring. The town is built on top of a large plateau in the mountain range, and is seperated by a 300+ foot gorge, that is spanned by a bridge. We could see no higher mountains from there.
The trip started with the bus sailing through the border crossing. We had to hold our passports to the windows so the border guards could see them. Our driver told us that depending on the mood of the guards, we may or may not be stopped, searched, harassed, etc - the Spanish do not like the UK having control of Gibraltar, and they use the excuse of smugglers to occassionally slow the border crossing to a slow crawl. The UK has different feelings, obviously - they post a huge sign right at the border that says " Contrary to European Union law that states that all borders between member nations shall be open without restriction, the Spanish goverment insists on maintaining this closed border. Please be prepared to show your passport as requested. We apologize for any delay you may incur" !!
The guards must have been in a good mood that day, as they let us through, hardly glancing at the bus. We followed the coastal road east, giving us great views of the rock as we left. It is amazing how flat everything was - there are mountains you can see in Africa, and mountains across the bay in Algericas, and mountains farther up the coast, but Gibraltar just stands out like a centerpiece placed on a table. When we started to hit the resort towns of the Costa del Sol, we turned North, into the Ronda range of mountains.
We spent the next hour slowly winding our way up the mountains. Starting at sea level, it took us an hour to reach the town at 1700 feet. Sometimes the road was so close to the side of the mountain, that you couldn't see it! The road did not go straight for more than 1000 feet before it curved to hug the side of the cliffs. At one point, the cliff was so steep that they had to build a bridge to hug the mountain, rather than a road on the mountain!!! It was a beautiful ride that offered great scenary, and the bus driver broke it up by stopping at a small restaraunt on the way for a break.
DAY 5 Rock tour
DAY 6 La Linea, etc
DAY 7 Leave Gibraltar
DAY 8 London
DAY 9 Home again