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Giddy for Gibraltar
January/February 2016

A unique and thriving peninsula: The border between Spain and Gibraltar (photo: Arne Koehler CC-BY-SA 3.0)


I am just back from a three-centre holiday, part work and part play. The work part was a literary festival in Gibraltar so I sandwiched a larky one-woman show between a couple of nostalgic days in Marbella, scene of an attempted hippie youth, and a first-time trip to Seville.

I packed for all weathers, especially droughts and cyclones and activated my sciatic nerve just getting the case off the bed. How does Mr Portillo manage these journeys with all those changes of coral jacket and violet trousers? I know how the other Michael P. (Palin) does it because his wife Helen is one of those splendid women with aristocratic bones and the innate ability to roll four pairs of chinos and some polo shirts into non-creasing Cellophane bag-lets made to fit perfectly into a small tote.

Before leaving, I appeared on an Andrew Neil late-night programme where over damp crisps and a glass of something indescribable I asked Mr Portillo — who must be waving at Mr Palin from separate high-speed trains all over Europe — to give me the low-down on what to see in Seville. It was kind of him but my ear is so untrained to the thound of Thpanish that it didn’t retain a single word and it wasn’t until I was actually standing in the Plaza de España or passing beneath the Puente del Alamillo that I realised I was precisely where he’d . . . thaid. 

As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I am not a natural traveller. It makes me mildly depressed. The “spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch” removal at the airport I understand — never more so than now — but the placing of lipsticks, tiny toothpastes and dried-up mascaras in clear bags bewilders my unscientific brain every time.

I pack coats that are too heavy, too many posh dresses and not enough cardigans, and forget face cleanser and a flannel because I think they will be handed to me in a little canvas bag like in the old days of BOAC when we all thought being an air-hostess was the high point of ambition. Is it all worth it, I ask myself, just to over-eat, get grumpy in churches and have my toilet paper folded into a point?

I do enjoy people, although fewer of them telling me I look better in real life than I do on the telly or mentioning “ologies” would be welcome. My companion is used to my chatting and posing with strangers waving selfie sticks like antennae, but it surprised both of us to meet, around a swimming pool, not one but two people from his English school in Egypt, which closed in 1956.

I love Marbella. Like Majorca, no amount of tourism can really wreck it. I once dragged Deborah Kerr out of reclusiveness and into the Los Monteros hotel for drinks. All the waiters lined up to greet her just like they did in Hello Dolly!. But that’s another story.

Gibraltar is a unique and thriving country . . . er, peninsula, about an hour’s drive from Marbella or five hours and a bit if the Spanish decide, as they do, to wind up the Gibraltarians by checking the papers of a two-mile queue, very slowly, before waving them through the border. The closing of that border for 16 years bonded the varying tribes into one peaceable community. Apparently, during the siege, people would  drive their grounded cars round and round the rugged rock for a Sunday treat.

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