Giddy for Gibraltar

“One can certainly see why the Iberians want the Rock”

With Prejudice
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.

One can certainly see why the Iberians want the Rock. There is a thriving world of business and finance there. Taxes are low and gambling and shopping high. There is little or no unemployment and full grants for the education of their young who may study abroad but invariably come back to live. What’s more, there is a religious tolerance and respect between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, in one tiny area, which the rest of the world might look into. Perhaps a common foe is vital. We’re sure to find that out soon.

For the festival we were treated to nightly formal dinners. Nicholas Parsons at 92 gave us all a lesson in how to engage our brains, and Miles Jupp, Marcus Brigstocke, Esther Rantzen, Rachel Billington and the great-nephew of Haile Selassie entertained us. Readers packed the historic halls. Books were signed and sold, questions fielded and kaleidoscope stories were told.

“Gib” is like a cross between Hong Kong and Clochemerle. If you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. I strained that same “packing” nerve and went down the one high street in search of ibroprufen gel.

I asked a householder for the nearest farmacia. I mentioned the gel and that I was a bit worse for wear because the nightclub beside our hotel has a licence to play until seven in the morning and the Brits seemed to be holding a bellowing competition. He popped into his house and came back with a tube of the gel and a pair of earplugs. The next day three perfect strangers asked me if my back was improved and if I’d slept through.

Seville was stunning. We walked through cobbled streets, past anthropomorphic banyan trees into magnificent squares and palaces with ravishing courtyards. Thpanish (thtoppit!) Spanish Square has bridges and seats made of exquisitely-painted porcelain tiles. The cathedral, built to be the finest in Europe, has a wall of gold, a wall of silver, several hundred symbolic statues and paintings, with under-arches painted with murals by poor uncredited souls. It failed to move me. God helps the poor?

Two nights of proper flamenco made my veins pound and my soul vibrate. Why does it do that? I am not a gypsy or even a Sephardic Jew.

Still, the visit I made to the Sephardic Museum made me weep. Seeing a synagogue reconsecrated into a church brings a bitter taste. There are 23 Jewish families in Seville today, and an awful lot of Marranos. What had the Jews done this time to earn being burnt, exiled, robbed, buried alive or forced in their thousands to convert?

Well, they were accused of poisoning the wells and so causing the Black Death. Jews do that sort of thing in their spare time when they’re not baking matzos with children’s blood or running the world — read the internet. The fact that most of the royals and the aristocracy had borrowed heavily from the Jewish brokers and it was time to pay back had nothing at all to do with it. What’s the Spanish for “oy vey”?

As ever, the finest part of a good holiday is the bliss of one’s own bed. And no chocolate on the pillow.