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Day 1: Gibraltar

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The Royal Gibraltar Regiment is the Rock's own army. Here they put on a ceremonial parade in Casemates Square.
Michael Palin - SaharaCars are squeezed into a pleasant shady square beside me. Buildings are squeezed around the cars: an attractive colonial house with deep balconies and freshly painted wrought-iron railings on one side, the handsome Georgian façade of the garrison library on the other and, next to it, the offices of the Gibraltar Chronicle, the veteran local newspaper, which broke the news of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar.

For me, a first-timer in Gibraltar, there have already been surprises. First of all, that there are buildings of quality which are not just selling duty-free booze or fish and chips, and secondly, that Gibraltar's Britishness is one layer of a deceptively international cake. The balconied, green-shuttered cottages that stretch up the steep alleyways leading off Main Street were largely built by Portuguese and Genoese, and the Catholic cathedral was converted from a mosque by the Spanish. There are, I'm told, more working synagogues on Gibraltar than in the whole of Spain. The Alameda gardens reflect Andalusian taste. The uncharitable view is that Gibraltar is an ordnance depot reinventing itself as a tax haven, but the reality is more complicated and a lot more attractive.

Nevertheless, it is Britishness that holds this polyglot community together. Sitting on the terrace of the Rock Hotel as the day fades, it is quite possible to believe that the sun will never set on this tenacious shred of Empire. Sipping a cocktail, surrounded by comfortable, chintzy, Home Counties decor and the soft sound of Daily Telegraphs slipping from snoozing laps, I imagine the Rock of Gibraltar as a liner, loosing its moorings and sailing slowly off, bearing inside its crumbling white flanks the last traces of the old order. This, I must admit, is after a couple of quite generous whiskies, of the sort I am unlikely to find elsewhere on this trip, together with marmalade, eggs and bacon, cups of tea, pints of beer, Match of the Day and all those things that I miss idiotically when I'm in foreign parts – and parts don't come much more foreign than the Sahara Desert.

Later, I settle into bed and with one long, last, loving glance at the Corby trouser press, turn out the light.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 1
  • Country/sea: Gibraltar
  • Place: Gibraltar
  • Book page no: 13

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