In my dusty, leather-bound travel journal, in which I have carefully mapped our movements over the last three years, I record that we climbed two rocky outcroppings eight months apart. First, surrounded by the Barbary apes — those sometimes fierce and often mischievous primates — we sweated our way to the top of the rock of Gibraltar back in April of 2019, pulled forward by our desire to impress our friends Kassandra and Karis with our fitness and determination. Second, in December of 2019, we scrambled to the summit of the jagged, knobbly Montserrat near Barcelona, this time pulled only by a Skoda and a funicular that together took us 90% of the way.
Travel Diary: 9:30 AM. The team stands so innocently in the abandoned Spanish industrial area just outside of the British territory of Gibraltar, posing for a photo. Little do they suspect the crazed fornicators that await them on the rock. Also, there are Barbary apes.
Travel Diary: 1:27 PM. Brook and I have said our goodbyes, and I am prepared for death.
We started off gaily enough, singing songs, eating oranges, joking about the apes and laughing about the British. Who, after all, are these 32,000 souls who live in the “little Britain” that is Gibraltar, with its red phone booths, fish and chip shops, Irish bars and people driving on the wrong side of the road? I’ll tell you: they’re British people who say to themselves, “Where can I get a bit of sun but still have my bangers and mash ‘round the pub?”
Just over two hours ago, at the base station of the teleferic, we made the fateful decision to hike up the mountain. Hike up? Hearing this, a pack of hard-bitten minivan operators pounced: they assessed my flabby, sweating frame, derided our chances of making it to the summit on foot, and offered to drive us for 250 British pounds. (250 pounds. Exactly my weight . . . by coincidence?)
But soon the sun and the steep incline begin to take their toll. Our supplies are running low; the water is long gone; my thighs are burning as if stoked with the fires of hell. I look down from our narrow trail that wraps around the rock, out to the ocean from the dizzying height, and dream of making one final, slow swan-dive into the cold, dark waters.
Travel Diary: 3:45. When I make it to the top, the others have been napping, admiring the views and posing with apes for some time. In the distance, across the straits, we can see the coastline of Africa. Container ships idle far below.
Between us and the town of Gibraltar, on the stairs that represent a more-direct descent to our planned drinking-and-dining spot, sit small family groups of macaques grooming themselves and mating with frequency and rapidity. As we descend, admiring one lonely baby ape and taking ape selfies, a mother ape suddenly appears and the laughter of the children turns to shrieks. Kassandra attempts to run, but it is too late: she is the victim of the dreaded macaque-pack attack. We are lucky we lost only one. In some ways I envy her.
Travel Diary: The next day we rest our legs, our hearts and our souls on the beach at Bolonia, still my favorite beach in Spain. A mile or two of empty beach bordered by the ruins of a Roman city and surrounded by a national park.
Favorite fact about Gibraltar — which the Greeks and Romans thought to be one of the Pillars of Hercules — is that it was named “Jabal Tariq” after Tariq Ibn Zayed, who led a predominantly Berber army across from Africa in 711 on the way to the Arabic conquest of Spain. The current name is just a later corruption of that Arabic name.
Travel Diary: 11:15 AM. It is the day after the day after Christmas, and the children are counting down the days until next Thanksgiving. Dreaming of solitude, Brook suggests that we spend some time in an ancient religious retreat. We drive 30 minutes from our home in Barcelona to Montserrat, a mountain with turrets and fingers of limestone conglomerate that were thrust up millennia ago. As I was not able to capture a distance photo, I illustrate with an image clipped from the internets:
The Benedictine Monestir de Montserrat — home to La Moreneta (‘Little Brown One’, or ‘Black Virgin’), one of Spain’s most revered icons — sits about halfway up the mountain. We drive there and park. And we realize that La Moreneta must truly be revered, because in spite of the monastery’s position halfway up a bald-rock mountain and 30 minutes from anywhere, there are a crafts and cheese market, three hotels, several restaurants, numerous tour buses and many fellow visitors.
Travel Diary: 12:30 PM. We have taken the funicular up to the plateau that sits just below the peak. From here there are views out across the plain and to the white caps of the Pyrenees. When we first arrive the plain is covered in fog or clouds, which we sit just barely above.
Once we cross over to the south-eastern side of the mountain it is warmer and clear. We hike up the steep, narrow trail, around outcroppings and past the remains of 17th and 18th century chapels and an hermitage — abandoned after the French seized the mountain in 1812 — and finally up to the summit. We watch as a woman is photographed in yoga poses on a nearby rounded rock — and then changes clothes midway through the shoot.
Travel Diary: 4:30 PM. We are safely back at home. The mountain did not claim any Newland victims today! To celebrate there are sweet treats and mango bowls.
Guid to visiting Montserrat (https://www.montserratvisita.com/en/ideas-for-your-visit/visit-the-sanctuary/1427) – Includes admission fees and hotel information if you really want to commit some time to the pilgrimage.
Guide to visiting Gibraltar (https://www.visitgibraltar.gi/) – With various walks up the rock.