Mark Mounce is a retired Vancouver police detective working now as a Private Investigator and Executive Protection Specialist at Lions Gate Risk Management Group.
He provides us with a chronicle of his 2018 European excursion.
On my latest European adventure, we are off to Portugal and Spain, the Iberian Peninsula, with a brief stopover in Toronto to help fund these excursions.
Our flight from North Vancouver leaves at 9:00 AM Monday morning. The flight is uneventful, and Toronto welcomes us with driving rain and general gloominess. Traffic is gnarly, and we take forever to get to our hotel. Sadly, this re-affirms my opinion of why I never want to move here.
We finally arrive at our destination, the Le Germain Hotel, which is a wonderful place on Maple Tree Square, within puck tossing distance of the Scotiabank Centre, home of the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs. Will this be their year? Supper at the Taverna Mercatto, half a block away, and then an early night as someone, not me, has a full day of seminar related activity.
I awake to a semblance of part sunshine, suffering from jet lag. With a late start I obtain a walking map from the concierge. He makes suggestions of local points of interest in a rapid machine-gun staccato-like voice that leaves me reeling. Luckily, he jotted down locations on a map, and I have already been downtown previously.
Away I go to St. Lawrence Market, which is not far away. I highly recommend this place. It’s like Vancouver’s Granville Island Market on steroids. I decide to have lunch at Paddington’s (Home of the Oink!). I am searching for the elusive perfect Reuben sandwich. I’m still searching, sadly. The bread was home-made though.
This is humid, no jacket needed weather, so I stroll the waterfront for the rest of the day, stopping for a pint at the Amsterdam Brew Pub (how Canadian). I order a Boneshaker, which comes with its own glass sporting an old-fashioned penny farthing bicycle logo. Then it’s off to the hotel for a pre-flight nap before boarding a late flight to Lisbon.
We are late checking out and decide to take the hotel’s private car service to the airport. The ride took forever to arrive, but we did make it to the airport on time due to efforts of our wannabe race car driving driver. All to no avail as the flight was delayed at least three times, as we were flying Air Canada Rouge.
AC Rouge should have ads featuring Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone show in the background. Anytime I fly on this airline I seem to travel in another dimension, and not a good one. There is a common saying that describes the experience of a passenger who has been bumped or re-routed from another airline to this one. This experience is referred to as being “rouged”.
The plane finally did take off, and as this is a “no frills” airline you pay for everything except water. Profits are not invested in seats with extra space for people with average leg length. No surprise there.
However, we get ‘hot meal service”. The pasta dish reminded me of my children’s first forays into cooking for themselves by nuking Chef Boyardee in a can.
I tried to sleep but was not entirely successful. During a late morning semi-slumber, a young attendant in a rouge coloured sweater offered morning breakfast. This was a piece of brown bread-like material that looked like pressed banana loaf.
I inquired as to its identity and was assured that the offering tasted better than it looked. It was supposed to be a form of spice cake. Mine was wrapped to the highest of industrial standards, probably because of a court action after consumption by an unwitting child or a sufferer of a digestive disorder.
It took some time to unwrap this puppy, and the wait was not worth it. Rouged again.
We finally land in Lisbon Airport. Portugal has lately become somewhat of a mecca for tourists and the airport infrastructure has not caught up to current demand. The wait through Customs was interminable, and once in front of a Customs Officer, passports were stamped with no verbal interaction. We were good to go.
So, we went searching for the bathrooms and noted universal symbols for male and female are different here. The male figure is the same, but the female figure has no outline of a dress, just wider hips. A helpful person had taken a felt pen to the female figure and drew in a dress.
It took time to find our car rental agency. Turns out the agency was off site and minivans were needed to ferry us off to the agency. No one was at hand to let us know, we had to seek out staff ourselves. These vans were in short supply and it was hot, about 32 degrees. So, we waited and fumed.
We presented ourselves to an agent who aggressively tried to push an exclusive car insurance scheme that covered any disaster known to humanity. We declined, pointing out that we booked our vehicle online with full insurance. The agent was outraged at losing his commission, but we did not care. We had just been rouged, and we were fresh out of craps to give.
We obtained a Mercedes crossover, whom I christened Heinrich. We noticed that some of the agents were glossing over or ignoring previous dings, dents and damage to other customers, to their horror, so we were extra diligent when our turn came.
As followers of my travelogues may remember, I had to buy a new GPS in Amsterdam as I could not find a chip for my North American GPS that would be able to load European roads. That GPS had a distinctly upper-class British women’s voice that singularly refused to properly pronounce non-British place names. I had affectionately named her Agatha.
Well, I tried to rouse Agatha from her slumber, but she stubbornly refused to interact in any manner with the many GPS satellites above her. So, I confined the device to the bottom of a suitcase. The Mercedes had its own GPS but also with Agatha’s voice, and her penchant for brutalizing foreign place names.
Now we were finally off onto the open road after a two-hour delay at the airport. I did not realize how far our destination, Algeciras, was. Six hours later I found out. The roads in Spain and Portugal are exceptionally well-kept. The reason is that the respective governments charge exorbitant tolls. Our first toll cost 4.85 euros, the last €18.25. The positive side is that the toll fees are rolled into highway infrastructure not general revenue.
We finally arrive at our hotel in Algeciras; local time is 10:45 PM. There is an extra time zone here in southern Spain.
Slept in today. Got out of the hotel and down for breakfast at 10:05 AM. Breakfast here consists of bacon and eggs, fruit, pastries, croissants and cappuccino. After a quick meal, we are off to Gibraltar for the day.
Gibraltar is a British protectorate and the Spanish people are not thrilled that Britain refuses to return it to Spain. T-shirts inside Gibraltar are emblazoned with the Union Jack, proudly proclaiming that Gibraltar has been “proudly British since 1704”.
Spanish ire does not prevent their citizens from working in the enclave and they pass back and forth through Customs, staffed by the Spanish Civil Guard, who clear entries with a quick glance at passports or work permits.
Most people walk through Customs, and some drive. The waits are tolerable. Once beyond Customs, financial bloodletting begins. Hawkers flog expensive personal tours with private guides or minivan taxis. We opted for a local bus ride to the cable car and then tickets for a limited selection of sites. This was much cheaper.
The buses are clean, modern and efficient. They accept euros and British pounds, as does every establishment here. Gibraltar is full of retired British ex-pats with deep tans. British flags or Gibraltar’s own, with three red towers, adorn many balconies. In hindsight I would have stayed in Gibraltar, not Algeciras, as Algeciras has no attractions whatsoever and there are hotels and Airbnbs everywhere throughout the Rock.
A must at this destination is the cable car to the summit of Gibraltar. The views are great. Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera along and had to rely on an energy sucking iPhone for photos.
The first thing one notices exiting the cable tram is the presence of countless Barbary apes. Legend has it that if the apes desert Gibraltar, the British Empire will fall. Instead of clipping the wings of the ravens at the Tower of London so they cannot fly away (similar legend), the choice here appears to be let the apes procreate with reckless abandon.
They are everywhere and not intimidated by humans. Signs warn visitors not to feed the apes, with a stiff fine of 4,000 pounds for offenders. The rule is ignored and unenforced. Apes were eating ice treats, bags of peanuts and other forbidden fruits. It is obvious their diets are vegetables like potatoes and zucchini.
The apes are seen grabbing at peoples’ backpacks for treats or, in my case, one grabbed my bum. Not sure why. My instinct was to go full metal Charlton Heston. Get your paws off me, you damned dirty ape. But, I relented, and the suspect scampered off quickly, to the amusement of a nearby female tourist.
There is a restaurant at the top of the mountain, and roads leading everywhere. We opted to go to St. Michael’s Cave, which was quite spectacular. Within the entrance is a theatre that hosts music concerts. A light show highlights the impressive stalactites and stalagmites created by water dissolving the limestone.
Roman artifacts have been found within the cave complex that descends more than 700 feet. Major portions of the cave are closed to adventurers who want to explore further. Of course, there are miles of man-made caves as the Rock is full of limestone and the British military used these caves for defence, and offence, to mount their huge guns against invaders.
Instead of taking the cable car down, a ride that was paid for, we chose to walk down the mountain via its winding road system, reminiscent of Cypress Bowl. We eventually reached a Moorish castle, which has been half-heartedly restored but is still worth seeing.
We walked down steps that were part of the castle walls one time, into the lower town. This area is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and small shops that sell everything. Expensive shops cater to wealthy cruise ship clientele, as Gibraltar is a duty-free port.
After a long walk in the hot sun we boarded a bus that took us to Customs. It was 5:30 PM and we joined a throng of Spanish workers returning to Spain carrying huge burdens of duty-free groceries bought on the Rock.
The Customs officer sat in a glass cubicle, hardly noticing identity papers pressed quickly against the glass and quickly retrieved. We returned to our vehicle and headed back to our hotel.
We have an early start tomorrow. Wake up at 5:00 AM, on the road by 5:45 to pick up a friend who was also arriving at our next destination: Granada.
… to be continued