This Side of the Pond – Sept. 17

By Sarah Pridgeon

Last week, I boasted about the pure relaxation that I’m basking in aboard this cruise ship. What I didn’t really touch on was that there’s a reason this boat is called the Explorer of the Seas: while you do spend a lot of time doing absolutely nothing and loving every second of it, the real reason you board a cruise ship is for the adventure.

In amongst those lazy days on deck are plentiful opportunities to visit more places than you could reasonably fit into a normal vacation. Our particular cruise is called “Mediterranean Cities of Distinction” and takes us through the Bay of Biscay into the tranquil waters of the Riviera, where we will call on ports in several different countries.

My favorite is Gibraltar, simply because it has such a strong meaning to we Brits. It is, in fact, the reason that we once ruled the high seas.

Having stolen a tiny little patch of land from the irritated Spanish after a war in the early 18th century, we used our new land to watch out for ocean traffic. Past Gibraltar is the only route into the Mediterranean, and the passage is narrow enough that you can see the coast of Africa with the naked eye.

If we didn’t want a ship passing by, we simply used our cannons to dissuade it. Meanwhile, a thriving culture built up around the Rock, largely British but one step removed. Today, 30,000 people live in a tiny country of their own, just 2.6 square miles in size.

Spain has attempted to take back the territory several times, but has never been successful. Gibraltar’s population is not keen on losing its British control – a 2002 referendum saw 99.6 percent of inhabitants vote to stay a British overseas territory.

One of the many tours you can take on Gibraltar is through the tunnels carved out in the rock. It’s a humbling experience to anyone with a deeply embedded respect for those who fought to protect us during World War II.

Those tunnels go on for almost 34 miles, once home to guns, ammunitions and plenty of soldiers. Despite the miniscule size of Gibraltar, it gifted the UK with a second unimaginable gift in 1939 when WWII and the Spanish Civil War broke out.

The Royal Engineers and Canadian Army created what is essentially an underground city, fit to house 16,000 soldiers. There was deep concern that Hitler or Mussolini would turn their attention south – if they did, they’d be coming through Gibraltar.

Both to protect our territory and the rest of the West, Gibraltar was largely evacuated and its population replaced with the military. The tunnels were even where some of the most famous wartime generals met to make plans, including Churchill and Eisenhower, the latter of whom used them as his headquarters during the invasion of North Africa.

Gibraltar was to make the first stand: had the invasion come to pass, it was all that stood between the Allies and their oncoming enemies. Today, you can stand in one of the overlooks and ponder what might have been.

You can make your way through the dim and cramped conditions that those men and women endured and feel waves of gratitude for their service. You can gaze on signs marking out galleries and paths, all of which hark back to people and places from the British mainland, and realize with humility the full extent of their patriotism.

So if you’ve ever wondered why Britain still goes out of its way to protect a tiny spit of land so far from home, there’s your answer. You don’t need to be big and rich and important to make a difference – if you’re Gibraltar, you need only be who and where you already are.

Portugal is another firm favorite, but for a slightly different reason. On a continent made up of nations that have spent millennia fighting and making up again, the Portuguese have remained our constant ally.

Bonding over a mutual mistrust of the Spanish, our monarchs signed a treaty of perpetual alliance all the way back in 1373. It has been reinforced and repeated many times over the centuries and still stands firm today.

It is, in fact, the oldest active treaty in the history of the world. For us, a visit to Portugal is like popping over to your best friend’s house for a cup of tea and a visit – you’re sure of a warm welcome and you’ll never want to leave.

I could wax lyrical about the experiences I’ve had thanks to a cruise ship for several more pages. Our itinerary has included destinations as mouthwatering as the Coliseum in Rome, the art and culture of Florence, the slightly sideways Pisa and the glory of Vatican City.

Our ship has taken us to the ancient port of Cagliari in Sardinia, the beauty of Barcelona and the romance of Monte Carlo and Cannes, as well as the quaint little town of Cadiz in Spain and the sunbathing capital of Malaga, part of the Costa del Sol along which every Brit worth their salt has spent at least one vacation.

Life is all about adventures and it’s pleasant to know that the bulky giant of a ship I’ve called home throughout this vacation is willing to provide them in spades. And when I get tired of exploring all those sights and sounds, there’s always someone to bring me a cool soda and a towel as I doze the day away on my sun lounger.