In Gibraltar. From A Captain's Log

excerptAbout the Earth's Crust A loud knock on the door of the cabin disturbs my sweet morning sleep."Gibrelterra!… Gibrelterra!…" I rub my eyes sleepily and, without understanding anything, I ask stroppily: what is it? what's happened?"Gibrelterra!…We can see Gibrelterra!…"I recognise now the voice of Fabris, our first mate, an old sea dog from Dalmatia. I had asked him the night before to wake me up, no matter the hour, when we got within sight of the Rock of Gibraltar. I dress quickly and rush up on the deck with the long distance field-glass. It is cool outside; the sun, only half out of the breast of the sea, appears in the opal distance like a huge ruby set in the necklace of the horizon. Under the breath of the soft breeze blowing towards the Moroccan coast, you can feel the pulse of the Mediterranean, calm in the still cold light of the dawn.I can't see anything ahead of me towards the Andalusian coast. Only when the shroud of silvery fog starts to clear away in the distance, the wind lifting it like the folds of a curtain, does the whole of Gibraltar appear like a huge stage set in the magic light of a fairy play. A huge block of azure rock detached from the chain of the Iberian mountains and rolled down into the blue depths of the sea. You can't see the low spit of sand connecting the Rock of Gibraltar with the Spanish coast from so far away, and the gigantic, oblong cliff looks completely detached from land; a stray, sovereign island controlling the whole connection between coast, ocean and sea – a daring outpost in between the two continents.With the help of the field-glasses, I search the line of the horizon. I turn my eyes towards the African shore; the Mauritius mountains darken the skyline; out of the whitish mist comes Ceuta, the rocky citadel facing Gibraltar from the other side. They look like two border guards on the frontier separating Europe from Africa. When you approach for the first time these places where the titanic grandeur of existence seems to be livened up by the memory of ancient legends, you can feel how poor is the mind that tries to unravel the mystery of nature and understand the enigmas of the past.I wonder: where were the famous columns of Hercules?Which were the sacred columns that still guard the Homeric ocean: were they indeed two famous monuments of the prehistoric world, or the two rocks, Calpé and Abyla, which face each other even today?While out at sea, and from the frail deck holding you suspended between sky and water, you can, from the same vantage point, see both the contour and the whole architecture of the two continents. With eyes greedy to understand, you watch this structure of the Earth's crust, and your mind tries to decipher the hieroglyphs written in the open book of nature – the very history of this old planet. How clear it is that once, in very old times, there was no break in the mountainous chain linking in a curve the even Andalusian coast and the Moroccan shore. The waves of the ocean under the whipping of the winds, for centuries besieging daily, ceaselessly, the cavernous wall of the cliff, have won, making a way for the water through the rock – the eternal, if everyday, confrontation between land and sea.The coasts keep changing their shape; lakes and seas have formed and dried up, big stretches have, in the course of time, been covered in wind-blown sands, flourishing ports have either disappeared or turned into today's mainland cities, some islands have sunk and others have risen from the sea. Human life is so short that generations go by, fed by the Earth's crust, without realising its work of eternal, fatal, incessant transformation. Our ship reduces its speed. We slowly enter the wide bay of Algeziras. A black line girdles like a belt the lower part of the gigantic block that rises proudly, daringly, shining under the sun's rays in a blinding whiteness. The black line is more and more visible, it is formed of linked points – the coal pontoon stores. The place is very narrow and lacks wharfs or port platforms, and the English fleet uses up so much coal that the storehouses had to move onto water from land. We anchor next to the English escadrille of torpedo boats. We can feel how the anchor's chain jerks rhythmically. Our ship drifts, pushed by the current formed by the waters passing from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. We stay in the shelter created by the foot of the cliff, which was called by the ancients Punta de Europa – the crossroad of all the world shipping routes. In the Middle of the Crazy VegetationA light boat with a single sail takes us very fast from the ship to the shore, sliding on the surface of the transparent waves. On the quay, at the stone step of the wharf, a British sentinel stands guard like a cold, motionless statue, representing the British force. He is more than two metres tall, fair-haired, rubicund, well-fed, cleanly dressed, correct, and phlegmatic. We stop by the harbour master's office to do the paperwork necessitated by the arrival of the ship and get a written permit to visit the city. Our ship has an engine problem, which means that it will be dismantled and spend a couple of days in the port. We have plenty of time to see Gibraltar. We wander for hours on end, without any destination, all the time accompanied by Doctor Algazal, an old friend of my captain's. He is an elderly gentleman, but with a quick mind and step, who has read and travelled extensively, an original with the look of a golden eagle. When you come from the open sea and land here on this narrow strip of land, under the eternal threat of the huge rock which you seem to expect to collapse like a crushing weight at the slightest shake, you feel suffocated by the lack of space. The city has nowhere to expand. After filling the low scrap of land, houses crammed upwards, hanging from the chalky wall of the rock.The lower part is a purely English town. On its wide, straight streets, with trees on both sides, you come across the same types as in all the British colonies garrisons. Serious men, with the energetic and severe attitude of the master. Soldiers and sailors in white, with panama hats. Policemen, correct and dignified, look down at you with a protective air. Emaciated ladies, with cold looks and manly clothes and walk. All over the world, at whatever longitude or latitude it may be, the British power grows and chisels the same kind of life, ordered in the same way.We enter the old quarters. Narrow, meandering lanes, typical of a cosmopolite Orient. They swarm with Spaniards and Jewish people. Almost all the local population live off smuggling. They smuggle into Spain tax free goods brought by the English to the port warehouses. We start up the mountain on a stony path winding among walls buried under the leaves of the creepers' tendrils, under the ivy web in which climbing garlands of wild roses have got entangled. The passage is so narrow that we sting ourselves in the briar thorns when we make way for a proud mule that goes down stepping delicately, adorned with strings of small bells and tufts of red wool. White and purplish huts, made of cut stone and pierced by narrow, barred windows, hide behind the curtains of vegetation. We leave the path and walk into the thicket at random, stooping under the vaults of laden bows that blend their thick foliage, knitting thousands of fine, soft curtains swinging in the light caress of the sea breeze. Lithe dragon flies glitter darting through the air, like arrows sent to stop the zigzagging flight of the white, powdered butterflies, which drop like flakes from the sky.The humidity and heat of these places are so nourishing that the vegetation grows at random, lush and reckless, like in the rain forest countries. The vegetal blood, the rich sap, seems to be just about to spring out through the rough bark of the vigorous trees, which are so close that their branches grow hugging one another and the thick roots intertwine like some huge snakes writhing in the wet soil. The smell of the pepper leaves tickles your nose, and you breathe in the soft, warm and scented air, full of intoxicating fragrances that float above the ground in the burning atmosphere of Africa.We manage, wading with great difficulty through the crazy vegetation, to come out to light again, to a high place from where we can admire the splendid panorama of Gibraltar. In the valley beneath us, at the foot of the rock, the white houses, gleaming through the waves of green sprinkled with the colours of the orange trees and pomegranates groves, look like toys. On the sloping sides, coming out of the silvery green of the olive trees, the slender, noble palm trees, the kings of plants, display their tall plumage; while the pyramids of the cypresses can be seen line up like ancient chandeliers on the clean alleys leading towards the sumptuous cathedral dominating the cosmopolitan little town.From that high place where we've stopped, one can see far into the land of rich Andalusia and the whole lacy coast, basking in the golden light of the sun and in the blue depth of the sea. Down to the right, at the other end of the wide bay, one can glimpse the whitish silhouettes of Algezira. To the left, up on the slope, remains of Moorish ruins stretch in the distance all the way to the gates of Malaga, a city famous for the sweetness of its grapes and of its women – the most precious produce of Andalusia. Behind, there's Sierra Nevada with its white brows; and beyond it, at the foot of the mountains, sleep the forgotten Granada and Alcazar. On the opposite side, towards the sea, everything, up to the horizon, is blue, no cloud casts its shade over the visible world. Far out, reflected on the glittering mirror of the Mediterranean, the mountains appear coloured in violet, like some fantastic vestiges, with their white peaks line resembling a nacreous band hanging in the azure of the African sky.It must have been a beautiful day like this when, twelve hundred years ago, on a calm sea, the Moorish tartans – those black, light boats with white sails filled by the wind – left the coast opposite and, after crossing, landed the first four patrols under the command of Tarik, Emir Muza's lieutenant. Ever since that day when the fine hooves of the Arab horses stepped onto this land for the first time, the rock has borne the name of Gibraltar, Tarik's mountain. And in this too, like in most wars ever waged between various peoples, there had to be a woman involved: the beautiful daughter of Count Julian, the governor of Ceuta, had been kidnapped by Rodrigo, the king of the Visigoths. As a revenge, the Moors of the Caliphate were called upon to try to conquer the Christian kingdom of Spain. A Small Republic under the Protection of the Great British Power We've been going up the stony coast, panting heavily, for more than an hour now. We're hurrying to reach the top before the English artillery start their shooting. Two slim, nimble English women, who race each other madly, climb the rock in front of us, like some wild goats.We stop and hide in a grove of hazelnut trees – this seems to mark the border of the small republic, whose sovereignty stretches up to the top of the mountain. At some distance, on the steep rocks where it would be impossible to get, among the tiny palm trees overwhelmed by creepers and parasite plants, we can see appearing some little black forms that move from place to place, taking from time to time leaps with devilish twirls. Looking through the binoculars we see clearly the ashy colour of their hair and the light grey, almost white, of the breast; some small, round heads, but no trace of a tail. From a distance, and without field glasses, one could almost mistake them for a naughty bunch of gipsy kids, for only they would frolic naked in the bushes in the part of the world where we come from. This is the only place in Europe where a colony of monkeys still live in freedom. On the African coast, there is another, much more numerous colony of the same race – the Barbary apes – occupying a rock called the Mountain of Monkeys. Their lot used to live on the cliffs of Greece and Sardinia, but they disappeared from there a long time ago. That they can still be found here is due to the special protection offered by the English authority. A century ago there were only a couple of pairs left; it was thought that this last European colony would disappear too. The English took drastic measures against those who caught or hunted monkeys. When there is a drought, drinking water is left on the rocks, within their reach. The season when the figs ripen is the only time when the little inhabitants come down in small gangs from the mountaintop and prowl the city's gardens, stealing. Although they're sometimes caught in the act, nobody dares touch these thieves, because the citizens of the small republic are declared inviolate and the Great British power ensures the territorial integrity of this small state placed under so great a protection.As we stand there looking into the distance, we suddenly hear a shrill trumpet sound, and a terrible detonation shakes the huge block of rock. The English batteries have started their artillery fire on moving targets, imagined enemy ships sailing out at sea.At the first sign of alarm, the monkey colony is seized by a terrible commotion. Maddened by fear, they pounce on each other and dash into the bushes in acrobats' jumps, producing squeaky screams and looking for shelter in the creeks of the rocks and in the gullies on the other side of the crest. In a few minutes they're all safe; not one of them can be seen for the duration of the shooting.Contemplating, from that high place and through the lighted mist of the horizon, the rugged coasts of the two continents, the paling mountain in the smoky distance, and, at the line where the sea meets the sky, the string of islands raising their head from the waves, I feel as if watching the earth changing during the first epochs of its existence.1912Viata romaneasca, 1923

by Jean Bart (1874-1933)