Travel: The Rock against the clock: An eccentric phrase book, a hire car, and eight hours to go: Matthew Gwyther glanced at the sights of Gibraltar and sped away to Spain

What better in-flight reading on a day trip to Gibraltar than Spanish in a Day by Michael M Gruneberg? 'Overcome that 'feeling of isolation' when travelling abroad,' advises the slim volume. Using the 'Linkword' system, you learn that the Spanish for bed is cama by imagining a 'camel lying on your bed', and that bathing trunks is banador by imagining you 'bang the door with your bathing trunks'.

Dr Gruneberg's bizarre book would at least (at the most, in fact) offer a diversion for nervous fliers approaching Gibraltar's airport. The runway crosses the neck of the peninsula, so there is Mediterranean at both ends; and the main road on to the Rock crosses the middle of it - barriers are lowered to halt traffic as aircraft take-off or land.

It is not unusual for planes to abort, overshoot and go round for a second try. Given the tight schedule, aborting the landing would have meant aborting my plan for the day. Happily, we did not.

Gibraltar is a curious place, home to 29,000 people (not counting the shrinking garrison) and 25,000 companies. Also squeezed into its 2.25 square miles are 360 pubs and half a dozen curry houses. Britain has owned it officially since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1715, and when the population voted in the Sixties in a referendum about joining Spain, they turned it down by 99.6 per cent. Despite being Spanish-speakers, most Gibraltarians hold a dim view of their neighbours, referring to them, so my guidebook said, as 'slops' or 'sloppies'.

I had just under eight hours before the return flight, and plenty to do. There is one place in Gibraltar from which you can see everything, including the apes. I jumped into a hired car and headed off to the foot of the cable-car, which carries sightseers to the top of the 1,400ft Rock. On a clear day you can see not only the whole of Gibraltar but also the Atlas mountains in Morocco.

But small wispy sections of cloud were scudding over the summit of the Rock, caused by moisture-laden wind from the east rising on its journey out into the Atlantic. A large part of the eastern face is covered by an amazing water catchment system; down below are the beaches.

At the top is a slightly tired restaurant with a Dunhill Terrace, Peter Stuyvesant Terrace and a Rothmans Shop - all in keeping with the rather retro off-shore, duty-free, jetset wannabe feel of the place. There were plenty of hungry seagulls but no apes, somewhat ominously in view of the old chestnut that the day the apes leave so will their fellow primates, the Brits.

Dr Gruneberg's book was not much help, as expected. He had neither the Spanish for 'ape' nor for 'where' - and certainly not the third-person plural of the verb 'to be'. I descended by cable- car to the half-way stage and consulted a passenger heading for a 'Parodytur' bus. He pointed towards a dead tree. On a branch sat two moth-eaten Barbary specimens grooming each other and deliberately turning their backs on those trying to photograph them.

By now I had used up nearly two of my hours, and it was time to head across the runway for the border. At the frontier, the Spanish cannot resist making clear their displeasure at the remnant of British imperialism on their doorstep. I sat in a queue of cars for 45 minutes waiting for the border check.

From the border it is a few kilometres to the notorious N340. This, the Costa del Sol's main highway, is one of the most dangerous roads in Europe. A combination of clumsy British tourists not used to left-hand drive, antiquated road design and exhausted Moroccan gastarbeiten returning home from Germany and France for their holidays in overloaded cars, combine to produce more than 100 fatalities a year on average.

Forty years ago this coastal strip (Estepona, Torremolinos, Malaga) was a succession of poverty-stricken, malarial fishing villages. There are now more than a third of a million foreigners living here, many in retirement. And they all need a terracotta roof over their heads.

For Ronda, my destination, you turn left off the coast road and up into the mountains at San Pedro. The road climbs steeply through a parched land scape, hairpin after hairpin. The city has grown up on the edge of a ridge, and the old part is divided from the new by the steepest of gorges. Across it runs an extraordinary bridge built in 1740, with two thick supporting pillars which descend 300ft into the depths.

The old Moorish town has several Renaissance mansions and a church, Santa Maria Mayor, which was originally a mosque. The elegant whitewashed bullring, built in 1785, is the birthplace of the modern corrida. ('Imagine having a bullfight in a corridor,' suggests Dr Gruneberg.) There are only three tournaments per year and the last featured not only bravos toros but also a star-billed matador by the name of Tom Arlin.

For the home run, I completed the circle back to the Rock on a lovely, almost empty road. Old men sat out with their sticks in the late afternoon shade watching the odd car pass. Half-way down, on the western outskirts of Gaucin, I stopped for a drink at a roadside bar overlooking Africa.

Back down on the plain, the greenery returned with sunflowers and citrus fruit. A town band was practising on the football field. Over the border, there was just time to fill up the car (with an extra 153 miles on its clock) at the garage on Winston Churchill Avenue.

Before the flight back, at 8.50pm, I had a final flick through Spanish in a Day. 'Goodbye is adios. Imagine thinking 'Goodbye idiots'.'

Matthew Gwyther's day trip to Gibraltar from Gatwick cost pounds 139 with Cadogan Travel (0703 332661); flights are not available during the summer.

(Photographs omitted)

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