Often referred to as ‘A little bit of Britain in the sunshine’, Gibraltar is officially a British Overseas Territory – part of an exclusive and downright eccentric little club of remnants from the time when the British had an empire. If you were wondering, the others include the Falklands, Bermuda, The Cayman Islands and The British Virgin Islands.
Article by Giles Brown
All the familiar sights of the UK are in evidence – British police officers, red post boxes and a comforting number of British household names in the supermarkets. Which is fitting really, as Gibraltar is a Marmite of a place. Some see it as a quaint, if anachronistic, slice of Britain, while others cannot wait to get back across the border back into Spain.
If history is your thing, however, Gibraltar is a jewel. From Neanderthals in the caves, to Moorish invaders, via the Napoleonic Wars – including one of the most famous sea battles ever – and through to the Second World War, The Rock has history written through it.
A massively important strategic location, standing silent sentry over the entrance to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar was a military stronghold for centuries. Forts, gun emplacements and defensive walls are easy to spot, even though they now look out over gleaming glass office blocks and luxury apartments that house the thousands who work in Gibraltar’s busy financial and online gaming sectors.
As a gateway to the Mediterranean, and therefore trade, Gibraltar is a melting pot of cultures. As well as the long-established Moroccan population – Berber warlord Tariq ibn-Ziyad landed in 711 and Gibraltar derives its name (roughly) as ‘Tariq’s Rock’ – there is a sizable Sephardic Jewish community. Genoese merchants, Maltese and Portuguese all settled on The Rock in the 18th and 19th centuries, and thousands of Spaniards make the daily border crossing from La Linea for work. Perhaps because Gibraltar is cramped for space at the best of times, these disparate communities have learned to live together in admirable harmony.
To get the best out of your visit to Gibraltar, head to the Gibraltar Info kiosk on the Spanish side of the border and buy tickets for the Cable Car. A free shuttle bus service runs you from the Gibraltarian side to the Cable Car station, where you will also be able to purchase tickets for the Nature Reserve at the top of the Rock. The Nature Reserve Tickets allow you to visit some of the best attractions, so they are well worth it.
The cable car is an adventure on its own. The brainchild of local entrepreneur, John G Gaggero, it was built and completed by a Swiss Cable Car manufacturer in 1966. Giving you a unique perspective as it whisks you to the top of the Rock, previous well-known names that have used the service include Prince Michael of Kent, Julian Lennon, Ian McShane, Sir Alex Ferguson, Bryan Robson, and Bruce Grobbelaar to name but a few.
Once at the top, and before taking in the amazing views, a sage word of advice. LOOK OUT FOR THE BLOODY MONKEYS!
They may be Gibraltar’s most famous residents, but they are notorious for bounding out of nowhere and snatching anything edible from the unwary. Resembling a furious furry SWAT team, the mischievous Macaques can seemingly spot a sandwich from 800 yards and are ruthless. I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen first time visitors let out a startled yell as they are ambushed by apes. They may look cuddly, but they have a vicious streak a mile wide and feeding or trying to handle them can result in a fine. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
Gangs of roaming primates aside, the top of the Rock is spectacular. A Nature Reserve ticket allows you an instant adrenaline rush with the Skywalk – opened by Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, himself a few years ago and there is also a pedestrian suspension bridge for the adventurous.
The Nature Reserve is also home to a wide range of flora and fauna, marauding monkeys aside, including migratory birds.
Walking down from the top you will come across Gibraltar’s best-known attractions. These include the Great Siege Tunnels, a series of impressive caverns and huge corridors built to defend the Rock. Gibraltar is somewhere like a heavily fortified Swiss cheese and at several stages of its history has been bristling with heavy guns, canon, and various other bits of artillery.
You can also visit the places Eisenhower and Churchill worked during the planning of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa in 1941. Walking through the tunnels listening to the multilingual audio guide is fascinating enough but there is also Jock’s balcony, a unique look out on the sheer north face of the Rock.
More impressive than any man-made structure, however, is Saint Michael’s Cave. Originally thought to be bottomless and first mentioned in the writings of Roman travel writer Pomponius Melia in AD 45, St Michael’s has seen millions of visitors since then. Cathedral Cave is called so because the stalagmites and stalactites (how do you know the difference? “Tites” go down. Stop sniggering at the back) around the walls resemble the pipes of a cathedral organ. St Michael’s is also used as the spectacular setting for concerts and performances through the year.
Talking about performances, Gibraltar hosts an annual World Music Festival as well as the Gibraltar Calling event, which has seen bands such as Kings of Leon rock The Rock. Gibraltar also has a thriving local gig scene well worth checking out.
And if you are looking for something that is as eccentric and eclectic as Gibraltar itself, then may I point you in the direction of The Dapper Riders’ Club. This is a motorbike club like no other as members ride out on their motorcycles and scooters in sharp suits and impeccably tailored outfits!
So, forget the hackneyed view of the Rock as just Britain in the Sun, and explore the fascinating place that is Gibraltar.
Just look out for the bloody monkeys…