Country number: 1 (UK)
Territory number: 190
When? May 2018
How? Minivan, on foot
‘Well, Gibraltar is a place which you either love or hate. I quite like it. It’s a rock, that is essentially what it is. It’s a British colony.’
Nigel Short, British chess player
I hadn’t realised how huge and sheer the face of The Rock is. It’s the first thing I see when I disembark the plane. It’s grey and brooding and there’s cloud hooked right across the two main peaks, which is a little frustrating when Spain to the north is basking in bright sunshine.
I also hadn’t realised that this is the fifth most dangerous airport in the world. It was built, out over the water, by Eisenhower, during the war, and has been extended a little further into the sea for passenger jets. Landing and take-off isn’t helped by the Spanish running an embargo on entering their airspace. Some steep banking is required. The road into Gibraltar runs across the runway, so that’s quite exciting too. They’re building a tunnel at the moment.
The town is squashed between the rock and the port and is a warren of narrow streets and little alleys, surrounded by a bastion wall. It’s not very easy to navigate the taxi and I’m glad I’m not driving. The wall runs all along the coast and right over the top of the 426m-high limestone ridge, to the sea on the other side. It was built by the Spanish, as a defence against the Moors, before we forced them to hand The Rock over in 1713.
Whitewashed walls, bright shutters, bougainvillea, tapas bars, stained glass, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, fish and chips, red phone boxes and pubs. The Mediterranean meets the UK. But its quintessentially British down to the three pin electric sockets. It’s firmly fixed in the last century and a little shabby – it could use some money spending on it. But so could most of the UK at the moment. The local people are bilingual in Spanish and English, but when talking to each other use a fascinating Spanglish dialect (Llanito), which I can hardly follow at all (it makes more sense written down.)
The map tells me that I will see most of the town if I saunter along Main Street, which cuts right through the middle, alleys leading left and right and will take me to the cable car in one direction and the atmospheric Casemates Square in the other. I haven’t gone more than ten yards before I’m embroiled in a royal artillery reunion parade. There’s a band playing and the men are all togged up in uniform, complete with medals and are proudly bearing flags. Its Meg and Harry’s wedding today and it’s playing on the TV in all the bars, so I assume this is part of the celebration. However, I’m firmly assured that it isn’t and I end up taking photographs of all the participants – and the lady mayor and am given instructions on where to send them on. Main Street next delivers a ceremony from The Re-enactment Society (scarlet coats and tricorn hats) rapidly followed by a parade of veteran cars. It’s all excitement here. Irish Town is a subset gaggle of old streets with boutique shops and pubs (of course). A final wander through the Botanical Garden, a stroll atop the walls and along more modern quays, lined with seafood restaurants. There’s a ship hotel too (nice cocktails up top).
The sun has come out; I did a lot of walking yesterday and The Rock is very steep, so I decide to eschew the cable car and take a taxi-van tour to the top. The vans usually wait till they are full, but it’s Sunday and astonishingly quiet everywhere, with most of the shops shut. Fifteen minutes later there are still only three of us on-board. Eventually, John, the driver, sensing mutiny, agrees to cut his losses and take Julian and Jackie (holiday home in Alicante) and me.
First, signs marking the Pillars of Hercules, dividing the ancient and modern worlds. I love the idea that I’m at the edge of the Mediterranean and the known world (in Greek mythology Gibraltar was Calpe). We can see far out across the straits and I can make out the shadowy mountains of Morocco, only 14 kilometres away.
It’s a perilous drive up The Rock and along the top of the ridge. Being a taxi driver in Gibraltar definitely involves some skill. John knows nearly all the ‘apes’ (Barbary macaques) by name (though I’m not sure if everyone calls them the same names) and doesn’t seem to mind being nibbled and swung on. They head straight for him and clamber in the taxi window. John wants us to let them climb on our heads. I’m not keen on having my pictures taken with animals that bite, especially when there are signs warning tourists not to touch them, so I’m watching the shenanigans from the (relative) safety of the viewing platform.
Next, the Siege Tunnels. Apparently: ‘The inside of The Rock is an absolute labyrinth with secret internal roads and tunnels four times longer than those on the surface’. The tunnels were blasted out during the Great Siege when the French and Spanish were determined to repossess Gibraltar and General Elliott asked his engineers to find a way to mount guns on the sheer north face of The Rock. There are cannons and information boards and statues of various military commanders inside. The uppermost part of The Rock is still a British military installation, and off-limits to the public. What with caves and tunnels, the saying ‘As solid as the Rock of Gibraltar seems somewhat inaccurate.
It’s developed into a glorious day and I’m keen to see The Rock looming from the sea, so I sign up for a Dolphin Safari. The views are great, as we zip over the wakes of various boats – the Straits of Gibraltar is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – and we are greeted by a large pod of dolphins too. They’re chasing fish, so don’t have much time for us, but they speed along, diving under the boat and putting the Olympic synchronised swimmers to shame.
I had planned to spend my last day by the pool, but the hotel is swathed in scaffolding and the builders have returned with a vengeance after the weekend. There’s little let up from the drilling and when I pull the curtains I’m faced with a guy skipping up a gantry outside. Thank goodness for my noise cancelling headphones.
The Rock is named after Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim governor of Tangier who landed here in 711, to launch the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. – Jabal Tariq (Mountain of Tariq) eventually became Gibraltar.
Gibraltar, colloquially known as The Rock, (or simply ‘Gib’), is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. It was ceded in perpetuity to Great Britain by Spain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
However, because of its close proximity to the European mainland, traffic in Gibraltar moves on the right-hand side of the road and the speed limits are in kilometres per hour
The official currency of Gibraltar is the Gibraltar pound (GIP), which is pegged to the British pound sterling at a 1:1 exchange rate. The British pound sterling is legal tender in Gibraltar, and is accepted everywhere, but the Gibraltar pound is not legal tender in the UK.
Many bookmakers and online gaming operators relocated to Gibraltar in the 2000s to benefit from operating in the favourable corporate tax regime. They remained even when the regulations changed.
To see more of my photos of Gibraltar, visit this page.