Rock On

10th September 2010

Phil Wall explores a small but perfectly formed holiday destination.

As we reached the top of the ridge our taxi approached a group of about a dozen of Gibraltar’s most famous residents. “Don’t open the window!” said our driver. “Be very careful when you open the door or they’ll be straight in.”

The Barbary Apes lounged nonchalantly along the sides of the narrow road that winds along the upper Rock. We got out of the car carefully, but without incident.

“Don’t get too close; they bite,” warned the driver.

Warily we eyed the primates sitting at head height on the wall that ran along one side of the road. We took pictures of both the Apes and the stunning views towards Morocco and back along the Spanish coast – and then our driver asked me, “So, do you want to get one of them to sit on your head?” Considering his dire warnings of sharp teeth and short tempers I was surprised at the suggestion, but willing to give it a try for the novelty. Our driver tempted an Ape into position with some crisps, and it sat, docilely munching, until shoved off again.

The colony of Barbary Apes (actually tailless North African macaque monkeys) is a Gibraltar must-see, but there are a surprising number of other attractions in such a small area. At just three miles long, one mile wide and 1400 feet high, Gibraltar looms over the neighbouring Spanish territory and can be seen from many miles up the coast.

The border with Spain is fully open nowadays, but most tourists still arrive by air – an experience in itself. There are, of course, other airports where you also approach over water at an altitude that makes it appear you will ditch in the sea at any second, but at Gibraltar such is the shortness of the runway that you also experience the plane’s brakes being slammed on harder than you imagined possible the second the wheels touch the tarmac. Moreover, there aren’t many international airports where you can spend most of the day wandering across the main runway, only having to move when the next plane is due. At Gibraltar the airport straddles the neck of the peninsula, and Winston Churchill Avenue, the main road from the Spanish border to the town, cuts straight across it.

And once in town, what do you see? Well, to be honest, you don’t go to Gibraltar for the culture – or at least, if you do, you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. If you’re an ex-pat Brit from the Costa del Sol you probably go to stock up on underwear from M&S, plus your favourite brands of English tea and biscuits, and perhaps duty free cigarettes and alcohol. Some people find it comforting and others disconcerting that so many standard British shops are found so far from home. In contrast to the UK, though, both pounds and euros are accepted alongside each other in every store, with Gibraltar pounds also mixing freely with English notes and coins.

It’s true that the town of Gibraltar has some fine old buildings hidden in its maze of streets, but space is at such a premium that buildings of different styles, sizes and ages are almost piled on top of one another. New developments are now being built on reclaimed land. Ex-pats can also enjoy the nostalgia of old red phone booths and post boxes, but for most tourists the appeal is the Rock itself and its fascinating history.
Many of the attractions are military – Gibraltar’s renowned strategic position at the gateway to the Mediterranean has meant centuries of conflict and conquest, with invading armies regularly laying siege. The British seized the Rock in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession, and by the Treaty of Utrecht nine years later Gibraltar was ceded to the British crown ‘in perpetuity’.

Once in place, the British military set about fortifying the Rock. The army added to the natural limestone caves with man-made tunnels during the ‘Great Siege’ of 1779 to 1783. Soldiers worked by hand with sledgehammers, crowbars and gunpowder to complete a tunnel that was 113m long by the time the siege ended. It housed four cannon at intervals, with the guns pointing at French and Spanish enemies through embrasures in the rock.

Digging continued after hostilities ended, and the network of tunnels is now said to total over 40 miles. Around three-quarters of these were dug during World War II and much are still for military use only: most of the remaining British forces lurk deep underground, monitoring sea traffic through the straits. There are also hollowed-out chambers that are large enough for banqueting in.

Some of the tunnels now house an exhibition showcasing their military use through the last 250 years, with life-size waxwork soldiers round every turn. Almost as numerous are the cannon, all of which were dragged up the steep narrow roads by manpower alone.

Of the natural caves, the largest is the cathedral-like St Michael’s Cave towards the southern end of the Rock. For centuries this was believed to be bottomless, which led to the theory that Gibraltar was linked to Africa by a subterranean passage – some say this is how the Apes arrived. Stalactites and stalagmites still grow there, as they have done for countless centuries. The roof apparently continues to drip no matter how long it has been since rain fell above.

The Rock’s highest point is topped by a further reminder of Gibraltar’s military history: a World War II field gun (never fired in anger) on the spot known as O’Hara’s Battery. Previously a tower had been built in an attempt to spot ships leaving Cadiz, but the distance – over 50 miles as the crow flies – proved too great. The tower was shot down in naval target practice in 1888.
As well as the military aspects the upper Rock is a nature reserve containing many rare indigenous plants. Its entrance is known as Jew’s Gate in recognition of the Jewish cemetery hidden away on the lower slopes at the south end of the peninsula. At the request of Spain, the Treaty of Utrecht forbade Jews or Moors from residing in Gibraltar. The British had no intention of banishing the sizeable Jewish population, so the cemetery was placed as far as possible from the Spanish border and any prying eyes.

Closer to the town is the Moorish Castle and its 14th century Tower of Homage. Its outer walls are still dented from cannon ball hits, while the inside has been carefully restored. At the south end of town is the Trafalgar Cemetery, where some of the dead from that battle were buried, though Nelson himself, of course, was taken back to England. Nearby are the beautiful Alameda Botanical Gardens, first laid out in 1816, and the base station of the cable car that, since 1966, has been the alternative to a taxi for those wanting to ascend the Rock’s heights. The cable car builder was a local man – inspired by a skiing holiday to Austria – who battled military red tape for four years to be allowed to instal it .

There are other attractions and other curiosities, but in view of its size Gibraltar is perhaps not the ideal base for a two-week holiday (though it does have a great beach at Catalan Bay) and you might tire of the ubiquitous pub-fare on offer at mealtimes. For a shorter stay, though, there really are few more interesting corners of the Mediterranean than this tiny piece of British (for the moment) territory.

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