12 APR 2017: Gibraltar is much in the news these days, especially here in Europe where Brexit threatens to open old problems between Britain and Spain. The possible outcomes range between ‘a good understanding will be reached’ to, well, ‘war’ as the British Government have declared they will do all it takes to defend their 200 year-old Colony. While the latter option is highly unlikely it is possible that the atmosphere on The Rock, as it is known, may change in coming years. So before then, time for a visit?

Now, I am not suggesting that Canadians travel across the Atlantic to visit a 6.7 km sq piece of rock attached to Spain by an airport runway. But for travellers with Southern Spain in their plans a Gibraltar visit makes a fascinating day trip. Tours are offered in most nearby tourist resorts or you can drive to La Linea de la Concepcion (just east of Algeciras) where Gibraltar is ‘attached’ to Spain. There is an enormous car park beside the marina at La Linea, when you can literally walk to your destination. After completing the cursory border formalities (merely your passport registered by machine) you will have the unique experience of walking to another country across an airport runway. Everyone obeys the traffic lights!

Once on The Rock, independent visitors will be assailed by tour guides in mini-buses. You must take one, as the steep road to the top is closed to all traffic except these little buses. It is possible to walk up, but believe me, you don’t want to although many choose to walk down via the marked footpaths. There is also a cablecar, but this involves walking to the various sites on the hill. We chose a bus driven by a chirpy chap with a Cockney accent whose jokes and puns were, actually, quite amusing to us but somewhat bewildering to our fellow passengers who were German.

On a beautiful day, this seemingly-treacherous drive ranks as one of the greatest, with its views across the harbour Spain and across the Strait to the distant hill of Morocco. And there is a surprising amount to see. Your driver will allow you time for each visit.

Here is some of what Gibraltar offers visitors, both on The Rock itself and down in town.

First on the climb uphill comes St. Michael’s Cave, an enormous natural grotto illuminated with ever-changing colours. Today this stunning space is used as an auditorium for a variety of musical performances, but during World War II is served a sadder, but important, function. It was fitted out as a hospital. Hard, today, to imagine doctors and nurses worked away here; almost harder to imagine being a patient in this natural, cathedral-like space without natural light.

The Barbary Macaques (tail-less monkeys), all three hundred of them, are another of Gibraltar’s attractions. Needless to say, they are very used to visitors and sit patiently for photos, but can be pushy if they realize you have food. Not a place to enjoy an ice-cream!

On up the hill are more locations connected with wars: the Great Siege Tunnels, the World War II Tunnels, the Military Heritage Centre and the City Under Siege Exhibition. The first two reveal the honeycomb nature of the upper rock, places where the besieged region has faced wars from 1726 to the last century. The Great Siege Tunnels are an impressive defence system created by man. They were excavated between 1779 and 1783 with the aid of gunpowder and simple tools. The Military Heritage Centre contains fascinating artefacts and model soldiers. And as a reminder that only relatively recently have the British ruled here, there’s a 14th century Moorish Castle (topped by a Union flag) on the hill’s eastern flank.

There is, of course, a great deal more to Gibraltar than the sites on the actual rock. Its population of 32,194 is made up of far more nationalities than British, although it is English that is most widely spoken. There are Spaniards, other Europeans and many North Africans that call this place home. A recent article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper about Gibraltar’s multiculturalism was headed “Saturday tapas, Sunday roast.”

So it is that the bustling town offers British- and Irish-style pubs, tapas bars, Moroccan restaurants, fast-food stands manned by Algerians and many other choices. Two new marinas have recently been built, offering lovely restaurants with patios along their quaysides. The city’s Old Town is home to a selection of international boutiques and many of their more general stores will be familiar to those who have visited Britain. All under the same sun that shines on southern Spain!

Falling into conversation with a Gibraltarian is an interesting experience. From one such ‘new friend’ we heard first-hand about Spain’s closure of the border for 16 years in living memory. It was Spanish Dictator Franco who ordered this, from 1969 to 1985, once again besieging The Rock. Gibraltar also played a part in the story of Admiral Lord Nelson, though primarily at his death rather than his life. When killed at the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain in 1805, Nelson’s body was brought to Gibraltar where, legend has it, the body was preserved in a barrel of rum while England prepared for the great funeral of its hero. Hence the famous “Nelson’s Blood” range of rums so beloved of sailors.

Now, with The Rock under the spotlight once again, there will be many more interesting conversations to be had.

For those who would like to spend a little longer than a day on Gibraltar there are a number of hotels and B&Bs. Most famous of the hotels is the unimaginatively-named but luxurious Rock Hotel, which is something of an institution here, hosting weddings and other rites of passage for Gibraltarians since 1932. Its sunny terrace and lush gardens overlook the city’s Botanic Gardens and the bay with Spain beyond; it is a lovely place to pause, if only for afternoon tea or a drink. And there are some pleasant beaches on the south side if you have time for seaside relaxation. If your travels take you near, do try to pay a visit to this unique place known simply as The Rock.

 

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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