Today we drive to the most southern part of Andalusia in Spain, well um not quite actually. We are driving to the most southern part of Spain, but it’s not officially Spain. It’s the United Kingdom. Yes, we are driving for about 1¾ hours hugging the Costa del Sol along the A-7 Old Coastal Road. It’s a pleasant day for a traditional Sunday drive to Gibraltar. The sun is shining (pity we don’t have a convertible), and the passing landscape is many shades of magnificent green with lines of olive groves, vineyards and of course little White Villages that nestle in and around the distant rolling hills. It’s another opportunity to pinch ourselves as we cruise around Spain…oh yeah baby.
We may be driving a 7-seater family truckstar reminiscent of a modern day National Lampoon’s Vacation rather than a two passenger racy red sports car, but we are nonetheless enjoying the travelling dream with the kids. The European motorway scene is one of luxury, and fast luxury, as a fleet of throbbing and sparkling Porsche cars pass us at at least 150km/h in the left lane. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. The sports car enthusiasts are out and about today and we wonder if they too are heading to Gibraltar for a day of sightseeing!
We take the exit CA-34 to the town of La Linea and we can see IT. IT being what many refer to as ‘The Rock’ – a monolithic limestone promontory. The Rock juts out on a bend in the road and we first glimpse it between the foliage on either side of the motorway. It stirs some finger pointing from the front passenger seat (aka me) which in turn causes the backseat teens plus a tween to pause their music and pull out their ear plugs to ask what’s wrong with me. I get a little bit excited about seeing such displays of natural majestic splendour. It’s also a little early for some of the six backpacks members this morning as we wake earlier than we ever have on a Sunday to pick up our hire car from the agreed collection spot: the train station which is about a 25-minute walk from our apartment in Malaga.
Unfortunately, we arrive at the agreed place and time and there is no car waiting for us. Steve makes a call and we discover that through a misunderstanding they thought we were collecting the car at 10.45am rather than 9:45am. Not to worry as we walk into the train-bus precinct and grab a coffee and some waters while the girls wander through the shopping area. It’s a shame it’s Sunday as most of the retail outlets are closed. Not long before we are off after signing hire papers and making payment but realise the suction device for the TomTom is missing. So we follow the man back to the car hire office and then we are set to cruise down the motorway.
Steve has already pre-paid the parking for Gibraltar. He had read that it can be hard finding parking on Gibraltar – expensive, long queues getting across the border and customs and streets very narrow. With a 7-seater we weren’t going to take any chances, so he reserved a parking space at one of the open air marina carparks on the Spanish side of the border for 9 just euros for the whole day. As the passenger I’m responsible for directing as best as I can. And it hasn’t been an easy task of late…think Seville! I get prepared and open the email that Steve received confirming car parking and supplying a pin number to enter and exit with at the gates. I had to read over the message several times as therein lies a paragraph containing an extensive set of directions on how to get to the carpark!
My mind starts convulsing at the idea of me having to navigate our way to a carpark with all the roads and intersections in long Spanish names. I start going cross eyes. Of course TomTom James just gives up the cause and tells us abruptly, “you have arrived!”. Oh really James we’re in the middle of a bloody road I think to myself. Two of our daughters, Charlie and Billie, were not with us on our journey to Seville with TomTom James when we got lost for over an hour just trying to locate our accommodation and garage, so they don’t have the emotional trauma and baggage I do with TomTom James. They’ve been laughing at the comments James comes out with and think he’s quite a funny GPS with his Aussie accent and laid back directions. Blah! I on the hand have memories of going round and round and round the same one-way streets of Seville and right now they quickly come hauntingly back.
A couple of deep breaths and I’m coaxing myself into directing Steve to the right place: we’ve got this; it’s going to be straight forward, we’re going to find it quickly and easily, think clearly Lisa. Damn! I think we took the wrong exit on the roundabout and we’re heading along the two-lane road through to customs with everyone else. Arhhhhhh!!! But Steve sees an exit off to the left and we take it. We go back around the same way, and try the next roundabout exit. Bullseye! We have found the marina gates, but just to make sure we are indeed in the right place, Steve parks the Renault in front of the boom gates, jumps out and has a quick chat to the guard sitting in the box. He returns to the waiting crew and we are in the right place. This is it. Woohoo.
There are plenty of parking spaces available today and wander out of the marina carpark lot towards the footpath that we assume leads to the massive large rock that is simply amazing right before our eyes in the distance. We just stand and look at for a moment completely in awe. It’s both craggy and impressive and this is what Gibraltar is most famous for – The Rock of Gibraltar that stands 426m high out of the sea formed in the Jurassic era. We notice that the left side of the rock’s face looks as if it’s been sliced off exposing bits of light coloured limestone from its core whereas the rest of the rock is covered in green foliage. We walk along the footpath and arrive at Spanish customs. The girls can’t quite believe we are leaving Spain and entering another country! Neither can I.
Steve hands out all the passports as he’s always done at every airport or border control whenever we travel and we follow behind other people doing the same, removing sunglasses and hats. The electronic passport control just isn’t scanning any of our six passports, so we give up and walk to the man sitting behind a desk on the other side of the machines. We just hold our passports up to him held open to the page that has our less than attractive mug shot on it and all he does is nod and smile at us as we move through quickly to the other side. No stopping. No stamp. No nothing.
We are in no man’s land – a small slither of land between Spain and the UK which is kind of weird but that’s how it is here. We continue walking across no man’s land into British customs. This reminds me of the border set up between North and South Korea – but they’re not friends, maybe these guys aren’t either. Again we flash the passports but nobody really cares on that side of no man’s land either. Anyway we are through and the first thing we are greeted with as we step onto the British overseas territory is a bright red English phone booth. A quintessential English welcome!
But the weird experience hasn’t stopped just yet. We walk out from the British customs facility and find ourselves walking across a runway. Yes, a RUNWAY. I’m thinking Top Gun right now due to the fact that large numbers are painted on the grey tarmac and for some reason it reminds me of the movie. Then I start quietly singing under my breath Kenny Loggins’ Highway to the Danger Zone so not to embarrass the teens. We walk the whole length of the runway which is officially called Winston Churchill Avenue (should be Top Gun Avenue) and pass a caged sports complex and school. We take the opportunity to film and photo each other with the long, grey runway as our backdrop. Now that’s pretty cool and I imagine all my dreams come true as Maverick cooly hums along the tarmac on his motorcycle. But the dream’s over and we walk towards the rock still mesmerised by its majestic beauty.
We know we are on British territory as the conversation between people that we’re passing on the footpath have the distinctive high pitched English accent. The six of us look at each other and have a little giggle because like we haven’t heard anything so English for such a long time. We’re told that the Gibraltarians as they call themselves often use a mix of English and Spanish words interchangeably. It seems we’re in for a delightful day exploring the British overseas territory. But first when in Britain it’s Fish and Chips time! And lucky for us there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from as we enter the main square.
The sun is bearing down with force (unusual for Britain hey) and we find a restaurant with large umbrellas to sit under. It takes me a moment to figure out menu prices and their conversions: Euros–Aussie dollars–Pounds are swirling unhinged and uncalculated in my head but I’m not great with maths anyway so it’s no surprise. The currency here is British pounds, but they accept euros but things cost more in euros. It wasn’t a cheap lunch stop either. Lunch cost about $20 each with a drink but that’s what you get when you eat in the main touristy areas of Britain! We move along delightfully satisfied from the food and ready to explore The Rock of Gibraltar.
We walk up the main street which is called Main Street (how original) and take in all the lovely old buildings on either side of us. It’s Gibraltar’s main shopping district with numerous outdoor cafes and bars. It’s the place to come when you want to experience the very best of British life under the sun. No wonder Gibraltar attracts around 10 million tourists each year. Another reason is for the VAT free bargains – perfume, jewellery, cosmetics, electronic goods, alcohol and tobacco. Quietly there’s money laundering too and illegal reselling of tobacco. I’ve scoured a few Trip Advisor posts from Londoners travelling to Gibraltar and they are in heaven when they realise how cheap it is in Gibraltar to purchase alcohol and cigarettes.
We cross over streets and lanes with names such as Cornwall Lane, Market Lane, George’s Lane, Convent Place. This place is so very British. Everything is in English which means it’s an easy day for our tribe getting around. There’s also a dedicated area called Irish Town too and lots of marinas and beaches to see and swim at. Due to it being a Sunday many of the shops are closed, which suits us just fine as the foot traffic is considerably less which makes navigating and wandering easier. We aim to find our way to the cable car so that we can get to the top of The Rock for the view. We arrive and three of us need to go to the toilet desperately, but there’s no free public toilets anywhere. It costs 1 euro/1 pound to enter a public toilet so three of us go in together to save on costs after an expensive lunch (lol)!
We reach the base of the cable car and a man is standing next to a small tour van asking us if we’d like to take a tour today. We discover that the cable car is a short lived experience – a total of 6 whole yet short minutes up to the rock to appreciate the views 412m above sea level. Firstly, Billie has blisters on her feet, and has resorted to walking bare footed. So walking is not the agenda for us. We have arrived too late anyway to walk around the Upper Rock area as it takes about three hours to get to the main sites up there. There are two other visiting passengers ready to go and he can take another six. Okay we’re in! We purchase his tour for 30 euros each which includes the cost of entry into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
Our tour guide is a proud Gibraltarian who operates a tour company. The tour business has been in the family for some time now and after his uncle retired Mr Gib (I forgot his real name) took over the steering wheel and with only 112 tourist licences on offer, and capped at that number, in Gibraltar it’s a business he plans to grow and consolidate and hand down to next generations in his family. He’s a man who loves a chat and probably a beer and is 100% proud Gibraltarian. He shares with us that there are about 30,000 people who live in Gibraltar and although it’s an expensive lifestyle (everything is imported from Holland via ship), it’s beautiful place to live and work if you can. We all totally agree. We’re in love already with the place. It’s a unique place to live as everybody knows everybody! The main business in Gibraltar is tourism, banking (offshore) and shipping. He’s staunchly pro-British Gibraltarian and when we ask about the implications around Brexit for Gibraltarians he replies, “who cares we have always been independent. We had the referendums and nothing will change!” When asked if people here want to be part of Spain Mr Gib quips “no one wants to go back to Spain; we’re proud Gibraltarians and that’s how it’s going to stay.” It seems being a Gibraltarian is in fact its own race of 30,000 people.
The 50th anniversary celebrations of one of the referendums (as there have been two) mentioned by Mr Gib occurred on 10 September 1967. A turnout of 12,138 (95.8%) people voted to remain British with only 44 voting for Gibraltar to become part of Spain. That is why 10 September marks Gibraltar National Day which this year promises to be extra special. A second referendum took place on 7 November 2002 asking the people of Gibraltar again to vote yes or no if they would prefer Gibraltar to have shared sovereignty. Again an overwhelming landslide with 98.5% against sharing sovereignty with just 187 people voting yes to sharing sovereignty with Spain. I think the people of Gibraltar have cast their vote, but there still remains a stigma around holding onto something that really isn’t yours to keep.
Anyway back to the tour…
1st Stop: Lookout (where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean) to the continent of Africa
This is one of the reasons I really wanted to go on the tour – to view the Pillars of Hercules the phrase that was applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar, Calpe Mons, is the Rock of Gibraltar and I’m here standing in Europe on Calpe Mons looking over to Africa. The Pillars form part of the Spain coat of arms originating in the impresa of Spain’s sixteenth century King Charles I. It bears the motto Plus Ultra, Latin for Further Beyond, implying that the pillars were a gateway to something beyond them.
An interesting side note is that the vertical lines on the Dollar sign, which has its origins from the Spanish Dollar, also represent the Pillar of Hercules. Wow! I love learning new stuff.
It may seem a little lacklustre reading about it now, but actually being there and physically present, was an amazing experience. The girls got pretty excited too and pulled out there iPhones to take video and photos. It’s something of an enigma: a traveller’s feat to not have discovered it first as such but to see it for myself is quite something even though I’ve read about it or learnt about it in a classroom many years ago (which obviously I didn’t listen to when I was 16) but is fascinating now in my early 40s.
The distance between the Pillars of Hercules or at the two continent’s narrowest point is a mere 7.7 nautical miles or 14.3km which has been a popular place for illegal immigration from Africa to Europe. Ferries cross the strait of Gibraltar and there have been discussions of constructing a tunnel to connect Spain with Africa rather than a bridge as the strait continues to be a busy shipping route.
Over in north Africa two Spanish exclaves, Ceuta (18.5 sq km) and Melilla (12.3 sq km) are secured with fencing and anti-climbing mesh that attempt at preventing the African migrants, who have travelled across Africa to Morocco and stayed in makeshift camps there waiting for the right time and weather conditions to make their way across the strait in wooden boats or inflatable dinghies. They are either often found landing on one of the popular southern Spanish coastal beaches or being intercepted/rescued by the Spanish coast guard.
But today, there’s blue sky and sea and a not too distant land we can see clearly with our own eyes. I can tick that one off the bucket list! We stayed for a while gazing out over the strait, taking many photos and capturing plenty of video while absorbing the breathtaking view of the sea, ocean and lands. We got chatting to the other two passengers on Mr Gib’s tour who are a retired couple from Canada and they were kind enough to take a group photo of the six of us with Africa in the background.
2nd Stop: St Michael’s Cave
There are around 140-150 caves inside The Rock, but St Michael’s Cave is the most dramatic with an awesome collection of stalagmites and stalactites. This limestone cave sits 300m above sea level and has a natural auditorium that is used for concerts and theatre performances. I’d BYO a raincoat though as the continual dripping of large droplets from the ceiling of the cave makes for a wet and always damp area. The cave auditorium had a lovely mix of mood lighting in all different colours to accentuate parts of the cave with background strumming of gentle music throughout. It was another highlight for the kids who again reached for their iPhones and busily captured the atmosphere inside the cave.
3rd Stop: meeting the Barbary Apes
We are told by Mr Gib that under no circumstances to touch or feed the monkeys. What there’s monkeys? They are Gibraltar Barbary macaques and are considered by many to be the top tourist attraction in Gibraltar. That’s probably highly debatable but every person to their own. The most popular troop of Barbary is that of Queen’s Gate at the Apes’ Den. The macaque is wild and tail-less and although referred to as an ape they are actually a monkey that was introduced by the Moors in the early 12th and 13th Centuries from the mountains of Morocco and are inextricably linked with Gibraltar. They live in packs on the Upper Rock, living to about 20 years of age, and are the only free roaming primates in all of Europe. They are highly regarded and looked after that they are fed twice a day by nature reserve workers. They’re certainly cute, especially the young, but they do have a habit of sniffing out any skerrick of food contained in visitor bags and while I was crouched down taking a photo of Charlie one of them attempted to open my camera backpack which had a packet of chewing gum inside. Blimey it scared the bejeevies out of me! There have been reports of visitors being taken to hospital after experiencing the not-so-friendly-nature of these monkey apes.
The views at this tour stop were quite unbelievably spectacular. For such a small area I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Gibraltar has six beaches around its shoreline. We look down from our lofty height and peer over the safety retaining wall and see Catalan Bay. It’s a rocky cove with a quiet beach that was first settled by Genoese fishermen in the 18th Century. Historically, Catalan Bay (eastern side of The Rock and away from the main city) offered an ideal vantage point and haven for Spaniards fleeing from Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in the 19th Century. Then there’s Camp Bay and Little Bay facing the Atlantic (south east) which has been developed into beach resorts and include a number of interconnecting terraces providing easy access to the beach. A swimming pool has been built for children and the general public to use and enjoy. It looks brilliant from up here!
On the other side, facing the Mediterranean is the Gibraltar port and many of the large ships waiting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for entry to refuel.
4th Stop: The Great Siege Tunnels
We leave the views and the apes and return to the tour van and our youngest Dacey sits next me and asks, “Mum are we going to have to crawl through these tunnels?” She was referring to the Cuchi Tunnels in Vietnam that we visited in 2012 and yes we crawled through the smallest of tunnels on our hands and knees. It was quite claustrophobic in them and I think she was worried that we’d be doing that type of tunnels again. I saw relief come over her face when I said no. The labyrinth of man-made tunnels on The Rock were excavated by Royal Engineers to defend Gibraltar from the mainland during the Great Siege of 1779-1783 and extend over a distance of 48km and although we have been told to mind our head at various sections of the tunnels, we are in no way having to get on all fours to see them.
Outside the tunnels we take in more of the magnificent views and our Canadian friend notices a yellow-legged gull perched on the edge of the cliff with its baby chick beside it which looks just days old.
With the tour coming to an end, and our newly found Canadian friends walking down the last part of the tour through the old Moorish town, we still had blister issues and stayed in the van until the very end. We walked back to the square area for a coffee and smoothies – after all it is Mother’s Day today – which recharged our batteries to make the slow wander back to our car parked all the way over in another country!
And what perfect timing we have as the traffic is stopped by police at the Gibraltar runway-road-foot/bicycle-path and we wait for the landing of a plane. A little yellow sweeper comes out onto the tarmac cleaning any debris off the landing strip area. It moves quickly and efficiently around just moments before the landing. And we saw not one but two Monarch planes land right in front of us and taxi back. The gates are opened and the foot and vehicle traffic moves across the tarmac. Crazy hey! It was a highlight for the girls and another great opportunity for iPhone photos and video. Check out the video!
If you’re keen some snippets of the history of Gibraltar…
About 100,000 years ago primitive humans and Neanderthals fished along the shoreline and inhabited the limestone caves of The Rock. An amazing find was a female skull dating back to Neanderthal times which was discovered in a Gibraltar quarry in 1848 – the second Neanderthal skull found in the world.
Since men first braved the seas, the Bay of Gibraltar has sheltered ships and sailors. To the ancient Greeks, Gibraltar marked the limit to the known world. To pass beyond this land was to sail over the bottomless waterfall at the edge of the world. The Pillars of Hercules as a gateway to the unknown.
In 711AD the Moorish leader Tarik-Ibn-Zeyad conquered the Rock and named it Jebel-Tarik (Tarik’s Mountain). It was used an important military and naval base and changed hands numerous times throughout the eight centuries of Moorish occupation in Spain. In the early part of the 14th Century Spanish forces occupied Gibraltar for 24 years but in 1333 the Moors reclaimed it after a bloody 18-week siege. The Rock did not come under Spanish rule again until 1462 when the Duke of Medina Sidonia recaptured it.
In 1704 Admiral Sir George Rooke sat off Tetuan, a city in northern Morocco, with a large combined fleet of British and Dutch warships and took an opportunity to capture The Rock. They faced a Spanish refusal to surrender, but after an intense barrage of shots, shells and landings by British marines and sailors, the Rock inhabitants were forced to concede.
Under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 Gibralatar was ceded to Britain. The treaty was renewed again in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris, and in 1783 by Treaty of Versailles. But these treaties didn’t deter others from advancing to the Rock in an attempt to take it as their own.
The Great Siege was an attempt by Spain and France to capture Gibraltar from the British during the American War of Independence (a global war that began as a conflict between Great Britain and its thirteen American colonies, which declared independence as the United States of America). The Great Siege occurred between 1779-1783 and that’s when the excavation of tunnels made it possible for the British to lower their guns down onto the Mediterranean shore and gain an advantage.
During WW2 the civilian population of Gibraltar was evacuated, with only 4,000 Gibraltarians staying to defend the freedom of The Rock. Even Sir Winston Churchill ensured that the apes numbers were protected.