The Rock – Gibraltar

Everyone knows that Gibraltar is strange lump of British territory that, from the point of view of simple geography, really should be part of Spain. It is strategically extremely well located and has a very good port giving anyone who occupies it a dominant position over the Straits of Gibraltar and therefore the ability to control traffic to and fro between the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. The opening of the Suez canal (1869) only increased this importance as Gibraltar could then influence naval traffic between Britain and its colonies such as India and Australia. It is this strategic importance, as well as legends such as the Pillars of Hercules, that have given Gibraltar such a rich history and an importance way beyond its physical stature.

The history of The Rock goes back to Neanderthal man followed by – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims/Moors, Marinids, Kingdom of Granada, Duke of Medina, Sephardic Jews [time of the Spanish Inquisition] & the Spanish Crown. Then came the War of the Spanish Succession and The Rock fell to British and Dutch troops. British sovereignty over Gibraltar was subsequently recognised by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the war. Spain have wanted it back ever since but Britain along with the residents and voters of Gibraltar are not interested. The Spanish have tried everything, including a long period between 1969 and 1985 where they completely closed the border and severed all communication links. They only did a U-turn on this policy because they wanted to join the European Community.

The Rock in 1940

Spain actually have two separate complaints. Firstly over the rock itself and secondly over the area to the north of the rock which now contains the airport, cemetery and much other development. This area used to be known as the “British Neutral Ground” and was always occupied by the British, primarily to defend themselves against the Spaniards.

In true British style, this ‘overseas territory’ has its own Governor, political system, parliament and everything that goes with that. They are looking for ‘self-determination’ and in 2006 they got themselves a new constitution.

Enough of the history and politics, how is Gibraltar as a tourist destination?

I suppose the first thing to say is that for such a large lump of rock it is not especially easy to find! Unless you catch a flight direct to Gibraltar of course, which can be done for just over a hundred quid from a range of UK airports.

We were traveling by car from Spain and I suppose inevitably, Gibraltar does not appear on any Spanish road signs. We were lucky that we knew the closest Spanish town is the magnificently named ‘La Linea de la Concepcion’ and so we had some idea where we were heading. As we got closer we saw this huge rock in the distance and just headed for that. Thankfully it turned out to be Gibraltar.

You need to allow quite some time to get through the border controls. They were not checking everyone’s papers but still, the queue of traffic was long and it took perhaps 30 minutes in each direction, maybe more. For such a small place it seems to have a lot of typically British twisty streets and far too many traffic lights and roundabouts so it takes a lot longer than it should to get to the places you need. After the wait for the border we must have spent another 30 minutes to an hour getting to the cable car and trying to find a parking space.

We then queued for the cable car which took over an hour to get to the ticket desk and another half an hour at least before getting to the top of the rock. The problem is that they only have two cars and they seem to travel very slowly. Each car holds perhaps 12 people at a time. While waiting in the queue you’ll be hassled non-stop by people telling you what a joke the cable car is and how much better and faster their trips by mini-bus are. Here’s the truth;

  1. Their tours are not faster, possibly slower because the roads at the top are only wide enough for one van and so they all end up in a little traffic jam. You end up waiting for as long as the tour in front (or others on your tour) want to play with the monkeys or spend in the cave.
  2. There is not an equally long (2hr) queue for the cable car on the way back down as they will tell you there is. Coming down had no queue at all when we were there.
  3. Their tour probably is more rewarding as you get the local knowledge and commentary that is missing from just taking the cable car.
  4. I didn’t ask whet their prices were but the cable car’s not cheap. It cost us about 70 Euro for 2 adults and 1 kid to go up, come down and enter a few ‘attractions’, like the cave.

So, many hours after we arrived at the end of the border queue we eventually found ourselves about 400m up and staring at a Barbary Ape (macaque), the only wild monkeys found in Europe.

There are numerous warnings about the apes behaving badly and there’s no question you need to be careful. However, the only bad behaviour we saw was in relation to plastic carrier bags. The apes have obviously got it into their heads that a plastic bag ALWAYS contains food and so everyone we saw carrying a plastic bag soon had it removed by an ape. Here’s one that got lucky;

The views from the top are quite spectacular but it is very windy, as one might expect. I don’t know if we were lucky but we had clear views in all directions.

There are numerous attractions spread throughout the park at the top of the rock and most of them involve heavy artillery, siege tunnels, caves or apes. We only did the views, the apes and the cave although we did see a battery on the way down.

The cave, St Michael’s Cave, is worth visiting. It is nothing more than a deep cave with sticky-uppy and sticky-downy things but it is a good example of its kind. Not too strenuous, quite cool, well lit. I got lucky with a photo just on the way out when I found a flat surface for the camera and just guessed at 2″ exposure.

Thanks to its position at the top of a very sharp rock, getting around the park at the top is not so easy. If you start at the observation platform, going anywhere is going to involve downhill/uphill walking for at least 30 minutes. So we started with the views, then the apes feeding place, then the cave, then some more apery and then faced three choices;

  • Keep going down to the halfway point and catch the cable car from there. (depends on your head for heights)
  • Walk all the way back up and catch the cable car from there. (not recommended)
  • Walk all the way down to the bottom. (what we did)

I gave the family a vote – climb up onto that contraption and catch the cable car or walk all the way down. There was a unanimous vote for walking down and so that’s what we did. It was hard work for people unused to mountain climbing but there were paths and with a little intuition and lucky guesswork you can cut a few corners.

A nice place to take a break is the Devil’s Gap Battery which dates back to the late 1800’s and displays a pair of graffiti covered 6″ coastal defence guns that saw action in WWII.

Marta giving the victory salute

The gunner’s view (more or less)

We finally made it down but were now so far behind schedule that we didn’t have time for anything other than getting in the car, facing the long border queue once more and getting back into Spain on our way to visit Tarifa, a place even closer to Africa than Gibraltar!


4 thoughts on “The Rock – Gibraltar

  1. Once again Ian, I think you have managed to encapsulate my experiences over a three years Army posting to the Rock ,in just your few hours whirlwind tour.

    Easter Sunday 1960 I walked from South Barracks (about a mile south of the Cable Car terminus) to the top of the Rock where you took the long range view North to Spain. We spent a couple of hours at the ridge overlooking Eastern Beach and the new Caleta Hotel, and then walked all the way down again. There was no choice those days, no cable car and most of the upper Rock was for military personnel only.

    The Barbary Apes are split into two packs. One roams the upper Rock freely and the other pack is actually fed by the British Army! It is on the Ration strength of the Gibraltar Regiment and there was, and AFAIK still is, a lance/ corporal of that local Regiment charged with the upkeep of the pack.

    A lot of political and physical changes have gone on over the intervening 45 years since I was a “Rock Ape” most of them to the good. The fiercely loyal to the British way of life local population gave us “Vets” an emotional welcome as we marched the length of Main Street last March .

    If anyone is interested please visit…….

  2. Excellent photo of your wife sporting her very own Rock of Gibraltar hair style :) . I’m surprised you lived to tell the tale after posting that.

    Regarding Edward’s comment – isn’t there a legend saying that if the monkeys leave the Rock the British will soon follow, a bit like the rooks at the Tower of London?

  3. Eddie – that’s quite a walk, especially the UP part, but then you were probably a younger and fitter man back then! Enjoyed the photos, thanks.

    island1 – true, there is such a legend. I don’t think Marta has seen the photo yet but it’s not so much the hair that’s a problem as whether she looks fat! :)

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