Although I am proud to be British, I have been accused recently of not exploring and writing posts about my own country more. This is a very fair comment. I like travelling to unfamiliar places and I have to admit most of Britain beyond London’s Green Belt and M25 is a mystery to me, so I really don’t have any excuse not to visit more of it. So, earlier this year I decided to address the issue. I packed my bags, hopped on a plane and landed in Gibraltar. Yes, it is not in mainland Britain and the Spanish would argue that it should not be British at all, but it is officially British, certainly until Brexit is completed in March 2019, and is a place that has intrigued me for years: British and Spanish cultures are very different indeed, so what happens when the two collide and are forced together over a strip of land covering an area less than seven square kilometres?
As Gibraltar and the UK are still in the European Union – for now at least – EU citizens should in theory be allowed to travel in and out of the territory freely and unhindered. Yet, the border of Gibraltar with Spain is guarded and gated, and all visitors whether European, British or otherwise, have to present their passport there before crossing it.
Once successfully through passport control and into Gibraltar, visitors walk straight into British culture, literally:
The territory is littered with clichéd British symbolism and references.
Yet, one doesn’t have to go far into the British territory to notice local Spanish influences as well.
Nowhere in Gibraltar is the Spanish and Mediterranean influence arguably more apparent than with the territory’s Old Town architecture. Few buildings in the oldest part of the territory look typically Victorian or Edwardian as one might expect from a British colony. Instead, Moorish and even Parisian influences can be identified amongst them, and the luscious palms and orange trees that line the streets do little to conjure up ideas of Britishness.
Gibraltar’s architecture maybe typically European, but its wildlife is hereditarily African. The Barbary Macaques are not just the only known wild monkey population on British soil, they are also believed to be the only known wild monkey population in Europe. They are synonymous with the Rock of Gibraltar and are believed to have been introduced to the territory by the Moors who kept them as pets. These days the apes are less pets, more curious pests. They are so accustomed to human company they have no fear approaching and even pickpocketing tourists for food or anything else that take their fancy. As a result, tourists to the Rock are advised to keep an eye on their property at all times and in particular to not carry plastic bags around on the Rock as the apes associate these with food often carried inside them. Even though the apes appear cute and placid, tourists are constantly told not to feed or touch them for their own safety. The apes are wild, unpredictable animals even though their brazen behaviour around humans make them appear tame. If they are not interfered with they will not bother anyone passing close by and they are usually unfazed by tourists watching and taking photos of them. Sadly, some tourists do not seem to take heed of the warnings and I was amazed to see quite a few actually putting their arms around some of the apes in an attempt to take a selfie with them. One ape clearly wasn’t in the mood and ran up a tree with a mobile phone on a selfie stick.
Not only do the barbary macaques thrive on the Rock, but so too do rare species of plants and flowers. Although not terribly easy to find, the best way to appreciate the foliage and stunning scenery is to seek out the Rock’s Mediterranean Steps which wind around the southerly point of the Upper Rock. A word of advice though: go to the top of the Rock via the cable car, find O’Hara’s Battery close to the peak of the Upper Rock and descend the steps which begin just behind the gun. It is badly sign posted, particularly at the Battery, but persevere. So many unsuspecting (and from the number that puffed passed me, unfit) tourists make the mistake of ascending the steps from Jew’s Gate spending all their energy and attention surviving the gruelling climb. In contrast, it took me a leisurely two hours to walk down them: one hour to tackle the actual steps as in parts they are rather narrow, worn and steep, the other hour to stop every couple of minutes to take another batch of photos of the gorgeous scenery.
The Steps end at Jew’s Gate where one can exit the Rock reserve or carry on along the western face, although before carrying on it is worth looking out for the monument to the Pillars of Hercules just beyond the gate. According to Greek mythology, the son of Zeus is said to have split the mountain that once connected Europe and Africa together, and in so doing created the Strait of Gibraltar and two halves or ‘pillars’ of the spilt mountain range. The northern pillar is celebrated as the Rock of Gibraltar, hence the monument. Bare in mind though that to go over to the monument even just to take a photo is technically leaving the Rock reserve and visitors may have to pay another entrance fee to return inside it. To avoid this, speak to the gatekeeper beforehand and s/he should grant a few minutes by the monument before allowing re-entry to the reserve at no extra cost.
The southern pillar is believed to be Jebel Musa on the Moroccan border across the Strait, but there is some debate as to whether it is in fact Mount Hacho which firmly stands in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and is thereby in Europe. Confused?
Carrying on along the western face of the Rock, St Michael’s Cave is not far away and certainly worth a visit if simply to escape the heat outside. The cave is stunning, but understandably is also very cold and wet, so bring a cardigan. The curator behind the cave must have been a club DJ in a previous career to explain why s/he has chosen to turn the cave into a mobile disco: coloured lights unnecessarily flood the cave and pulse to the rhythm of a medley of pop tunes. Thankfully, after around five minutes or so the music stops and when it does so do the pulsing disco lights. Whilst the DJ’s tape mix is presumably being rewound to the beginning again, visitors can steal the precious moments of silence and more subtle lighting to enjoy the true beauty of the cave as nature intended.
Continuing on from the cave is a relatively new addition to the Upper Rock reserve. First opened in the Summer of 2016, the Windsor Suspension Bridge along Anglican Way is one for the thrill seekers. It offers fabulous views across the harbour whilst dangling over a fifty metre gorge. Those who would rather not cross it can take the Rock path alongside it and meet up with their more daring friends on the other side.
As already mentioned, the Rock is a nature reserve and there is an entrance fee to it. It can only be entered from three official entry points where tickets can be purchased on arrival (no need to book in advance). The best, easiest and most popular entrance point is via the cable car along Europa Road and Red Sands Road. The journey offers great views on the way up and terminates by the main Apes Den. Bus Route 2 that crosses the territory from Europa Point to Market Place Terminus close to the airport, stops by the cable car station every fifteen minutes. Rock entry tickets purchased from here will obviously cost a little more as they include the fare ride for the cable car.
The other entrance points are at Jew’s Gates along the southern tip of the Rock, and Willis Road leading up to the Moorish Castle along the northern tip of the Rock.
The entry ticket to the Rock also includes entry to the Apes Dens, St Michael’s Cave and the Moorish Castle as well as the Military Heritage Centre and City Under Siege Exhibition close to the Moorish Castle. It does not include entrance to the World War II Tunnels close to the Castle. Tickets to the tunnels are best purchased in advance as the visit involves a timed guided tour through them. A separate Rock entry ticket still needs to be purchased as well in order to gain access to the tunnels.
Even though I started off early in the day to explore the Rock, unfortunately I didn’t reach the northern end of the reserve until late in the afternoon when the centres and tunnels had closed for the day. To explore absolutely everything will require the whole day, otherwise plan activities across two or more days but bare in mind that entrance tickets to the reserve will be have to be purchased on each day.
There is no obligation to visit everything though, and organisers of the Rock understand that. So, there are now three official trails marked out around the Rock for visitors to choose from and follow depending on their priorities. The trails are: Wildlife, Walking and Thrill Seekers. The Wildlife trail will take visitors to the Apes Dens, the Walking trail will lead visitors around the more leisurely paths along the reserve, and the Thrill Seekers trail will bring visitors to the Mediterranean Steps and Windsor Suspension Bridge. The trails are marked out on the main reserve paths and roads, albeit between long intervals, by coloured logos.
Details of opening times and ticket prices for the reserve and the activities that can be enjoyed in and around it can be found on the official Visit Gibraltar website here.
Details of Gibraltar’s bus routes and timetables can be found here.
Ceuta: the Spanish Gibraltar?