I loved visiting Gibraltar. This Iberian peninsula functions as the gateway from the cool Atlantic Ocean to the warm Mediterranean Sea. A valuable trading and fishing port, many countries have battled over this strategic piece of land. Since the early 1700s, it has been a British colony. Attached to Spain and across from Morocco, Gibraltar is less than 3 miles around but filled with a variety of cultures. Spanish, Moroccan, Italian, Jewish, and British roots have woven themselves into the fabric of Gibraltar’s history. We were lucky enough to have a true native driving us around who gave us little bits of insight along the way. He indicated that the locals often bounce between speaking Spanish and English. To a certain extent, they have created a hybrid language and he laughed that people have a hard time keeping up.
Before we began our tour, our driver took us to the border. Just a few minutes from town, the Spanish border was swamped with people crossing. Many of the individuals working in Gibraltar actually live in Spain. In these parts, it is not unusual for someone to travel to two countries everyday. Not only that, we had to drive over the airport runway to get there. Yes, we waited for planes to pass. This is small town Europa.
Our first official stop was Europa Point. This southernmost corner has three main buildings of interest: the lighthouse, the Shrine of Our Lady of Europe, and the Mosque of the Custodian of the Holy Mosques. The lighthouse was first lit in 1841 and can be seen approximately 19 nautical miles. Supposedly, the Mediterranean Sea used to be land-locked. Millions of years ago a crack in the land grew and the Atlantic Ocean eventually came rushing across. The Strait of Gibraltar has been a passage for mariners potentially dating back to the 16th century B.C. The winds between the Strait’s narrow channel can make for a rocky trip. While the sailing brought forth the possibility of new fortunes, not every ship had a successful voyage. The Shrine of Our Lady of Europe was once a mosque, but after a victorious battle against Islam, it was converted to a Christian shrine. A two-foot high wooden statue of the mother of Christ in a chair holding her baby sits there to protect all of Europe. Gibraltar is called “the key to Spain” and while the Brits have possession, Spain wouldn’t mind having the land back. Locals still pray here for Gibraltar’s safety. The Mosque is a multi-function center that includes classrooms, a conference hall, a nursery, and prayer rooms. This Islamic structure is beautifully decorated with Egyptian brass chandeliers, Italian Carrara marble, stained glass, and domes covered in mosaic tiles. With the Christian shrine close by, it is a nice representation of two faiths side by side, living peacefully.
Our drive became more precarious as we left Europa Point behind us. The narrow streets felt even tighter when our climb up the rock became steeper. The views can’t be beat, but the jagged terrain makes for a rather nervous tour. If driving tight, vertical roads is not appealing, you have the option of taking the cable car to the top of the Rock, also called the Upper Rock. The base station is located at Alameda Gardens and your fee includes access to the nature preserve.
Towards the top, we visited St. Michael’s Cave. Featuring awe-inspiring stalactites and stalagmites, this vast cavern boasts a large upper hall and various winding passageways descending several feet below the surface. The main hall is often used as a concert venue with seating capacity for up to 400 guests. In fact, a crew was setting up for a festival when we toured. In years past, troops have used this place as a hiding spot and Gibraltar considered using this as a war hospital during World War II. Drops of moisture ominously sprinkled the room as we walked, reminding us that this dark place is still alive. One broken stalagmite thought to have fallen eons ago, is on display towards to rear of the upper hall. Sliced open for viewing, the inside reveals many layers of crystallized history. The layers are thought to tell the story of heavy rain, very little rain, and may even show evidence of the glacial periods. To venture further, you can sign up for special tours taking you into the lower caves. One of which hides a small lake.
My favorite part of our day was spent with a group of tailless monkeys. Located on the Upper Rock, the Ape’s Den is home to a whole group of Barbary Macaques. There are about 20 at the Den, but the peninsula has approximately 160 monkeys total. These creatures are carefully monitored for good health and the ladies are given birth control that allows each female to bare every two years. These guys are also found in Morocco and Algeria, although, Gibraltar is the only location in Europe where there are free-living monkeys. According to our resident driver, if you leave a window open in your home, it is at your own risk. Four thumbs can easily tear apart your living space. And it occasionally happens. Speaking of cheeky behavior, these little guys are semi-wild. Yet, they are very comfortable with humans. They will gladly look through your pant pockets, steal your bags, and jump on your back. Actually, one monkey jumped onto the roof of the van in front of us, then hopped into the arms of the lady getting out. Needless to say, she was shocked. It had not occurred to me that the monkeys would feel so familial as to ransack your belongings. I was a little nervous when our driver left us to roam. It is best to not engage them, not touch them, and certainly not feed them. Again, semi-wild. When walking the Den, realize that they are a protected group, you are not. One thing that was very helpful to our visit was the fact that we arrived after they ate. Most of the monkeys were full and just lounging in the afternoon sun. Only a handful were ready to taunt to tourists.
Back in town, you can hit up the restaurants, cafes, and shops. Being surrounded by water, expect a lot of fish dishes as well as a variety of other European fare such as kebabs, spinach tarts, and sausages. Every Spring they have a food festival to show off their varied cuisine. Since this has been a trading port for centuries, expect a variety of shops as well. They accept pounds from the U.K. and some places accept Euros. I learned the hard way that Gibraltar pounds are not accepted in the U.K., so if you go to England later on you will need to exchange your currency. We did not eat in town, but we did get some gelato and wander to village-like streets. I also purchased some Cadbury treats. I am a fan of the British chocolate bar named Twisted. I am not much for buying souvenirs anymore, but bringing this delight home sounded awfully appetizing.
Going to Gibraltar, I expected very little. It’s a small peninsula – almost an island – and I thought it would be a simple stop on our way to a more interesting destination. I am very pleased that I was wrong. Gibraltar has a unique mix of cultures with some neat points of interest and a history that is just as layered as the rocky terrain. There is still plenty more to see that I didn’t, including the Moorish castle, the Military Heritage Centre, and the war tunnels. So make this stop a must on your next Mediterranean trip.
Additional information and facts were pulled from http://www.visitgibraltar.gi/. If you truly plan to visit, this is a great website to check out.