Rupert Parker re-visits Gibraltar and finds a once tired old lady has a new spring in her step.
I was last in Gibraltar over thirty years ago, when it was a garrison town, and seemed slightly faded at the edges. However, the last army battalion left in 1991 and Britain’s island outpost at the bottom of Spain is booming. New apartment blocks are springing up everywhere, rising on reclaimed land by the sea, and there are a host of new restaurants and some excellent beaches.
Africa is very close, just across the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, ten miles away. At Europa Point, the Rock makes up one of the Pillars of Hercules with the Jebel Musa Mountain, in Morocco, the other. The lighthouse, 49 metres high, with a range of around 37 kilometres, has been guiding sailors safely since 1841. Next to it is the brand new Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, a symbol of Gibraltar’s long tradition of tolerance.
Just nearby is the last refuge of the Neanderthals who vanished around 32,000 years ago. They lived in Gorham’s Cave Complex, natural occurring caverns at sea level. The first complete Neanderthal skull was found here in 1848 and a second, that of a child, in 1926. Archaeologists have found evidence of occupation spanning 120,000 years and the cave complex now has UNESCO World Heritage status. Although excavations are still ongoing, it’s possible to visit on a guided tour if you reserve in advance.
The other famous Gibraltar primates are the Barbary Macaques, living wild on the rough limestone cliffs, in the Upper Rock. They’re native to North Africa but were probably brought here in the early days of the British garrison. Legend has it that, should they ever disappear, the British will have to leave Gibraltar. Numbers diminished sharply during WW2 but Winston Churchill intervened and additional animals were imported from Morocco.
These days the entire top of the rock is a nature reserve, home to around 250 animals, and easily accessible by cable car. The Macaques flock around tourists, looking for food, and generally seem a bit of a nuisance. A different perspective is provided by a local primatologist from the agency Monkey Talk. I join a small group at sunset and get to see them in their natural habitat. Monkey etiquette says that if we stand our ground, the animals will ignore us. Surprisingly it seems to work.
Gibraltar has always been a fortress and its extensive stone defences are everywhere. What you can’t see are those hidden inside the rock. Natural occurring fissures, like St Michael’s Cave, have always been used for military purposes. It’s crammed with stalactites and stalagmites and these days has been turned into a marvellous 600 seat concert hall. Below is another cave, only discovered in 1942, and containing a lake of crystal clear water, nearly 40m long.
But it’s the man-made tunnels which impress. The Great Siege Tunnels date from 1782 and were dug so large cannons could be moved into position, high on the precipitous North face. During WW2, the garrison needed protection from air attack, so mining began afresh. Specialised units from the Royal Engineers and the Canadian army worked night and day to create an underground city.
It was designed to house the entire 16,000 garrison and to store enough food to last for 16 months. Inside there was an underground telephone exchange, a generating station, a water distillation plant, hospital, bakery, ammunition magazines and a vehicle maintenance workshop. The total length of the tunnel network inside the Rock is approximately 52 kilometres.
The expected attack from Hitler didn’t materialise, partly because of Franco’s refusal to allow German troops on Spanish soil, and the tunnels were never needed. Short tours take you inside giving you a glimpse of the scale of the project. Mock-ups of a field hospital and kitchen, as well as atmospheric black and white photographs, conjure up the spirit of WW2. Ironically many of the tunnels are still off-limits, still used by the MOD for military exercises.
Of course what most tourists come to Gibraltar for is the sun, sand and sea and there’s usually plenty of that. However, the Levanter phenomenon, when clouds suddenly arrive and hog the top of the rock, can put paid to any chance of a swift tan. Fortunately, Camp Bay and Little Bay, on the Atlantic side, are usually clear. Both are stony but have swimming pools and a popular bar-restaurant.
The largest stretch of sand is Eastern Beach, on the Mediterranean, right next to the airport runway. As you swim, you can watch flights landing and departing with Rock’s majestic north face towering above. South of here is Catalan Bay, known in Spanish as ‘La Caleta’, once a fishing village with colourful houses lining the horseshoe sweep of the shore. Beyond is Sandy Bay, enlarged with 50,000 tons of sand imported from the Western Sahara.
I’m impressed by the transformation of Gibraltar and, in the streets, I hear more Spanish spoken than English. That’s not surprising as most of the population are bilingual and there’s a genuine mix of cultures. That means a greater diversity of food in the restaurants and gone are the days when they just served fish and chips. If you’re seeking winter sun, in this time of restricted travel, then the Rock certainly fits the bill.
At the time of writing this, Gibraltar is quarantine-free if returning to the UK. However, please make sure you check before travelling.
Tell Me More About Gibraltar
Visit Gibraltar has tourist information.
British Airways flies direct to Gibraltar from London Heathrow.
The 5* Sunborn Yacht Hotel is moored close to the centre and also has an excellent restaurant.
The Kasbar serves imaginative vegan food.
Rendezvous Chargrill is right on the sea and has good meat and fish.
Bistro Point near the lighthouse at Europa Point has creative cuisine.