‘You’ve probably never heard of this town, but after three visits I’m in love’

Oct 25, 2020
There's plenty to do and see in Gibraltar, as Liz explains. Source: Getty

Gibraltar, situated on Spain’s southern coastline, is not really a ‘go to’ destination, more of a ‘go through’ one. But despite that, there is plenty to see and do so that one day is hardly enough. We’ve been there three times now and still haven’t seen it all. Our first time was in 2010 when we spent three weeks driving around Spain and another nine days touring in Morocco. On that day, as we drove down the Costa del Sol we could see a great triangular rock in the distance – a spectacular sight. We left our car in a large car park in La Linea (the border town) and walked across the road to the customs entry. Then after checking there were no planes about to land or take off – since the runway crosses the roadway – we walked straight into the town.

On our second visit to Gibraltar in 2015 our cruise ship called in there on its way from Southampton to Barcelona. The Rotterdam docked at the Cruise Terminal on north mole, which left us with a long walk into town. Our third visit last year was also on a cruise – one of many ports of call between Singapore and London! This time we chose to take a tour across the border to Spain to visit the castle and small town of Castellar de la Frontera. We had enough time on our return to do some duty-free shopping in Gibraltar’s main street before the long walk back to the ship.

Main street
Tourists grab a bite and do a spot of shopping on Main Street. Source: Liz Sier

Gibraltar is not a country but is a British Overseas Territory located on the southern end of the Iberian peninsular. Though often incorrectly referred to as an island, its land area of 6.7 square kilometres is linked via a flat isthmus with Spain to the north. ‘Gibraltar’ came from Arabic Jabal Tariq meaning the ‘Mountain of Tariq’, named after the General who led the first Moorish incursion into Iberia in 711, at this spot, thus starting Muslim rule which lasted till 15th century. The Moorish Castle complex looms above the town’s main square, made up of various buildings, gates, fortified walls and tower – an impressive sight, clearly visible to all visitors.

Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain by Spain in 1713 and was formally declared a British colony in 1830. Many Spaniards have found work here, however, tensions still exist between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar’s maritime rights. A recent referendum of the people of Gibraltar established quite strongly that they have no desire to throw off their ties to Britain.

There are many tour operators and tours available on the Rock. The easiest and cheapest way to sight-see we found was to take a local bus from Winston Churchill Avenue just past the airstrip and do a run out to Europa Point and back. This is one of the southernmost points of Europe, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean and the Trinity Lighthouse has been operating since 1841. According to legend, Hercules passed through here to fight the giant Geryon – his tenth labour – and opened up the Strait, creating the pillars which received his name, beyond which ancient mariners feared to venture.

The Top of the Rock
The Top of the Rock. Source: Liz Sier

Getting off the bus at the cable car station alongside the Alameda Botanic Gardens and Wildlife Park at the northern end of Europa Road we were lifted high up to the Top of the Rock to the terraces and lookouts. On a clear day you can see not only Spain, but across to Africa. This helps explain the importance of Gibraltar’s strategic geographical location and the role it has played throughout history. Gibraltar has a colourful military heritage, from the time of the expulsion of the Moors, to the unsuccessful Great Siege by Spain from 1779-83, its role in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and World War II. The Rock is riddled with caves and tunnels, many of them dug out during the siege and further extended during WWII. These can be seen on several tours but we did not have time for them. Defensive installations include the 100 Ton Gun, several 18th and 19th century cannon, gun embrasures and batteries. The most popular cave is St Michael’s Cave, a virtual underground cathedral. There are thought to be over 140 caves – some inhabited from Neanderthal times – created by the effect of erosion on the limestone monolith. A visit to the Trafalgar Cemetery is also popular with Britons.

On our second visit, as we walked from the docks to the main square, we noticed a touching monument commemorating the forced World War II evacuation of about 16700 civilians – the elderly, the infirm, women and children who were forced to leave their homes on the Rock for temporary accommodation in Jamaica, Madeira, Northern Ireland and London. Only in 1951 was the last batch of evacuees returned to their homeland.

At the top of the Rock we were delighted to see Gibraltar’s most popular attractions – the macaques or Barbary Apes. These tail-less monkeys are quite cute most of the time, but since they are wild creatures it is forbidden to feed them as they can become quite aggressive. It is good sense to remove caps and sunglasses when near them as they are known to steal them right off your head. We witnessed one macaque come inside the cafe and steal a muffin from a small child and scamper off with it. It was quite alarming. We were warned not to take food outside the cafe.

Casemates Square is the social hub of the city. Named after the barracks at the northern end of the square this place has served many purposes, including the site of public executions. Nowadays it boasts a plethora of cafes, bars and restaurants and hosts craft markets and live open-air concerts. We stopped at the outside tables for iced coffees and to use the free wifi to catch up with emails and such. The currency here is British Sterling and everyone speaks English. Yet it is nothing like an English town, except for the shopping. Main Street, the centre of Gibraltar’s commercial district, leads off to the south, providing plenty of opportunities to buy tax free goods in stores that remind the British tourist of home, such as Marks & Spencers. Another reminder lies in the name of this area – Irish Town.

Casemates Square
There’s plenty to see in Casemates Square. Source: Getty

We took the self-guided walking tour through this old part of town to discover various notable building styles from the various nationalities that have inhabited the area over the centuries – English, Dutch, Spanish, Maltese, Genoese, Portuguese, Jews and of course the Moors. The Gothic Catholic Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned was built on the site of a demolished mosque in the 15th century, soon after the Moors were expelled. Only the courtyard remains from the original complex. Strangely, the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity looks more like a Moorish palace from the outside due to its Moorish Revival style, although it was constructed much later in the early 19th century.

Originally a Franciscan friary founded in the 16th century, the Convent has been the official residence of the Governor of Gibraltar since 1728. It has lost much of its original features due to renovations in the 19th century. The adjacent King’s Chapel was part of the Franciscan convent and later became the garrison church. It was the first purpose built church to be constructed in Gibraltar. Opposite is the Convent Guard House with two large cannon out front. Another attractive building is the former Central Police Headquarters in Irish Town. This Victorian Gothic building was constructed in 1864.

So after three visits we still haven’t seen everything. It might not be a very big territory, but there is no lack of interesting things to see and do!

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