Gibraltar: An English Rock Between Two Worlds

Europa Point...the Rock of Gibraltar. photos by Habeeb Salloum
Europa Point…the Rock of Gibraltar. photos by Habeeb Salloum

By Habeeb Salloum

If one ever dreams of living on a small island yet still enjoying all the facilities of the 21st century, Gibraltar or as it is sometimes known, the Rock of Gibraltar, is the place.

An English island dividing the Spanish and African worlds, the Rock, to many enshrouded with a romantic aura, is a unique place to spend a few days.

A Tiny British Colony

It makes an exciting diversion from a Spanish or Moroccan tour to visit this tiny British colony. The whole country is actually one huge 200 million years old 125 m (400 ft) high limestone rock that is the meeting place of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.

A mosque in Gibraltar.
A mosque in Gibraltar.

Connected to the southernmost tip of Spain by a sandy isthmus, it lies 23 km (14 mi) from Morocco. To the ancients, it was known as one of the Pillars of Hercules and the western end of humankind.

Beyond lay the vast uncharted terrors of the Atlantic. Legend credits Hercules with opening up the straits between the two pillars which bear his name – Gibraltar in the north and Jebel Musa on the Moroccan side – to join the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

The Rock’s present name is derived from Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Arab conqueror who occupied the Rock in 711 A.D. The Muslims called it Jabal Tariq (Mountain of Tariq) which through the years was corrupted to Gibraltar.

Base for Conquest

St Michael's Cave, Gibraltar.
St Michael’s Cave, Gibraltar.

The Arabs, who made it a base for their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, remained masters of the Rock for a near 800 years, becoming a part of the world of Islam.

The Spaniards, in 1462, occupied it for over two centuries, but in 1704, it was taken over by the British and it has remained a British bastion ever since.

Recovering the Rock

In the intervening years, Spain made several attempts to recover the Rock, but to no avail. The British dug a series of tunnels under the Rock, today known as the Great Siege Tunnels, and installed guns in an elaborate defense system that for years protected the Rock.

Today, the Spaniards are using peaceful means to achieve their aims. However, the Gibraltarians want no part of Spain. Even though they are a mixture of many races, religions, and cultures, they believe themselves to be British.

A microscopic colony of the United Kingdom with a population of 30,000, Gibraltar is only 6 km (3.7 mi) long and.6 km (1/2 mi) wide. On this majestic craggy rock, which rises to a height of 500 m (1,400 ft), there are over 77 km (48 mi) of roads and an airport jutting out into the sea, a few yards from the Spanish border. It was built from the stone excavated when miles of military tunnels, during World War II, were burrowed in the Rock.

Nature in Abundance

Homes in Gibraltar.
Homes in Gibraltar.

A naturalist’s paradise, this speck of a nation abounds in sub-tropical foliage. The western face is covered with vegetation, sloping down to terraced gardens that lead to the main town.

At the south end, there is a bleak point called Europa with a lighthouse and much of the eastern face was once paved to create water catchment areas.

However, today this has fallen into disuse. The water supply for the rock is distilled from seawater.

The Town of Gibraltar

The town of Gibraltar, located at the foot of the western slope, hugs a large historic harbor with a bustling marina. Its spine is a long main street with connecting lanes.

On both sides, there is a myriad of restaurants, cafes, and shops, which supposedly sell duty-free goods. Reasonably priced buys can only be made in perfume, jewelry and watches, but only liquor and tobacco are cheap.

For visitors with a little time to spare, the best way to explore Gibraltar is to take a circuit tour by taxi. The tour takes less than three hours and costs whatever price you can bargain – about $30. to $50 U.S. It includes a complete drive around the Rock with stops at important sights and a climb to near the top.

Alameda Gardens cable car on Gibraltar. Visit Gibraltar photo.
Alameda Gardens cable car on Gibraltar. Visit Gibraltar photo.

Impressive Fortifications

There is much to see. Having been for centuries a fortress, the rock has impressive fortifications with old canons still pointing seaward, as if an enemy fleet is momentarily expected.

Alternatively, at a cost of $16.US round trip, one can take a cable car from the exotic Alameda Gardens to the summit of the Rock. On all sides atop the Rock, there is an excellent panoramic vista.

To the west, edging an azure sea, the Spanish coast with the towns of Algeciras and Tarifa are in full view; to the north, one can see clearly Andalusia’s Costa del Sol and Sierra Nevada Mountains; and to the South, across the Strait of Gibraltar, the North African Riff and Atlas Mountains loom in the distance. It is a breath-taking scene that a visitor rarely forgets.

The Apes’ Den

Halfway down, there is a stop at the Apes’ Den where one can see and photograph the famous Barbary Apes – today, numbering some 200. Some historians believe that the Arabs first introduced these tailless macaques’ ancestors into Gibraltar. The Rock is the only place in Europe where Apes live in their natural state but contact with humans has made them quite tame.

However, one should not approach too closely. They can become dangerous if provoked by visitors. The British garrison has an ‘Officer in Charge of Apes’ who looks after the feeding and their general well-being. Apparently, the legend ‘when the apes disappear from the Rock, the British will leave’ is still doing well

Moorish Castle in Gibraltar.
Moorish Castle in Gibraltar.

At the end of the cable car ride, one should roam the town for a few hours to savor this bit of Britain, seemingly out of place in a foreign world.

With the people, one can converse in English or Spanish, in which almost all the inhabitants are fluent. Nevertheless, even though the people are a mixture of Spanish, United Kingdom, and North African stock, they all claim British ancestry.

A good example of this was our taxi driver. On an on-going basis he told us how proud he was of being English. When parting I asked him his name. To my astonishment, he quoted a Spanish surname, then smiled and walked away. To me, the name told all. People are what they think they are.

Gibraltar Facts

How to Travel to Gibraltar: Besides the road connection to Spain there are on daily basis good ferry connections with Tangiers. Also, the airport can accommodate small planes – many visitors use it to come directly from Britain.

If coming from Spain, parking spaces in Gibraltar are hard to find – car parks fill early on in the day. The best way of entering Gibraltar is to park in La Linea on the Spanish side of the border then take the 20-minute walk into the heart of town.

To enter Gibraltar, passports are required by all except EU nationals. From other countries, visitors may require a visa.

The currency on the Rock is the Gibraltar pound (GIP)- equivalent to the British pound. Both are legal and common tender. Also Euros are widely accepted. All major credit cards are accepted in shops.

Even though there is no bad time to visit Gibraltar, from October to December is the best time. In this period the summer heat is gone and the winter cold has not begun.

Important Sites in Gibraltar

Moorish Castle: Built by the Moors, it is one of Gibraltar’s most important historic sites. Its Tower of Homage, floodlit in summer, draws the eyes of both passengers passing through the Straits and visitors to the Rock alike. It has been garrisoned successively by Moorish, Spanish and British troops.

Gibraltar Museum: Built over a 14th-century Moorish bath – the best-preserved Moorish bathhouse in Europe – the museum contains a 30-foot scale model of the Rock and tells its story from prehistoric times until today – highlighting the Great Siege of 1789 – 1783 and the Battle of Trafalgar.

St. Michael’s Cave: A natural cave 300 M (984 ft) above sea level, it is one of Europe’s most striking grottoes with a superb display of stalagmites and stalactites. Its spectacular main chamber is used as an auditorium for concerts, plays, and other cultural events. With written permission, skilled cave adventurers may explore the lower corridors that lead to a subterranean lake.

The Upper Galleries: Situated on the north side of the colony, they were blasted and hewn out of solid rock in 1782 to make gun emplacements during the Great Siege of Gibraltar. They command a breath-taking view of the airport and harbor.

Gibraltar: For more information:

Gibraltar Tourist Board, Duke Of Kent House, Cathedral Square, Gibraltar. Tel: +350 74950.

Gibraltar Government London Office: Arundel, Great Court, 178-179 Strand, London WC2R 1El. Tel: +44 (0) 20 7836 0777. E-Mail: Website

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