Much as I’m enjoying Spain and Portugal, I’m drawn to the Rock of Gibraltar in search of a little bit of Britain.
Trixie is staying in Spain while I cross the border on foot. Cars are queuing for miles but foot traffic flows freely with immigration officers not even glancing at my passport. There are buses from the border into town but, like most locals, I decide to walk, which means crossing the active runway of the airport. As I step through the gates a loud alarm sounds and I wonder if it is a metal detector, but the policeman doesn’t stop me, just closes the gate behind me. Vehicles are still passing so I continue on until I reach the centreline of the runway, when the cars are also stopped. I have to speed up now because I can see the Monarch Airlines plane on final approach, but I’m safely behind the barrier before it touches down.
I enter the town through the Landport Tunnel, once the only entry point to Gibraltar, and emerge into Grand Casemates Square which is surrounded by very British pubs offering roast dinners and fish & chips. There’s a WH Smiths selling English newspapers and a little further down Main Street is a Marks & Spencer’s selling Christmas pudding and mince pies.
I ignore the shops, taking a side street and then steps up to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, home to migratory birds and about 200 Barbary macaques. A large male ape is waiting for me at the entrance to the Moorish Castle. Built in 1333, it’s now just an empty shell but there are some lovely views from the roof across the town and back to Spain.
A short walk uphill brings me to the entrance of the World War II tunnels where I pay for a guided tour. An enthusiastic young lady explains that there are 52kms of tunnels within the rock. Quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s still standing. Luckily the tour only covers about 500m of them. We are given hardhats and led into wide, well-lit tunnels which were excavated by British and Canadian soldiers. Black and white photographs hang on the walls showing a life underground which seems a lot more fun than it probably was. Our guide charms us with lots of anecdotes she has read and heard from former tunnelers and articles on Gibraltar during WWII. Over 13,000 civilians were evacuated from Gibraltar during the war, many to London which was frequently bombed. Ironically, they would probably have been better off if they had stayed on Gibraltar, which was never actually invaded and suffered little in the way of attacks due to Spain’s reluctance to enter the war.
Above the WWII tunnels are the Great Siege tunnels, hewn by hand in 1780 to provide gun emplacements for cannons, many of which are still housed there. The museum is self-guided but provides lots of information about the tunnels, the cannons and the prominent people involved at the time. It also provides stunning views across the runway to La Linea de la Concepcion and out to the Mediterranean Sea.
Walking along the length of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, I have to pass under the cable car (a much easier way to access the reserve) and pass the Ape’s Den, home to many of the Barbary Macaques. I’m not a big fan of apes and monkeys so I give them a wide berth. Attacks on tourists are not uncommon and, apparently they have progressed from pinching picnic lunches to appropriating i-phones and digital cameras. Recently a large hoard was discovered in one of the smaller caves in the rock face.
At the south end of the Rock is St Michael’s Cave, a huge natural cavern of stalactites and stalagmites which has been spoilt by the addition of flashing, coloured lights and rock music. I manage to find a more peaceful side cavern, accessed by steep steps and avoided by the larger tourist groups. Here I can actually imagine the millions of years it has taken to form these natural sculptures. A unique feature in this cave is a cross-section of a fallen stalactite which resembles a sawn tree trunk, complete with rings depicting different eras of growth.
A steep, rugged footpath takes me down to the bronze monument named ‘The Pillars of Hercules’. However, the true Pillars of Hercules are the Rock and Jebel Musa, the 851m Moroccan mountain across the Straits.