Among the least significant provisions at the time but the most lasting effect of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 was to establish British rule over the rock formation on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula called Gibraltar. Spain is still smarting about it all these centuries later. Aside from providing Prudential Insurance with a memorable subject for its logo, Gibraltar is and always has been a strategic naval port commanding the narrow strait between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also an incredibly fun tourist destination.
Though most of the locals refer to themselves as “Spanglish”, Gibraltar is more English than England. Most of the shops, pubs, churches and public spaces seemed to have been transported through time from Victorian London.
What seem out of place are the well-tanned faces of the people. Gibraltar has one of the most agreeable year-round climates in Europe so it’s easy to avoid the dreaded summer crowds.
There are several first rate hotels on the Rock, but we stayed in Marbella and drove over on the very modern coast freeway. Using Gibraltar as your home base for exploring the Costa del Sol has the disadvantage of requiring passage through Spanish customs for each trip. It has become a much-unloved Spanish custom at customs to protest British rule of the Rock by stalling lines of cars that stretch back to a different time zone. The best solution is to park your rental on the Spanish side and walk across the active airport runway that bisects the border.
That’s right, a runway with ‘Walk, Don’t Walk” signs. Cabs on the other side are an attraction in and of themselves with drivers who are often very colorful characters. They have wonderful stories and they make sure you don’t miss a thing.
Start at Casemates, the principle public square at the base of the Rock.
Next you should have your driver take you all the way to the top of the Rock. It’s a scenic drive through history down Queensway with the harbor on your right until you make a hairpin turn at a favorite taxi cut through and head up the hill. At one time, the top of the Rock was an important military observation point, bristling with men and materials. It’s still lightly guarded by a few soldiers and heavily guarded by a large troop of Barbary apes. These North African macaques are actually monkeys, not apes, which the British soldiers brought to the Rock in the mid-eighteen hundreds to use as target practice.
No wonder they can be a surly lot and are known to hurl insults in the form of monkey dung at tourists they don’t like. They have always been perfectly charming in an animal panhandling kind of way with us.
From the top of the Rock, the views across the bay to Algeciras, Spain, down toward La Linea and to the east back across the Costa del Sol are spectacular. On a clear day, you can see the Atlas Mountains of Moroccan Africa across the Strait. Boats of all sizes at all times are everywhere down in the harbor and the air is filled with the perfume of flowering subtropicals. Have your driver meet you at the base of the hill; the walk down the Rock is a delightful stroll in a beautiful park.
Back at the hairpin turn down near sea level, the first must-see is the Trafalgar Cemetery. It reads like the history of the British Navy etched in stone. Many of the buried lost their lives in the decisive Battle of Trafalgar October 21,1805 during the Napoleonic War.
Lord Nelson’s remains were returned to England; many of his men stayed behind. Each stone tells a bit about who they were and how they died.
By now, it’s time to think about lunch. Heading north up Rosia then on to Queensway, there are classic British pubs on nearly every corner. There are also lots of outdoor cafes serving pizza, paella and sandwiches but try a steak and Stilton pie, fish and chips or a shepherd’s pie. This is the one time English food should not be last on your list.
After lunch, walk off the heavy English fare by visiting the old Anglican Church, Governor’s House or any of the other historic places your driver recommends.
There’s also Alameda Botanical Gardens that shows off subtropical flora imported in the early 1800’s from all points of the British Empire. Everything’s free.
Gibraltar is known for its leather shops, both in a good way and a bad. Before you buy that beautifully crafted Moroccan vest or purse, be sure to check the Internet for the store’s references. Otherwise, you could be taking home a souvenir that will soon smell like two week old road kill.
Finally, before setting off back along the coast, have tea and finger sandwiches at the historic Rock Hotel on the Wisteria Terrace, weather permitting. Gibraltar is British culture at its best for less than half of London’s prices. You can fly in directly on British Air or, better yet, include it as a day trip on your Costa del Sol holiday.