I had heard mixed reviews about Gibraltar, but something inside of me desired to see ‘The Rock’. I decided to base myself in Seville for 4 days in order to explore the Moorish architecture and history of the south whilst being able to take in The Alhambra, the Seville Alcazar and of course Gibraltar.
Being an Australian, I am used to driving on the opposite side of the road and would surely cause an accident if I were to drive in Europe. This being said I decided that I would navigate Seville on foot and take day tours to The Alhambra and Gibraltar. Whilst this was the most practical option for me, it resulted in me nearly missing the chance to see Gibraltar. At 9:30 the night before my tour was due to depart, my tour guide called to cancel. I expressed my annoyance at the extremely late notice and luckily, for quite a few Euros more, the guide managed to find a driver to take me on a personal tour.
Slightly poorer, but happy, I was picked up in a new BMW by a driver who spoke as much English as I speak Spanish. We communicated through hand signals and the odd word translated on Google. Located around 2.5 hours south west of Seville, it is a comfortable and scenically pretty drive on the highway.
The Rock looms so high that it is visible well before you near the border. With traffic rather hectic, and time at a premium, we parked on the Spanish side of the border and crossed by foot. Lesson 101 for Gibraltar is to make sure you bring your passport, or identity card if you are European. Its unlikely anyone will check it leaving the Spanish side, but you will be checked on entering Gibraltar. Alas, I did not get a stamp in my passport, which was slightly disappointing! Passport control are quite efficient, so it shouldn’t take too long.
On arrival across the border you are swamped by people offering you tours. Cleverly taxis are utilised as tour buses during the day and then take fares of an evening. Tours are offered in a multitude of languages, and before long I had an English speaking guide and was off.
Now, one of the coolest things about Gibraltar, and one I was hoping to experience, was to stop for a plane. Gibraltar has no ordinary runway. Because it is so small, its runway runs across the only road into town. Manned by two guards, marked by barriers similar to those at a train crossing and with tyre spikes laid, planes taxi and take off whilst the traffic waits. I was lucky enough to sit in the front of the van and witness this first hand. A travel goal well and truly ticked off!
The Rock of Gibraltar
The Rock consists of residential housing at the base and then becomes the Upper Rock National Park. You can either walk, catch the teleferique (cable car) or drive to the peak. Our first stop was the park entry where we got our park tickets and got our first glimpse of Africa. A short and very windy drive later we reached St Michael’s Cave where we had around 30 minutes to explore.
St Michael’s Cave is a network of limestone caves up to 300 metres in height at points. Although they are a natural phenomenon, the caves have been somewhat ‘pimped’ and feature colourful LED lighting and thematic music to add to the ‘vibe’. I am quite ok with the natural vibe of a cave (ok, somewhat lit is good!) and this was more like being inside of a cave night club or rave, but without the people. Despite the sound and lighting, the cave system was absolutely beautiful and enjoyable to explore.
Standing 426 metres high, the view from the top is spectacular. Luckily it was a clear day and the coastline of Morocco was clearly visible. It felt so close you could almost reach out and touch it. You do have to have your wits about you whilst exploring the top of the rock. The road is extremely narrow and very heavily populated with Barbary Macaques. Far from shy, these cheeky apes will catch a ride on top of taxis, get into taxis (if given the opportunity to), steal food and water from you and in the case of one woman, may run across you like a fence if you stand too close to the actual fence!
It is kind of obligatory at this point to take a selfie with one of the macaques (if you dare), to get a shot at the ‘peak’ of the rock and to also get a view of the horizon with Africa in the distance. I was lucky to take all three, although the ape in my selfie looked less than impressed!
The WW2 tunnels
Unlike St Michaels Cave, which is naturally occurring, The Rock also features miles of tunnels that were built to create a strong hold during the war. These World War 2 tunnels require a level of fitness as they are on a fair decline, so walking back up definitely is not as easy as going down. They feature interactive displays and information on their creation and also how they were used during the war. The tunnels cover around 52 kilometres in distance, so they are quite significant in size, however only a portion of them is open to the public.
I was lucky enough to have a talkative tour guide who was happy to answer my questions about the people of Gibraltar. Known as Gibraltarians, their ancestry lies with the Italian, British, Spanish and Maltese. As they are a British colony, all of their schooling and business is conducted in English, however due to their size, and proximity to Spain, everyone also speaks Spanish. This has lead to a mixed Spanish / English dialect being created where Spanish words are Anglicised and vice versa. When asking my guide about what kinds of foods he eats, he heartily replied that he gets to enjoy Italian and other mediterranean foods during the week, whilst getting a lovely traditional roast dinner on a Sunday. Their most popular dish is a sweet called Calentita. Each year the Calentita food festival is held in June where locals join together in a large street festival to eat, drink and be merry.
We had skipped the main town and headed directly to The Rock, so I hadn’t had a chance to get a glimpse before being dropped off at the end of the tour. The town itself is quite small and is really only one main cobbled street. It was just like being back in the UK with all of the prices in pounds and familiar stores such as Next and Boots lining the street. From what I hear the Morrisons (supermarket) in Gibraltar is one of their best trading stores, as Spaniards regularly cross the border to collect English foods and then head back to Spain. For many visitors it is the opposite however, as Gibraltar’s tax free status means that liquor and other luxury items can be bought for much cheaper than Spain. I skipped the shopping and ended up having lunch in a British pub – feeling a little sad that I wasn’t eating lovely Spanish food but a baguette instead.
After a bit of a wander around, it was time to again meet with my driver for the trip back to Seville. Now I was quite excited about driving over the runway, but walking back to the border meant that I also got to walk across it. Technically you’re meant to walk at a good pace and not stop, but a lot of people stop briefly to take photos (myself included). I mean where else do you get to do this at an airport of this scale?
Ok, other than The Rock there is not a lot to do in Gibraltar, but there is definitely enough to do for a day trip. The scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly and The Rock is just darn iconic. If you’re lucky you’ll get to stop and see a plane take off, but even if you miss this (it happens 6-7 times per day) between caves, monkeys and cheap shopping there is plenty to keep you amused. In my opinion it is a visit once and you’re happy you’ve been, but probably wouldn’t return kind of destination, but I definitely recommend that you visit at least once!
If you’ve been I’d love to hear you thoughts on Gibraltar.