Gibraltar – sometimes simply known as ‘the Rock’ – is a regular
port of call on many western Mediterranean cruise routes. It’s a strange place.
A relic of the British Empire, it’s like a tiny, tiny part of the UK stuck on a
sweltering peninsula on the southern coast of Spain. When you first sail into
the port you’ll appreciate why the Brits have been so reluctant to let go of
it: the African coast is so close that whoever controls the Rock effectively
controls who sails in and out of the Mediterranean. The Spanish government has
been trying to get the territory back for years, but has been hindered by
British stubbornness, the reluctance of Gibraltar’s inhabitants to revert to
Spanish rule, and the fact that Spain herself still has colonial enclaves in
Rock gets its nickname from the thousand-foot high Rock of Gibraltar, which
towers above the peninsula settlement and dominates the whole area. If you want
to enjoy some of the best views in the Mediterranean you don’t have to walk to
the top: there’s a cable car which will take you there. On the summit you can
look along the Spanish coastline, or across to the twin rock of Jebel Musa on
the African coast a few miles away. Jebel Musa and Gibraltar (the name is a
corruption of Jeb el-Tariq – Tariq being the name of the Muslim general who
landed an army here in the seventh century to conquer Spain) are often called
the Pillars of Hercules, and the line between them is the official boundary
between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.
There’s more to do at the summit than simply admire the view.
There’s a small café and museum, as well as an a fully-stocked English pub.
will never be quite alone on the Rock itself, no matter how early in the
morning you manage to get up there. The great limestone pinnacle is the home to
Europe’s only indigenous monkey population. The Barbary Apes that make the
caves and hollows of the Rock their home are not apes at all, but macaques.
They are one of only two species of primate native to Europe – the other one is
us. They don’t seem too bothered that their co-simians dominate the continent
while they are confined to one tiny corner of it. A local legend maintains that
British rule in Gibraltar will last as long as there are Barbary Apes on the
territory. The Gibraltar Government, therefore, bends over backwards to make
sure the macaques are happy, healthy and well-fed – even going to the lengths
of restocking the population every so often from other colonies of Barbary Apes
on the mainland of Africa.
A word of warning about the Gibraltar Apes. They make look cute
and friendly, but, like the human occupants of Gibraltar that live hundreds of
feet below them, they are a little defensive of their territory. Although some
of them may approach you and come quite close, it’s never a good idea to touch
them - every year tourists get bitten by the macaques, usually because they’ve
touched or provoked them in some way. A bite is painful, though rarely serious
– if you do get chewed on by and angry monkey, don’t expect too much sympathy
at the hospital!
you’ve explored the exterior of the Rock you may well enjoy a trip into its
interior. The huge mass of limestone is riddled with more than thirty miles of
tunnels. These were originally dug by British forces in the late eighteenth
century, when the Rock was besieged by the French and Spanish. The original
idea of the tunnels was to allow heavy guns to be hauled up to embrasures cut
high on the Rock, to allow the a wide field of fire over enemy positions. These
days the tunnels are open to tourists. Not only are they very interesting in
themselves – they are very cool, and provide a welcome break from the heat of
the midday sun outside.
If you’re having lunch or dinner in Gibraltar you have a pretty
wide variety of cuisines to choose from. The population isn’t exclusively
ex-pat British – there is a significant north African and Indian presence. So
as well as traditional English fried breakfasts, fish and chips and roast
lunches you can enjoy a great curry or kebab.
All in all, Gibraltar has more of the feel of an international
community than a British enclave. It’s position at the mouth of the
Mediterranean makes it a symbol, in some ways, for the richness and diversity
of this whole part of the world. As you cruise onwards into the ‘Med’ you will
maybe think back to Gibraltar, and reflect on just how much it is a gateway to