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The Rock

Gibraltar, UK

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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 North Africa.

Gibraltar: The RockThe 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.

Gibraltar: Barbary ApesYou 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!

Gibraltar: HarbourOnce 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 a world.

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