June 27, 2021: Gibraltar
The southern edge of Spain is home to numerous geopolitical oddities. One of those is Gibraltar, a 6.8 square kilometer (2.6 square mile) self-governing territory of the United Kingdom. It occupies a peninsula next to the Spanish city of La Linea de Conception in the extreme south of Spain.
The prominent geographic feature of Gibraltar is an enormous rock 426 meters (1400 feet) high which occupies most of the peninsula. For this reason, Gibraltar is commonly known as The Rock. Gibraltar also lies at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. These two factors made Gibraltar a key geostrategic location. Whoever could control Gibraltar could control the Straits of Gibraltar and the global flow of goods.
Gibraltar has a very long history. It was long occupied by Neanderthals, the human species that coexisted with homo sapiens until 50,000 years ago. Since then, homo sapiens have dwelled in Gibraltar´s many caves.
The name Gibraltar comes from the Arabic meaning Mount of Tariq (Tarik was a famous Moorish commander in the 700´s).
After the Reconquista in the late 1400´s, Gibraltar became part of Spain. However, the UK managed to acquire The Rock during the War of Spanish Succession in the early 1700´s. England joined the war so they could fight the French. In Treaty of Utrecht, Spain was forced to surrender Gibraltar in order to get England out of the war.
Spain was not very happy about this and soon after attacked Gibraltar. The greatest attack on Gibraltar (known as the Great Siege) occurred from 1779-1783. Spain figured that the UK would be distracted by the American War of Independence. It turns out that they were not, and Gibraltar managed to hold on.
Gibraltar also managed to withstand Napoleon´s troops and, during World War II, a furious aerial assault by Vichy France. It would be fair to say that Gibraltar is one of the greatest military fortresses in the history of the world.
During the Franco era, Gibraltar was completely cut off from Spain because Franco wanted to strangle them into submission (basically the US´s strategy with Cuba), but the citizens of Gibraltar did not give in and, in a referendum, voted overwhelmingly to stay part of the UK. The border reopened in the 1980´s.
Today, Gibraltar is a proud part of the UK. Despite its wayward location, the city-state is an economic powerhouse, especially in the realm of internet gambling (who knew?!?!). Spain still makes a nominal claim to Gibraltar (which is ironic given their own exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla).
As part of Brexit, Gibraltar will soon become part of the Schengen Area. This agreement was put into place because 15,000 Spaniards (50% of Gibraltar´s workforce) commute daily to work into Gibraltar. Soon there will be no border between the territories, which is a big win for both Gibraltar and Spain.
In addition to English, Gibraltarians speak a language called Llanito, which is a hybrid between Spanish and English.
Our Trip to Gibraltar:
The day before, I visited Ceuta, a similarly odd piece of Spain in Africa. While my companions Cezar, Andrew, and Milly did not join me in Ceuta, they were keen on visiting Gibraltar.
After parking at a lot in La Linea, we walked across the border. We got exit stamps in Spain before walking into the British building. A man with the British accent asked us where we were coming from and eventually let us in without stamping our passport.
Suddenly, all the signs were in English, and we passed a red telephone booth. What a shift!!
Before we could reach the town, we first had to walk across the airport runway! The airport was constructed in what was the no-man´s land during the Franco-era standoff. This is the only place in the world where you can walk or drive across an active taxiway. The road closes each time a flight arrives or departs.
Now safely across the runway, after a series of annoying street crossings, we reached the town. It looked like any typical pretty British town…except the weather was much better. Unfortunately, since this was Sunday, most of the shops were closed.
We ate a traditional English breakfast in a square that used to be a defensive fort. Cezar, who used to live in the London, was able to use his UK credit card here. The hostess mentioned that since Brexit, some Spanish credit cards no longer work, which has caused a big hassle for those customers.
Then we explored the high street, which included the government buildings and a small chapel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married. Fun fact on the subject of weddings in Gibraltar: in the summer of 2020 when most of the world was closed, Gibraltar was open to tourists of all nationalities who wanted to get married. For this brief moment in time, Gibraltar was the wedding capital of Europe.
After seeing the town, it was now time to explore the Rock. The rock is very tall, so the easiest way to see the Upper Rock is via the tramway. The tramway is run by a family-run Gibraltar conglomerate which weirdly enough has an MBA internship program.
The one-way ride and ticket to the nature reserve cost nearly 30 Gibraltar pounds (which can be exchanged 1:1 for British pounds). At the top, we were greeted by Gibraltar´s most famous residents: the monkeys.
300 barbary macaques that live on Gibraltar are native to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. They were brought over during the Muslim rule. The macaques are Europe´s only wild monkeys. For centuries, the inhabitants of Gibraltar have sought to remove the monkeys from The Rock, but to no avail. A popular slogan nowadays is that Gibraltar will be part of the UK so long as the monkeys are around.
The monkeys are not nice and regularly steal object from tourists. For this reason, the staff strongly recommends you wear backpacks in the front. One 40-year-old lady did not heed this advice and was reduced to tears after a monkey opened her bag and took everything.
From the top of The Rock, there are spectacular views all the way to Africa! The best views are from the top tram station as well as the Skywalk which opened in 2018 during a ceremony with Mark Hamil (Luke Skywalker).
Near the top, there is a place where taxi drivers (illegally) feed the monkeys and get them to jump on tourists´ shoulders. In a cute gesture, they constructed a memorial to the oldest macaque.
Our next stop was Saint Michael´s Cave, the largest of 200 caves on The Rock. St. Michael´s Cave contains a spectacular display of stalactites and stalagmites. The government installed a sound and light show in the cave that tells its history.
Gibraltar also has hundreds of miles of manmade tunnels in the rock which were used for its defense. Some of the World War II-era tunnels can be visited, but most are still off limits to the public. The British military, which still has a large presence on The Rock, uses the tunnels for training.
On the way down back to town, we visited a few batteries where anti-aircraft flak used to be placed. Eventually, we made it back to town.
For lunch, we visited a traditional pub where we ate Sunday Roast and watched Formula 1.
Having walked enough and having visited most of the sights on the peninsula (save the way south), we were ready to head back. On the way back to Spain, we stopped by the casino to exchange money because all the other currency exchanges were closed on Sunday. When exchanging money, we talked to a Spanish lady who commutes daily to the Rock. She said that the wages in Gibraltar are much higher than in Spain. Additionally, the UK/Gibraltar work culture allows for more upward mobility than in Spain, so long as she works hard. She said that having Gibraltar here has been a godsend to her family and to the region.
With the Gibraltar pounds in hand, we walked back across the airport runway to Spain. Gibraltar did not have an exit post and the Spanish border patrol agents were the chilliest people ever. They saw my candy and asked where I got it. I first thought it was a serious immigration question, but it turns out the guy just wanted candy. I offered him a piece. We then walked to the car and drove onward to Cadiz, our final stop.
Gibraltar is weird. It is very British complete with red telephone booths and references to Admiral Nelson… but plopped deep in Spain. It appears that the people in Gibraltar up their Britishness because they are next to Spain.
The town is fun and very different from anything in the region. The foods are British, everything is written in English.
The rock itself is spectacular. The monkeys, caves, and views are well worth the money. You could easily spend a half-day just on the Upper Rock.
In short, Gibraltar is an amazing day trip for travelers in Spain. To experience a slice of the UK in such a random area is special. There is not enough to do to warrant anything more than one day in the territory.