The only thing I knew about the Rock of Gibraltar was from The Prudential Insurance Company of America, which is from my home state of New Jersey. Their logo included the Rock with the slogans “Own a Piece of the Rock” and “Strength of Gibraltar”. Friends Sandy Molyneaux and Larry Ellis, knowing our aspirations to visit the 10 Smallest Countries of Europe, suggested we plan a visit to Gibraltar.
This had me researching why it was not on the list. What I found was that it is not a country unto itself, but a territory of Great Britain. Without further investigation, I left it at that. When we were in Cadiz, Spain Ron had thought we should visit Gibraltar, but that was nixed too with other more attractive destinations offered.
Gibraltar was still undiscovered and uninteresting by us. Along came Kim who decided we should go, but we came to the agreement late due to it being Easter week. Things start to shut down on Holy Thursday, are closed on Good Friday, barely resurface on Saturday and Easter Sunday, none of the businesses are resurrected.
Our go-to British all-purpose store was closed, but there was a British travel agency in the same area that we caught at the last minutes of the business day. No operating tours during the holy days had any vacancies. Since Kim can drive, we thought of renting a car. No cars were available. Our last alternative was to go independently.
From Estepona, we took a bus to La Linea, the last bastion of Spanish soil before the ferry boat. We had to walk just a few blocks from the bus station to the ferry port, but had to go through Passport Control to leave Spain. Once on the ferry and on the island of Gibraltar, we had to go through British Passport Control as well.
Directly beyond Passport Control, there are two desks across from each other. One is the official tourism office for the island; the other is the official taxi tour company for the island. We were informed that only the official taxis could drive up the rock, really necessitating taking their tour. Although this is officially a British Overseas Territory, the tourism office made it clear they are British.
Our tour guide/taxi driver had a thick accent, though he was born and raised here. His parents were from Italy, but he is proud to be a British citizen. He warned us that many places would take Euros, but the exchange rate would be horrendous, thus he advised using credit cards whenever possible. The alternative would be an ATM, but that too held risks. Just like Scotland and North Ireland, Gibraltar has its own currency. It is accepted throughout Great Britain, but is not considered a valid currency like the British pound.
What we learned from our guide was that Gibraltar is only 3 square miles, but has over 30,000 comprise of native ‘Gibraltarians’ in addition to inhabitants from a variety of other countries. Many are British as this still has a British military base. Though the airport has international flights, about 10 a day, the majority of aircraft using it are military. The airport sits in the middle of the city, so the street needs to be closed to traffic when a flight is due to take-off or land. We walked across the runway at one point.
Although Gibraltar has its own government, it is only responsible for local laws. The rest is still governed by Great Britain. Hence, the guide and other Gibraltarians make it clear that they consider themselves to be part of Great Britain and this is where their loyalty lies. That said there are hundreds of Spanish who commute daily to work in the area.
I am not certain how they know this, but the upper reserve is inhabited by five families of an estimated 500 Barbary macaques; these are tailless monkeys. The estimates vary depending on the source, but the number of families remains at five. That is what I question. They have free reign, but there is a £400 fine for feeding them. When they venture to the lower regions, they are sent back to the top of the rock.
We were mesmerized once we entered St. Michael’s Cave. This cave network is limestone where thousands of stalactites and stalagmites have created wonderful designs. During World War II, the entire cave was made
ready to serve as a hospital, but it was never used for this purpose. The concept reminds me of Hospital in the Rock in Budapest. Made up of numerous chambers, the cave’s largest chamber named Cathedral Cave is used as an auditorium. We could have done without the laser light show that is continuous and favored the areas where the lights did not penetrate. The cave receives close to one million visitors annually.
One curious fact we learned is that Gibraltarians often speak in Llanito a vernacular unique to Gibraltar that is a combination of British English, Andalusian Spanish and Genoese, a dialect of Italian. Though the official language is English, Spanish is taught as well due to the proximity to Spain.
Children complete all of their education here until university. If they qualify for higher education, the Gibraltar government pays for them to be educated elsewhere within Great Britain. The education system through high school is identical to that of Great Britain.
The latter part of the tour included the British bunkers used for various wars. I did not find this particularly interesting and skipped over most of it. What I enjoyed more was the view.
For not expecting much to be here, we were quite shocked at the flourishing community. Due to Gibraltar being VAT free, it is a mecca for shoppers. Downtown is packed with all the stores one would expect to find in any mall elsewhere in the world along with dozens of restaurants and a sprinkling of churches here and there.
Not caring initially whether we visited or not, we had a great day. We found our way back to the ferry after going through Passport Control once again. I was hoping for some special Gibraltar stamp in the passport, but it did not happen.
On the ferry, we said good-bye to the rock.
*This post has been backdated due to lack of Internet during our vacation.