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Get a Piece of the Rock - Inimitable Gibraltar in the Spotlight

                 Marcin Krzyzak

One of Europe’s quirkier enclaves – as well as its last remaining colony – is a singular bit of business stuck down at the foot of the Spanish region Andalusia. And if you happen to be in the neighborhood – especially the Costa del Sol, many of whose main resort areas lie within a drive of and hour to 90 minutes – Gibraltar‘s unusual mix of history, sociology, and nature is well worth a day trip or even overnighter. And nowadays, perhaps more than ever, now that the territory has become even more of a bone of contention between Spain and Great Britain as a result of the ongoing process of Brexit.

An elongated cone just 2½ square miles (6.7 sq, kilometers) in size, “the Rock” (also locally dubbed Gib) has been part of the United Kingdom since 1704, thanks to its capture during the many intra-European wars back in the day – specifically, in this case as a kind of almost accidental result of the War of the Spanish Succession. Spain has never renounced its claim, but the membership of both countries in the European Union helped smooth things over tremendously in the past several decades, with free movement back and forth between the colony and the surrounding province of Cádiz. In the process, the territory has also become a tax and smuggling haven, as well as a Europe's major center for online gambling. But the status quo is now being shaken by the granting of a veto for Spain over the status of Gibraltar in the EU-Brexit negotiations - raising tensions in the short run and perhaps the prospect of shared sovereignty with the U.K. in the long run.  

So what's all the fuss about? Let's have a look For visitors, the colony's quirks begin the moment you cross the border from the city of La Línea de la Concepción – because to actually get into the colony, you have to first cross its airport runway, whether on foot or by vehicle (naturally, when planes are landing or taking off, you have to wait). On this last trip, my party parked over in La Línea, then walked 15 minutes to the border facilities, where even before the runway crossing there was a desk to sign up for a van tour of the upper Rock, which for first-timers I would highly recommend (the cheaper alternative is to take the cable car up/back, but that is much more troublesome and time-consuming).

On my party’s tour, about two hours long, we were treated to the highlights, trundling up the narrow roads first the Rock’s southernmost tip, Europa Point, to ogle the view out over the Strait of Gibraltar toward Morocco, 14.3 km (nine mi.) away. Next stop was St. Michael’s Cave, a portion of a limestone cavern network that’s been developed and rigged up with groovy colored lights (boy, would I love to attend a concert down here!).

              Scott Latham

Another set of caves that’s a must is man-made, and quite key to Gibraltar’s history. The Great Siege Tunnels were carved out of the Rock by British defenders beginning in 1782 to protect against attempts by Spain to retake Gib, and greatly enlarges during World War II. We traipsed down just a few hundred feet of the 33 miles (52 km) of current tunnels but got an excellent taste – including a look at original cannons, and mannequins recreating historical defenses here through the centuries. A bit farther down, you can also visit the partly ruined Moorish Castle, built in the 11th century and as recently as 2010 still used as the colony’s prison.

The highlight for many if not most visitors, however, is the stretch of road across the Rock where there’s a feeding/bathing station and hangouts for the colony’s famous Barbary macaques (above). Some 300 of these critters roam the higher elevations here, and especially cluster around the so-called Apes’ Den, with a feeding station and pool, among other facilities put in since my last visit some years ago. In addition to this, the Brits went through some effort to keep their once dwindling numbers up – importing more from Morocco at one point, for example – because they’re such a symbol of the colony (in fact, tradition has it that British rule over the Rock will endure as long as these monkeys do).  You can go right up to the buggers – they’re said to be cheeky and even like to nick stuff from visitors, but this time none climbed on my shoulder (in fact, they seemed blasé - even rather bored - with us).

Then it’s time to head down to the flats, where most of the locals live – some 30,000 strong these days, they’re a multiethnic mix mostly based on Andalusian stock, speaking English, Spanish, and the local patois, a hybrid of the two called Llanito. It certainly feels different from surrounding Spain – for example, pubs and fish and chips instead of tapas bars, Marks and Spencer department store instead of El Corte Inglés. The main street is called, well, Main Street (below), and is lined with all manner of shops and eateries, ending in Grand Casemates Square.


Here and on other neighboring streets you’ll find the occasional attraction worth popping into: churches such as the Holy Trinity and St. Mary the Crowned; the Gibraltar Museum; and the National Art Gallery showcasing local artists.

One final note: if you’re coming just for the day from Spain, aim to make it as early as possible – take a Rock tour in the morning, finish up in time for lunch (locals and I highly recommend Roy’s Restaurant in Grand Casemates Square), then wander the town for some of the afternoon before heading out. You want to avoid having to cross back into Spain during the end-of-the-afternoon rush, both because of the many Spanish workers heading back home for the day and because every so often the normally instantaneous, no-hassle border crossing gets massively slowed, resulting in waits up to three hours.That is apparently what is happening even as you read this, as Spain has been slowing down border crossings in response to the rising tensions. 

Wait or not, though, you’ll definitely like the cut of this Gib. 

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