Gibraltar: Rock of, Straight of, and Country of. Gibraltar is a place shrouded in mystery, controversy, and monkeys. Why is a hollow rock soaring out of the ocean? Who does it belong to? How did the monkeys get there?
The Rock of Gibraltar rises 426 meters (1398 feet) high and about 2 km (1.24 miles) from the Pillars of Hercules on the south end to the great siege tunnels on the north end. It’s on the southeastern tip of Europe on the Iberian peninsula bordering Spain. Just across the Strait of Gibraltar is Africa; from the southern tip of Gibraltar, you can see Morocco’s mountains. There’s a nature reserve at the top of the Rock where wild Barbary apes run free.
The Rock is British owned, and thus they speak English, use a Gibraltar pound (which differs only slightly from the British pound), and the small airport hosts about 4 flights to and from Europe each day. The History Channel once ranked the Gibraltar airport as the 5th most dangerous airport in the world due to strong winds, a short runway which intersects a road and sidewalk (the only airport in the world to cross a road), the Rock which blocks visibility, and a soccer stadium located directly beside the runway.
The Pillars of Hercules
Located on the southernmost tip of the Rock are the Pillars of Hercules, honoring Hercules’s feat of separating 2 mountains in his trials. The European side of the Rock is known as Mons Calpe while the African side is known as Mons Abyla, and the myth is that Hercules separated the 2 mountains and created the Strait of Gibraltar. From these Pillars, you can see a map of the old world, a map of then new world, and get some wonderful panoramic views including Spain, Africa, and Gibraltar itself.
St. Michael’s Cave
The Rock of Gibraltar is mostly hollow inside, made of monolithic limestone. Inside are a network of caves and tunnels. One of the biggest caves is known as St. Michael’s Cave in the Upper Rock, created by rainwater seeping through the rock over the years and slowly dissolving it. On the top and sides of the cavernous area are impressive stalagmites and stalactites. By examining the stalagmites and stalactites, researchers are able to see periods of drought or heavy rainfall, as well as how old the rocks are. The cave is completely natural, but the town has since added lights, sounds, and flooring for special events.
St. Michael’s Cave is one of the most famous and most visited caves in the Rock, hosting a variety of events such as the Miss Gibraltar Pageant, concerts, dramas, operas, and orchestras.
Nature Reserve and Ape’s Den
Wild Barbary macaques, descendants from the North African Barbary apes, have lived on the Rock of Gibraltar since before the British occupied it. You can find them almost anywhere on the rock, especially near homes with open windows and refrigerators without locks or near a gift store selling ice cream.
The apes have a special home at the top of the Rock in the Nature Reserve complete with play pen, pool, scenic views, and plenty of tourists visiting to feed them. Sometimes, they will jump on you or your car and not let you leave until you feed them! The British are fond of the saying, “As long as there are Barbary apes on Gibraltar, it will remain under British rule.” When the Spanish heard this, the British noticed the ape numbers dropping quickly, and it’s said Sir Winston Churchill sent 100 more apes to the Rock. There are now about 300 apes living on the rock.
The monkeys are pack animals and like to live with other monkeys. You will rarely find one on its own, and they are very protective of their babies. These tricky creatures will open your hand if they know there is food inside, even if thy can’t see it. They also are fast and smart and are likely to steal your sunglasses, unzip a jacket pocket to find hidden food, or take off with a purse. The apes love food more than anything and will go to great lengths to get it. Don’t let their cuteness fool you, they are still wild! And they do NOT want you to pet them, although if they climb on top of you of their own free will, it’s fair game.
Great Siege Tunnels
During the Great Siege of Gibraltar in the 18th century, British troops needed a place to live, work, and protect their land, and thus became the Great Siege Tunnels. Blasted out of limestone, the miners soon became overwhelmed with the fumes and smoke and needed fresh air; after blowing a hole in the side of the tunnel to create a window, they realized what a good vantage point they had and started blasting alcoves off of the main tunnels to install cannons. Unfortunately, the cannons weren’t much use to enemies who were close, but they did have good distance and kept enemies away; since Gibraltar is still owned by the crown today, we can assume the cannons did a good job defending the Rock.
You might be surprised to learn that the best way to get to Gibraltar is by foot! How often can you say you walked into another country? Make sure to bring your passport; since England isn’t part of the Schengen Area you’ll need your passport, although you won’t get a stamp. You can walk through customs and come out on in Gibraltar. There is no problem walking back to Spain and you don’t need to go through customs again, and it takes about 5 minutes. However if you’re driving, the wait can take up to 4 hours at peak times, and you will sit in a long line of parked cars.
Another advantage to walking is that you get to walk across the Gibraltar runway, which means you literally are in the middle of a runway. Watch for planes! About 4 flights come and go daily to this airport, which causes all the traffic on the main road to stop.
While they do speak English here, many Spanish people cross the border for jobs so Spanish is just as common as English. There are plenty of authentic British fish and chip shops here, but also a strong Arabic presence in the food market influenced from Morocco. You can pay with Euros, British pounds, or Gibraltar pounds (but be careful, you can’t use Gibraltar pounds in England!)
One more advantage to going to the Gibraltar city center is the shopping. Gibraltar is international so there is no tax on anything. Also, since it’s not Spanish, shops stay open all day (no siesta). Stores will usually stay open until about 7:00 p.m.
Where to Stay
Houses in Gibraltar are given to residents by the government, which frowns upon renting out your house to tourists. Therefore, you won’t find too many Airbnb’s or home rentals. Hotels tend to be pricey because it’s such a small place and demand outweighs supply. If money isn’t an object, The Rock Hotel, a luxury hotel on the Rock of Gibraltar, is popular among the rich and famous. Some of the A-listers who have stayed here include Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Elton John, and Errol Flynn. John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married and stayed at this hotel, and Sean Connery married two wives here. Be careful staying here, though; the place is known to get Barbary apes sliding in through the windows to steal goodies out of the mini bars!
Another, cheaper option is to stay in La Línea de la Concepción, also known as La Línea. There are many hotels, hostels, and rental apartments available just over the Gibraltar border in Spain, which will also save time driving through customs if you can walk through. Most accommodations are only a 5-10 minute walk to the border.