We had been driving down the coast of Spain for about an hour. We could see our destination in the distance, but there were no road signs for it, no indication of when we had to get off the motorway, and wind our way through the nearby town to find the entrance to this outcrop of the British empire. We had struggled to set our GPS for it, as it would only deal with Spanish towns. But we weren’t totally reliant on our dodgy GPS, and my map-reading skills still came in handy. The first sign we saw was within a few hundred metres of the border, but with the rock of Gibraltar looming over us by that stage, we were no longer in need of the extremely unhelpful Spanish road department to point the way. We passed through customs, waited for a plane to land on the tarmac, then crossed the tarmac ourselves into British held Gibraltar.
It’s a curious arrangement. On the tip of Spain, there is a small population of British citizens. They don’t use the Euro, and they speak English. The language sounds odd, an archaic version of English, the accent and language also influenced by Spanish. The pedestrian only, main street of the town is lined with British stores, the signs all in English. We felt as if we had quite literally crossed time and space, whereas in reality we’d only driven across the airport runway from a Spanish town to a British one. At first I felt sympathy for the Spanish. How must they feel having a British outpost here on their soil, imposing an ancient victory on 2007 (at the time) Spain? Clearly, it rankles, the lack of official signage an indication of how much. But then my sympathy waned a little. Spain also has such outposts on the north coast of Africa. I find this grab for land ridiculous, greedy, and anachronistic. But perhaps it’s easier for me, coming from an island nation. Mind you, I’m sure the Cubans agree.
We only had a day in Gibraltar, and we wanted to see and explore. There’s a small town, with a large square and restaurants and shops running along the streets off the square. The locals meet there for afternoon coffees, and the children play there after school. There is a marina, where we sat and had lunch, and looked across the Mediterranean to distant Africa. We wandered through the old town, exploring the streets and the museum, learning more about the naval history, the victory and the treaty which ceded Gibraltar to the British, and the importance of the Rock as a fortress during World War II.
And of course there is the Rock. With limited time, this was to be our focus. The cable car takes you to the summit, giving a splendid view of the harbour, the naval base, the Mediterranean, and Africa and the Atlas Mountains in the distance.
The upper parts of the Rock are stark and steep and form part of a nature reserve. There are trails we could have enjoyed if we’d had more time, where you can visit former battlements, dating back to the 19th century and some in use in World Wars I and II. This is where the Barbary Macaques (often called incorrectly the Barbary Apes) live, the only wild population of monkeys in Europe. We were warned against touching them – but that was okay, because they seemed to have that in hand themselves (see below). Legend says that if the Barbary macaques leave Gibraltar, it will cease to be British. They all looked quite contented.
When I was young, we watched a lot of old, black and white movies. Of course our television was black and white, so all the movies were too, but I still imagine the movie stars of the 50s and 60s, and those exotic locations on the Mediterranean – Portofino, St Tropez, and the Rock of Gibraltar – as being forever black and white. It was therefore a thrill to be there in person, and to see this sight in glorious technicolour.