Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ****
Spain to Gibraltar
I've always been fascinated by Gibraltar. The thought of a piece of England in a sunny climate captured my imagination when I was younger and every so often I'd get an urge to visit it. However, the reviews from the very few people I know that have been have never been that great.
This year, I finally got my opportunity. A good friend of mine decided to have his stag do in Marbella, and after a quick google, I realised that I would be within a bus ride of the British Overseas Territory.
At the end of a crazy weekend in Marbella, I did a solo trip to the local bus station and paid just over €7 for the just over 1 hour journey along the coast to La Linea, the Spanish border town. The bus station is modern, but the directions to the correct bus weren't intuitive and I found myself with a Lithuanian guy going the same way, both of us slightly confused. After 15 minutes of asking every bus driver if they were going to La Linea, I finally got on the right bus and off we went.
The journey wasn't too bad - the bus was fairly modern, it stopped only a handful of times and before I knew it, I was getting dropped off at La Linea bus station, a short walk from my hotel. On the way out, I noticed that the Lithuanian guy had fallen asleep so I gave him a quick nudge and a very thankful, and relieved, Eastern European also made his exit. Hotels on the Spanish side are significantly cheaper than those in Gibraltar, so I decided to save a few pennies and stay in La Linea.
The Rock of Gibraltar
As soon as you pull in you see the imposing 'Rock of Gibraltar'. Gibraltar has a fascinating history. At various points the area has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans and the Goths. Quite famously, it was also allegedly the last holdout of the Neanderthals in Europe. However, it wasn't until the Arabs arrived that Gibraltar finally, and decisively, entered the history books.
The Arabs recognised the military potential of Gibraltar and turned it into a well fortified settlement. Eventually, following the Reconquista the area was brought under Spanish control, where it remained for a number of centuries. This is where things get a little controversial.
In the early 18th century, following the War of the Spanish Succession, the territory was ceded to Britain. Now, as we know, nobody does Empire building quite like we do in the UK. The British decided to colonise the area with British inhabitants and turn the territory into a sort of mini-England. This ensured that nothing short of a military invasion would return Gibraltar to the Spanish.
Anytime the subject is brought up, the UK plays 'good guy' and says let's have a referendum and let the people decide. The people, British descendants, obviously choose to remain a part of Britain, much to the frustration of Spain. It's the same with the Falkland Islands and Argentina..
My mom thinks English people are the most intelligent in the world. Call it the inferiority complex of a race colonised for a hundred years. But when I see long term strategy like this, I can only admire the ingenuity of the British, and hope that its education system has rubbed some of that onto me. That being said, sometimes I only have to pop down a Wetherspoon's any night of the week, and see the other side of the country.
The walk from my hotel to Gibraltar was about 10 minutes. Getting across the border as an EU national is incredibly easy. You enter a small room next to a Spanish flag, scan your passport and exit next to a flag of the Union Jack as well as Gibraltar's own. To get from there to the town proper is another 10 minutes, oddly you cross the runway of Gibraltar International Airport. It's an incredibly strange feeling. Given the size of Gibraltar (just over 2.5 square miles), there is very little space for buildings, especially for something as large as a runway, so whenever there are no flights, the runway serves as a main road into the town.
Things really get interesting when a plane decides to land or takeoff. Back home, sometimes a road is temporarily closed and barriers put into place if there is a train crossing intersecting a road. Think of that, but with planes. I was walking toward the road on two occasions when I found the barriers down. On the first occasion I had to wait about 5 minutes before I saw a plane hurtle past at speed and take off - an incredible sight! I watched the second occasion from the airport itself as a plane came in to land. Thankfully, for the 30,000 or so locals, the airport isn't very busy, with about 7 flights departing daily.
Just a quick word on the airport. It's a small yet modern building with just one terminal. I had no issues going through security, no secondary checks and couldn't fault it at all.
Lost on a hill
I'd arrived in Gibraltar after a big weekend in Marbella, so wanted to take it easy. I figured I would head toward the Gibraltar Cable Cars and take an easy ride to the Top of the Rock. For some reason, my maps application just didn't want to work in Gibraltar and it kept telling me I was in the middle of the sea. I decided to follow some road signs and headed up a few narrow staircases toward the middle of the town.
I climbed for about 10 minutes before I realised I must have gone wrong somewhere. But at this point I felt like I had gone too far so I continued climbing. Before long I had reached the Moorish Castle. The castle has a ticket office that allows you to see a number of other sites on the hike to the Top of the Rock for about £12 (yep, Gibraltar accepts GBP as well as EUR).
The castle is one of the landmarks that you can see from ground level, given its strategic position overlooking the sea. It was built by the Arabs and North African Berbers in the 8th century, and was used as a prison until 2010. Inside there are a few small exhibits of Muslim rule, and there's a nice view from the top overlooking the city below, as well as the sea.
As you continue to climb there are a number of landmarks to see along the way including an exhibition on 19th century Gibraltar (which was a little tacky) and the famous Siege Tunnels, first dug up in the 1700's during attempts by the French and Spanish to capture Gibraltar during the American Revolution. These were pretty cool although I opted not to go too far deep as I was a little short on time.
As I continued my climb the number of people that I saw slowly began to decrease until about 20 minutes after the Siege Tunnels I was the only person on a very, very steep path. I wasn't prepared for a climb - I figured I'd get the Cable Cars, so I had no water, no suncream and I hadn't eaten - and after Marbella I wasn't feeling particularly energetic either.
For most of Gibraltar's history, the territory has been a hugely important strategic point for the Royal Navy, and as I continued on the deserted climb, I began to see metal fences with Ministry of Justice signs everywhere. I began to wonder if I had taken a wrong turn. I looked up, the summit was still a long way away, I looked down, I had probably climbed about half way. My legs were beginning to tire, my back started to hurt, my throat was parched in the afternoon sun and, as I do on almost every trip I make, I had reached a point where i thought I'd made a pretty big mistake,
Top of the Rock
The next hour or so was a stubborn, 'grit my teeth and f**k it get through this' kind of hour. My body was giving up but my brain was almost dragging it along on autopilot. Finally, about three quarters of the way up I began to see people again.
I eventually reached the top. I can't tell you how far lost I must have gotten. As I headed toward the roof of the 'Top of the Rock' cafe, I saw fresh faced tourists walking out of the Cable Cars. I've never envied people more in my life.
The view from the top is incredible, it almost reminded my of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro (which you can read about here). I felt I was in a completely different .continent. I could see toward Spain on one side and the Mediterranean and North Africa on the other. The climb had definitely been worth it, and I had a sense of accomplishment too.
I continued on the 'Skywalk' toward O'Hara's Battery, a large cannon pointing over the Mediterranean. This was an even higher point, and I could clearly see the Moroccan landscape across the sea, quite a surreal experience.
A part of me wanted to take the famous Mediterranean Steps, another part of me wanted to take the Cable Cars, and a third part of me wanted to take a short descent to St. Michael's Cave. I realised I had time to do probably one so decided to go to the caves. Along the way, I managed to get very, very close to some Barbary Macaques, one of Gibraltar's most famous residents.
The monkeys are pretty much everywhere near the top; adults, baby monkeys, everything. They even have their own resting place, the Ape's Den. I managed to visit when there was no one there. The monkeys were all chilling lying in the shade, trying to stay cool. As I left a huge tour bus pulled up and out stepped a group of about 50 Chinese tourists. I looked back a couple minutes later and the poor monkeys were overwhelmed.
Anyway, back the cave. The limestone caves were developed tens of thousands of years ago and were known to ancient historians. I'd visited the Batu Caves earlier this year (which you can read about here), so this gave me a good, recent comparison. Whilst there are some similarities in terms of the structure, the two couldn't be more different. The Batu Caves are a peaceful place of meditation, I entered St Michael's Cave to loud techno music in the main 'Cathedral' section. The music was accompanied by a light show giving it a very weird feel.
The main chamber is also used as an auditorium so there were chairs lined up everywhere. The walk through the cave doesn't take more than a few minutes, but looking up, it's certainly a spectacular few minutes, if not slightly strange with the lights and music.
At this point, I took a very shaky and narrow rope bridge across the Queens Balcony. I'm not ashamed to say that a gust of wind shaking the bridge made me a little uneasy. I was heading toward the middle station of the Cable Cars to catch them down. I felt it was a tourist thing to do, and I wanted to tick it off my list, after all, I'd caught the Cable Cars in Sugarloaf Mountain in Brazil and really enjoyed it.
I got to the station to find it was closed. And then I did something stupid. I decided to climb back up the hill, just so I could catch the Cable Cars. I have no idea why. Hungry, thirsty and very tired, I somehow managed to climb the 30 odd minutes back up at a decent pace, streaming with sweat. I must have been quite the sight. I got to the Cable Car station and the operator asked me where my ticket was, I said I didn't have one but asked where I could buy one. He replied that tickets are purchased at the bottom of the hill.
You're kidding me!
Luckily, covered in sweat, sunburnt on my face and shoulders, and probably walking with a limp at this point, the operator told me to "jump in this once, and don't tell anyone". I was struck by his kindness, but as we made our way down, I could only think this was definitely not worth the stupidity of climbing back up the hill.
The edge of Europe
I decided I would take it easy on my second day, but if you've read any of my blogs before, things never really turn out as I plan.
It started with a quiet breakfast in the middle of town before I headed to the small, but beautiful, Gibraltar National Museum. Founded in 1930, the small museum costs £5 to enter, but it is well worth the money. The centrepieces of the museum are undoubtedly the Moorish baths (baths dating back to Arab rule), two Egyptian mummies and the neanderthal skulls.
It was actually the story of Gibraltar being one of the last bastions of the neanderthals that got me interested in Gibraltar so it was fascinating to see them up close and personal. I probably spent the best part of a couple of hours in the museum, and I'd definitely recommend a visit. A few rooms upstairs tell the stories of the Second World War and the effect it had on the local population, including the evacuations to the UK. It's a really interesting exhibition.
I then started walking, as you do, and just kept going south. I had my bag with me that I had taken to Marbella, and it was pretty heavy. Soon I found myself walking past the main town. I continued walking.
I can't remember how long I walked but pretty soon I reached a small waterfall and the entrance to a tunnel. On the side was a small path for pedestrians, but I had stopped seeing pedestrians about 10 minutes earlier. My legs must have hated me at this point.
The inside of the first of two tunnels was strange. It was pitch black, but every so often a car or a lorry would drive past, their exhaust fumes trapped by the roof of the tunnel, and therefore just staying in the thick air. The narrow roads outside the tunnel weren't much better, blind turns reminded me of my walk in Sorrento (which you can read about here).
I eventually found myself at Europa Point, the most southerly part of Gibraltar, staring at the famous lighthouse, and North Africa beyond it. A dirty looking cafe and a pretty beautiful mosque are the only half touristy things that mark what should be a genuinely famous spot. It felt anti-climatic. I walked in to get myself some water and came across a man I had seen earlier in La Linea. We both commented on how lame Europa Point was.
2018 has been the year of sneezing. I don't get hayfever often, but it has been horrific this year and for some reason it became pretty unbearable at Europa Point. I felt as though as I was sneezing my lungs out, so with water streaming out my eyes, I decided to catch a bus back into town.
England in the sun
Gibraltar really is England in the sun, and I'm not sure that's such a good thing. It's not a beautiful English village in the sun. Nor is it an exciting English city in the sun. It definitely isn't a historical English town in the sun.
To me, it looked like a 1990's post industrial town, in the sun. It reminded me a little of Blackpool and little of a generic Midlands town (albeit it this has much better views). Sure it had the weather, but places like Casemates Square and the High Street just didn't look very good. I don't know how else to describe it.
Some of the small narrow streets have some semi cool looking bars and restaurants, but 'cool' is probably not a word I would associate with this place.
It's different, but oddly familiar. The store names on the High Street, the locals, the architecture. It was definitely as surreal as I thought it would be. England in the sun.
Is Gibraltar worth visiting?
Gibraltar is slowly moving away from its dependency on the British Armed Forces and towards a focus on financial services and tourism. This means new developments are being built - but there's only so much that can be built in such a small space.
The good bits of Gibraltar are very good, don't get me wrong. The view from the 'Top of the Rock' is incredible, and honestly, the biggest compliment that I can pay is saying I felt momentarily like I was transported back to Brazil. I enjoyed some of the landmarks and attractions during my climb up and down, as well as the museum.
But it's probably not somewhere I'd recommend for my friends, and it's unlikely I'll visit again. Not because it's that bad - but because after spending just over two days there, I'm not sure if the small number of things I didn't see would be worth flying over for.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.