Day excursions to Gibraltar from resorts all along the Costa del Sol are very popular. The Rock has long fascinated British visitors to Spain – a curious mixture of British and Spanish and one of the two Pillars of Hércules marking the boundary of the known world. As you approach it by road from the east you’ll spot it from many miles away on a clear day and, when standing on the Rock, you feel as if you could touch Africa.
People are drawn here by the Barbary apes, the duty-free shopping, the historic tunnels and strange sights such as British police officers walking the streets. In recent years it has undergone something of a renaissance – losing its drab and slightly unkempt image and becoming a clean, modern city.
Whilst there are many organised coach tours to Gibraltar you might prefer to drive your hire car there instead. In that case try to arrive early or you might find parking difficult; space is at a premium in Gibraltar. This is always assuming you’ve managed to find Gib in the first place as many Spanish maps still will not have it marked! Some people prefer to park in La Linea and then walk across the border, which will take you about 25 minutes to the main streets and you won’t have to queue in your car to cross the line. There are a number of car parks in Gibraltar itself; there’s a large one just behind the cable car station, near Alameda Gardens, and plenty of parking in the ICC building – the entrance is next to a Shell Petrol station on Line Wall Road.
The frontier is open 24 hours and there are no limits to the number of crossings you can make but you must remember to have your passport and also be aware that there are customs restrictions on the goods can you can bring out of Gibraltar into Spain.
A Brief History of Gibraltar
In the British Museum you can see the ancient skull of a woman, discovered in a cave on Gibraltar in 1848, which dates as far back as Neanderthal times. The Rock then saw Greeks, Phoenicians, Visigoths and Romans before falling to the Moors of Tarik ibn Ziyad, in 711 at the beginning of the Muslim invasion of Spain. The Greeks had known Gibraltar as Calpe, which means ship, and that is easy to understand as the Rock often appears to be an enormous ship jutting off the coastline. The Moors, however, renamed it Jebel Tarik – the Rock of Tarik – which became the root of the current name.
The Rock remained under Moorish control for more than 700 years, aside for a little spell during the early 14th century – but then Castile gained control in 1462. During the war of the Spanish Succession, an Anglo-Dutch force of 1800 soldiers seized control of Gibraltar and when the war ended, Philip V ceded it to Britain as part of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. It was the ‘in perpetuity’ clause of this treaty that has been cited many times since by Gibraltar’s citizens during discussions about the Rock’s future. Incidentally, Britain received Menorca in the same treaty but that has long since gone back to Spanish hands.
The Rock has seen much action since that time. There were several nasty sieges during the 18th century – most notably the Great Siege from 1783 until 1799 and then the body of Nelson was brought into port after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The port was also strategically vital during both World wars. In fact, during World War II, the residents of the island were largely evacuated as the Rock was turned into a fortress controlling the entrance to the Mediterranean.
During the 1950s the relationship between Spain and Britain concerning Gibraltar more or less completely disintegrated. General Franco was known to have been greatly offended by a visit of the Queen to the Rock in 1954, to commemorate 250 years of British occupation, and movement was heavily restricted. The border was then closed completely in 1969, after Gibraltar had been given autonomous status by the British following a referendum in which the population had overwhelmingly voted to stay British – just 44 people voting against.
With Spain’s entry into the European Union, the border was fully reopened in 1985 and the respective governments have held ongoing talks to discuss the Rock’s future. Following a further referendum (98.97% unanimous), the UK government reasserted its commitment to the people of Gibraltar that they would never pass sovereignty to Spain but there is a much larger degree of co-operation between the two countries now, formalised by the signing of the Córdoba Accord in 2006.
What to See in Gibraltar
As soon as you’ve passed through passport control you can jump in a taxi or onto a bus which will take you to the city centre in just a few minutes. The first point of interest is the runway to the Rock’s airport which you must cross to get to the centre. If you’re travelling independently it’s well worth getting on one of the small group Gibraltar Rock Tours which depart regularly from the frontier and from the streets surrounding the main commercial centre.
Standing on the top of the Rock of Gibraltar is a truly invigorating prospect. With Europe and Africa; and the Atlantic and the Mediterranean you would have to be very ‘dull of spirit’ not to have a sense of awe. From a height of 430 metres, you will be able to stand there for hours watching the ever-changing vistas around you. If you haven’t joined one of the small group tours you can take a cable car up the Rock from the lower town which runs.
Whilst you’re on the Rock itself, make time to visit St Michael’s Cave, a spectacular natural cavern with some eye-catching stalactites and stalagmites. There is a dazzling son-et-lumiere presentation twice daily on weekdays, which is well worth waiting for. Also, of course, prepare yourself for the semi-wild Rock apes – actually Barbary macaques – which have legendary status as the only ‘free to roam’ primates in the whole of Europe.
The Moorish castle, also part of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, is a complex consisting of several buildings, gates and fortified walls. The Tower of Homage and the Gate House are especially noteworthy.
During the Great Siege of Gibraltar, a honeycomb of manmade tunnel systems was developed – primarily to enable the British defenders of the Rock to fire on their attackers – and these were developed further during the Second World War. This is an enthralling tour – but definitely not for the claustrophobic.
Should you happen to catch a rainy day and want some indoor fun, then the King’s Bastion Leisure Centre has not only got cinemas, bars and restaurants but also has an ice rink and bowling alleys.
Of course, part of the reason many visitors come to Gibraltar is to indulge themselves in some retail therapy – with many well-known stores from the British High Streets and shopping malls to be found on Gibraltar’s very own Main Street. The upmarket Ocean Village development in Marina Bay is also popular with shoppers.
Where To Stay in Gibraltar
If you’re not on a scheduled excursion you might like the idea of spending a night on the Rock. There are several budget hotels in Gibraltar but there are also several establishments that have built up considerable reputations over the years.
Foremost amongst these is the world-renowned Rock Hotel, built by the Marquis of Bute in 1932 and still with that genteel ambience that will take you back in time. With 104 colonial-style bedrooms, fabulous views and a stylish and respected dining room, The Rock Hotel is a genuinely fine experience.
Similarly, the Caleta Hotel, Gibraltar’s largest with 160 bedrooms, can be found on the quieter side of the Rock of Gibraltar. With a top-of-the- range Health and Beauty Club, a sumptuous piano lounge bar, high quality restaurants and an outdoor swimming pool, the Caleta Hotel offers comfort and quality.
Right in the centre of the town – next to the Tourist Information Centre and the Museum is the longest established hotel in Gibraltar, the Bristol Hotel. With 60 well-equipped bedrooms, free parking and a covered swimming pool, the Bristol is ideal for those who are looking for a base near the centre of the action.
In the same way, the Eliott Hotel, is in Governor’s Parade, just off Main Street so you are literally seconds away from the shops. The balconies afford views across the Bay or of the Rock itself and, even if you’re not a resident, the Rooftop Restaurant is one of the finest dining experiences in Gib, for both the food and the views!
Where To Eat in Gibraltar
Well, if you want McDonalds or Pizza Hut – you’ll find them here. Along with Indian, Chinese, Kosher, French, Italian, Thai – even Spanish restaurants. There are lots of pubs and street cafes and you’ll find that Gibraltar really is that ‘something for everybody’ place.
If you’re looking for fresh sea food or fish, then the best places to go are in Marina Bay, Queensway Quay or Catalan Bay.
For tapas, I would recommend the outdoor tables of La Barcina in Casemates Square, which also has an excellent restaurant – it’s well-known for its spicy Iberian fish stew. Corks Wine Bar also does some tasty free tapas and has a good selection of beers available.
The Rib Room Restaurant, in the Rock Hotel, is perhaps the best regarded restaurant on the Rock. With a fixed price menu as well as an A La Carte, especially recommended are the pan-roasted filet of lamb with basil salsa and the wok-seared black-pepper beef with asparagus.
Places To Visit Near Gibraltar
Cádiz, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Jerez de la Frontera are all within a 90 minute drive to the west of Gibraltar, whilst inland are the white towns of Medina Sidonia and Arcos de la Frontera. It’s also an interesting inland drive through the village of Gaucín up to the Sierra de Grazalema and the beautiful village of Zahara de la Sierra, via the impressive Puerto de los Palomas. For those who’ve driven along the Costa del Sol, though, a drive along the Costa de la Luz might be a welcome chance to see a different kind of Spanish coastline. The fishing town of Barbate, the laid-back Los Caños de Meca, the beaches around the Cabo de Trafalgar and, of course, the windsurfing mecca of Tarifa all have their own distinctive and charming characteristics.