The Wonderful Weirdness of Gibraltar

The strange far-away annex of Britain makes for a perfect day trip if you’re already lounging around Spain’s Sunny Coast.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone at this point that I really, really like weird places.

So when I was travelling along Spain’s Southern coast and realised how close to Gibraltar I was, there was only one thing to do: DAY TRIP!!

Gibraltar is a strange place from top to toe, starting from what it actually is: the overseas territory of the United Kingdom is owned by it but not really a part of it. Not quite British and begrudgingly close to Spanish, Gibraltarians maintain their own identity and national pride despite not being a nation. I read some other travel blogs to prepare for my trip to Gibraltar and saw a few comments from locals dashing in to fervently speak up for their homeland. ‘Stop calling us a territory. We are a NATION’, one passionate reader had commented.

You would think Gibraltar would resemble Spain more than Britain, given that it’s tiptoed right on the edge of Andalucia, but land disputes with Spain have created a lot of tension between locals, Brits and Spaniards themselves. It seems like Spain wants control over Gibraltar; Gibraltar wants to do its own thing and seems happy as a remote part of the UK, that does let them do their thing.

It will be interesting to see how the apparent No Deal Brexit driven by the UK’s new prime minister Boris Johnson will affect the territory. It has been a point of contest between the UK and Spain for years, and many wonder if the border between the two could be closed if the terms of Britain leaving the EU can not be negotiated.

For now, though, crossing the border is easy. On an April Tuesday, there is barely any traffic as I walk under a Union Jack blowing in the wind into the customs. The UK has never really subscribed to this whole free movement thing within the EU, so I’ve had to bring my passport with me. The friendly customs agent stamps it with one of the rarest stamps in the world.

The first weird sight in Gibraltar stops me on my tracks even before I’ve reached town. I’m stopped at a red light on the other side of what looks like a massive highway. But no, that’s just Gibraltar’s very own airport. Since the runway is built perpendicular to the road to the town, it’s closed every time a flight is arriving. Now they seem to be holding us for fun, though. No plane lands but the light turns green, and me along a few scattered people rush to cross the airfield/highway.

Gibraltar is only 6.8 square kilometres big so it doesn’t take long to get into town. But that’s the easy part; in the Mediterranean heat, hiking up the Gibraltar Rock is strenuous exercise.

No, I’m not talking about the popular actor and muscle man Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (although I kinda want to) – I’m referring to the big rock that looks like a flying saucer crash landed on a nosedive into the sea, the small mountain that makes up most of Gibraltar’s profile and whose shape has become iconic to the territory. Hiking up the Gibraltar Rock was one thing I as really looking forward to doing.

Since the Rock of Gibraltar is a natural reserve, visiting comes with a price. When I approach the ticket booth, an old man in a khaki uniform is loitering outside the office, looking at a black monkey prancing on the stone wall above him.

Screech – freeze the record. Monkeys? In Spain?

Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that.

‘Su colega es muy mono’, I comment and grin. Maybe it’s the power of my bad dad joke – but he lets me pay the student price without asking for university ID.

(Mono is Spanish and means “cute” – but it also means “monkey”.)

Gibraltar has a long history as an important military base for the Brits and for any history buff, it is a fascinating visit. Me? I’m more of an ancient Egyptian legends type of gal. But the place is home to a few interesting legends, tall tales and histories. Some of them are probably completely true but embellished, and others full myth.

Gibraltar has been controlled by the British Armed Forces for over 300 years. In the 18th century, it gave the British a way to help prevent the French from inheriting the Spanish throne, and during the Second World War it gave Brits access to the Mediterranean and Northern Africa. But even in 2019 and no ongoing war on the Iberian Peninsula, it holds strategic importance: the Strait of Gibraltar is one of the only points of access to and from the Mediterranean, which gives the British a nice looksie over shipping routes.

One of my favourite weird facts about Gibraltar Rock concerns its numerable underground tunnels. They are said to be radiation-proof, and true or not, rumour has it that the undergrounds hallways and bunkers could accommodate British persons of importance in case of a nuclear attack in the UK.

My main interest for visiting Gibraltar were not its old fortifications or even breaking in my new hiking boots, though – it’s the monkeys.

Gibraltar is the only place in mainland Europe where you can see monkeys in the wild. These Barbary Macaques are not native to Spain, though, but were likely brought over on boats from Africa. (Their presence has given wind to another popular conspiracy theory that claims that there’s a tunnel connecting Gibraltar to Morocco on the other side of the strait. While wild, this theory is not totally bonkers – the distance between Europe and Africa here is only 14 kilometres.)

Even the monkeys tie to the wartime past of the territory. According to a legend from the siege of Gibraltar in the late 18th century, attackers tried to sneak in on British guards when they stumbled upon a group of monkeys, whose fussying alerted the guards. That night Gibraltar remained invincible, and it led to a saying: as long as the monkeys remain, so will the British.

Over the years, their numbers have been dwindling and growing in turn (the numbers of monkeys – not the British). Winston Churchill might not be known as a superstitious fellow, but when he heard that the number of resident monkeys had gone down to just seven during the Second World War, he arranged for more to be brought over from Africa. He also ordered the number to be maintained at 24.

These macaques are endangered in their native Algeria and Morocco but thriving on the Rock of Gibraltar. These days, the monkey population is over 200 and they are possibly the biggest tourist draw in Gibraltar. Their furry faces adorn souvenir mugs and postcards, and tourists line up to take selfies with them and toss them peanuts, crisps and snacks.

This, of course, has unfortunately lead to the monkeys becoming hungry for blood – as they’ve learned that humans mean food, they might attack if you get too close, and they can be seen climbing on top of cars and hanging onto rear view mirrors in hopes of getting closer to food. If you’re caught feeding them, you could get fined for up to £4,000!

So if you’re visiting, please keep all your delicious snacks to yourself.

The weirdness of Gibraltar doesn’t end with its wildlife: the small territory is also surprisingly star-studded.

The climb to the Upper Rock takes me up a very narrow stony staircase. I warily pass some play-fighting monkeys, stopping in to take the view (and my breath) of the bay behind me every few minutes. When I finally reach the top, the reward is so worth the struggle: a panoramic view of the sharp edges of the Rock surrounded by blue sea.

A newly-installed viewing platform stands on top of the ridge, aptly named Skywalk for its vertigo-inducing transparent floors. I lean on the barrier and gaze down on Sandy Bay beach below. Don’t believe the tempting lies of its name – the sand has been imported. The beach has always been there but its sands, time and time again, were victims to shifting tides – caused by human construction in the area, mind you – until in 2014 a breaker was built to protect the beach.

But back to the stars – literally. In March 2018, the Gibraltarese government invited Skywalker himself to open the platform. You guessed it – Mark Hamill, the actor best known as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, cut the ribbon.

I descend from the mountain slowly, passing some ruins and a rather creepy military museum that no one seems to be watching over. Eventually, I find myself in the botanical gardens that have been praised for their beauty on the internet but in person leave me slightly underwhelmed.

The gardens seem to be the most romantic spot to be, though. Since getting a marriage licence in Gibraltar is incredibly easy – just give it 24 hours – Gibraltar is also a popular place for non-citizens to get married. The Botanical Gardens have become a popular alternative to town-hall weddings. Even John Lennon and Sean Connery got married here! Not to each other, unfortunately, although they could’ve if they wanted to: same-sex marriage is also legal.

It’s time for me to head back to Tarifa. The sun is setting – as is appropriate at the end of any great story – as I’m rushing towards customs, but I have to make one last quick stop: the store.

Since shopping in Gibraltar is tax-free, visitors lug away tons of cheap cigarettes and alcohol. My quest today is for some British chocolate and some chips (gin can wait).

On my way out, no one even checks my passport.

GIBRALTAR 101

Gibraltar is a British overseas territory and its currency is pounds (£). You can use British pounds in Gibraltar but you can’t use Gibraltar pounds in the UK.

It has a population of 30,000 and the officially spoken language is English but also Spanish will be mostly understood. Gibraltar also has its own language called Llanito, which is a combo of English, Spanish, Maltese, Portuguese, and even a bit of Italian.

HOW TO GET THERE

The easiest way to get to Gibraltar is by car or by public transportation. There are daily buses from the nearby town of Tarifa back and worth – the trip there takes about half an hour and costs about 11 e one way.

You can also fly in to their ridiculous highway-airport. British Airways and easyJet have regular services from many British cities such as London, Manchester and Bristol, and Royal Air Maroc has a couple of flights per week from Casablanca.

WHERE TO STAY

Gibraltar has a few hotels but no budget options. It’s better to stay in Tarifa or another nearby town.

I stayed in  Cocotera Boutique Hostel & Coworking in Tarifa and while it was pretty quiet, the staff was nice and they’ve got a cool rooftop.

 

Anyone been to Gibraltar or planning to go?

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