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Did You Know … ?
- With no farmland, Gibraltar imports all its food.
- If the U.K. decides to give up Gibraltar, it must offer it to Spain.
- Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques are Europe’s only free-living monkeys.
- Gibraltar tracks all its Barbary macaques and gives each a name at birth.
- The peninsula is so small, it has only 18 miles of roads, all paved.
A military story
It was inevitable that Gibraltar would be militarily significant and, hence, fought over by the powerful through the centuries. This speck of land, about 2.25 square miles, is a peninsula sitting on the southern coast of Spain and acting the sentinel at the point where ships pass between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. More importantly, much of the peninsula is a massive limestone rock — i.e., the Rock of Gibraltar — that reaches 1,398 feet above sea level and provides an ideal military stronghold.
The oldest surviving evidence of Gibraltar’s military importance is the Moorish Castle, a 14th century structure now on the tourist circuit. However, predecessor buildings dated to the 11th century and possibly to the eighth when North Africa’s Moors first occupied the peninsula. Crucially, the Moors invaded Europe in 711 from Gibraltar; Spain pushed the Moors off the island for keeps in 1462.
Britain wrested Gibraltar from Spain in 1704, and it remains a British territory. The Rock has withstood numerous sieges, but the 14th such crisis — the Great Siege of 1779-1783 — stands out not just for its length but for the remarkable piece of engineering that saved the Rock from its French and Spanish attackers. Working with sledgehammers, crowbars and gunpowder, defenders dug the first of a series of defensive tunnels that today are called the Great Siege Tunnels. Four guns were mounted in that first 370-foot passageway.
More tunnels were added after the Great Siege. Then, during World War II, with heavy machinery this time, engineers extended the tunnels by about 25 miles.
Understandably, the tunnels are central to the Gibraltar story — and to a good sightseeing itinerary for visitors. Several other sites on the Official Rock Tour highlight Gibraltar’s military history, including the Military Heritage Centre and an exhibition called “Gibraltar, a City Under Siege.”
Nevertheless, the Rock isn’t only about things military. It is on the Mediterranean, after all, and offers beaches and 300 sunny days a year. Further, it is a little bit of Britain in the Med with English pubs and the like — and where English is the official language. It also appeals to visitors for its scenery, its wildlife and as a shopper’s destination.
Things to do for Venturers
- Rent a car and use the peninsula’s 18 miles of roads for access to its touristic sites. Drive on the right side of the road. The roads on the Upper Rock are narrow and winding.
- Or, see Gibraltar from the seat of a motorcycle. Crash helmets are required when driving a two-wheeled motorized vehicle.
- Go sailing in the Bay of Gibraltar and see if you are followed by dolphins.
- Hire the Alameda Open Air Theatre for a big event, such as your wedding. Or, just attend a concert there.
- Make your way to Gibraltar by yacht; the peninsula has three marinas with berths for yachts.
- See the Great Siege Tunnels, an extensive system of passages through the Rock of Gibraltar, and imagine what it must have taken to dig out the first of those tunnels in the late 18th century as the British garrison held out against a three-and-a-half-year French-Spanish siege. The tunnels were extended significantly in World War II to meet the needs of the Allies.
Things to do for Centrics
- Let the half-tame, half-wild Barbary macaques entertain you, remembering to keep your distance. A frightened macaque will bite.
- Take a boat tour to watch dolphins.
- Visit any of several points that make clear to what degree Gibraltar has been, first, a military post and, only secondarily, a place to make a life. Such attractions include the Military Heritage Centre, housed in the 18th century Princess Caroline’s Battery, and the Moorish Castle Complex, which may date to the eighth century, when the Moors first occupied the peninsula.
- Hire a guide or join a group to take the Official Rock Tour, for an introductory sampling of all that the area has to offer.
- Spend quality time at the Gibraltar Museum, which tells the story of the Rock from its origins 200 million years ago through to the present. It also houses a Moorish bath house, deemed to be the best preserved in Europe.
- Take the local cable car to the peak of the Rock of Gibraltar for memorable views of Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar; also, views of Algeciras in Spain when looking west across the Bay Gibraltar and other points in Spain to the north.
Things to do for Authentics
- Go to the beach. Eastern Beach is the largest and popular with visitors, but the smaller Catalan Bay offers a beach with the atmosphere of a Spanish fishing village.
- Pick one of a few land-based points from which you may see whales, dolphins or both. One site is Europa Point, where the animals sometimes play in the surf.
- Spend an afternoon in the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens, formerly the Alameda Gardens.
- If you are a birder, come in spring or autumn and see the migrating birds. In addition, resident species include peregrine falcons and the Barbary partridge.
- Eat and savor fresh local seafood.
- Main Street in the town of Gibraltar is noted for its shopping options. Bring your plastic and look for glassware, porcelain, leather goods, perfume, fabrics and more.
For more information, consult Gibraltar Tourist Board at www.visitgibraltar.gi