Solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. That’s how staunchly British are the citizens of this Mediterranean bastion. Known locally as “Gibs”, they inhabit a strategic peninsula on the southern tip of Iberia that has long been a point of contention between Britain and Spain. Ceded to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and now an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, the Rock has withstood several attempts by Spain to take it back.
These days, tensions are reduced, and Gibraltar hosts 8 million visitors annually. In fact, tourism employs about half of Gibraltar’s workforce. Visitors come to the Rock to soak up the abundant Mediterranean sunshine and to enjoy the historic ambiance. Gibraltar is easy to access. Cadiz is only 60 miles away.
Gibraltar’s Top Tourist Attractions
Visitors will find the Gibs to be open and friendly. English is the Rock’s official language, although many people also speak Spanish and a local language known as Gibraltan, a fast-talking mix of the two. Local taxi drivers, well-versed in the history, culture and general topography of Gibraltar offer guided tours. Visitors can contract with them outside the gates, near Casemate Square. A self-guided MP-3 tour is also available for purchase. Here are some of the peninsula’s major attractions.
- St. Michael’s Cave – This cave lies about 300 meters above sea level. Fantastic stalactites plunge from the ceiling, and one portion of the cave forms a spectacular concert hall with its crystal-clear acoustics.
- Barbary Apes –In the early 18th century, the British introduced a colony of Barbary macaques, which soon made themselves at home on top of the Rock. Today Gibraltar’s government fiercely protects these iconic simians. It is against the law to feed them, and they enjoy their own ward at the local military hospital.
- World War II Tunnels – In this honeycomb of tunnels dug deeply into the Rock, Dwight Eisenhower planned the invasion of North Africa.
- Gibraltar Museum – This quaint museum, located, near Main Street in Bomb House Lane, traces the history of history of Gibraltar, including a particularly poignant depiction of the residents’ suffering during World War II, when the entire population was relocated. The lower part of the museum houses Europe’s best preserved Moorish bath house.
- Botanical Gardens – These sub-tropical gardens provide a tranquil haven in the busy city, with their palms, pines, dragon trees and olive trees. They also feature a waterfall and a fountain bridge.
- Cable Car – The cable car offers an alternative route to the top of the Rock. The views of Gibraltar are spectacular, and the coasts of Spain and Morocco are readily visible. Locals warn that the cable car provides only one-way rides up the Rock. Visitors must be prepared for the lengthy walk down.
- The Moorish Castle – Dating from 1160, the castle affords a breathtaking view of the harbor. Today, only the Tower of Homage and the original gatehouse remain of what once was an imposing structure. The Civil Prison resides within the grounds.
Duty Free Shopping in Gibraltar
Tourists also come for the duty free shopping. Main Street – pleasant and pedestrian oriented – is a beehive of activity, with small shops of all kinds plus the full panoply of British High Street Names. Casemate Square, at the mouth of Main Street, was once the site of hangings. The last victim was a Spanish spy during World War II. Now the square houses picturesque pubs, trendy restaurants – perfect for al fresco dining – and upscale shops. Merchants accept the British pound sterling without question, and most accept Euros.
The Pillars of Hercules
Hercules, in his tenth labor, was charged with the duty to fetch the cattle of Geryon. While engaging his quest, Hercules reached the edge of the Mediterranean, bordering with the Atlantic Ocean. The passage to the Atlantic was blocked by a mountain range which Hercules proceeded to demolish, thus creating the strait of Gibraltar which separates the Iberian Peninsula and Europe from Morocco Africa.
Being so far away from his beloved Greece and in order to be able to find his way back, Hercules erected pillars on both sides of the strait, one in Europe and one in Africa, to mark the vast distance (for ancient times) he had travelled. These pillars which today still stand are respectively called the Rock of Gibraltar or Mount Calpe on the European continent side, and Jebel Musa or Mount Abyla on the African continent side.
The legend of Hercules was deeply immersed in medieval naval tradition (Oceanography Before Scripps, Eric Mills, Dalhousie University, 2003). This is reinforced by recent archeological evidence. Archeologists in 2000 discovered embedded within the rock of Gibraltar a Phoenician shrine to Hercules dating to the eighth century BC .
The shrine’s orientation was such that it could easily be located by voyagers leaving the Mediterranean and heading on trading voyages into the Atlantic Ocean. The shrine contained a number of tokens possibly left by medieval voyagers as homage to Hercules to help them return home safely from their journeys into the largely unchartered territory of the Atlantic.
British Spanish Rivalry for Gibraltar
Gibraltar has been the site of contention, considering the fact that it is of strategic importance since it is in reality, and gateway to and from the Mediterranean Sea. Gibraltar was captured by the British during the war of the Spanish succession and was ceded to the British through the treaty of Utrecht.
Gibraltar was then developed into a strategic port for the British Navy and played important roles in various battles including Trafalgar, the battle for the Mediterranean during the Second World War, and the Suez crisis.
Gibraltar is still a cause for contention between Britain and Spain as it is considered a British overseas territory with Gibraltarians having been awarded (by Britain) full British citizenship.
Gibraltar is also part of the European Union with the full rights and privileges of EU member states which include the Gibraltarian right to participate in the European Parliament elections.