With its strategic position overlooking the strait that parts the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, Gibraltar remains in British hands. For tourists, it also makes an almost unique journey back to the colonial times when Britain ruled the world, reports Erik Bergin.
After the British handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997, there’s not much left of the former glorious British Empire, that once ruled land and seas around the globe.But one British outpost remains, undisturbed by Spain’s opposition: Gibraltar, with its mighty cliff looming over the Mediterranean on the northern, Spanish side of Strait of Gibraltar.
One can understand Spain’s frustration over the fact that London stubbornly refuses to hand back the cliff, which has been in British possession since 1713. On the other hand, why should they – after the War of the Spanish Succession the territory was ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Utrecht, quickly becoming an important naval base for the Royal Navy. Three hundred years later, tourism, gambling and shipping are the main driving forces behind the economy of Gibraltar.
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Gibraltar is a peculiar place. This small peninsula holds a transit and customs area, an airport, a port, a British village and two settlements, offices and the cliff itself, all in an area no larger than 6.8 km². It holds a position as one of the world’s most populous regions, with an average of 4,290 people per square kilometer.
We arrive by car from Spain, approaching the cliff from west. This makes for a good photo opportunity, with Gibraltar’s mountainous geography towering over the surrounding landscape (picture above).
Hitting the customs station a few minutes after our photo session, we expect entering Gibraltar to be an easy procedure. After all, it’s all Europe, right?
“Passports if you would, please, Sir.” A stiff British customs officer thoroughly examines our documents. He glares suspiciously at our rental car, with Spanish plates. We suddenly get the feeling that our passage into Gibraltar is not about experiencing a historic landmark, but exiting Spain and entering Great Britain. You can say much about the British, but they don’t take their duties lightly.
Having not pre-arranged any lodging, we go about finding a hostel in the small village. We soon find out it’s not cheap. In fact, prices seem higher than normal. A British bar tender explains why.
“The Brits fiddle with the exchange rate,” he says, apparently including himself in the ongoing scam. “Normally, the rate between the Euro and the Pound might be like 1.2–1.3. Here in Gibraltar, it can be like 1.7,” he says happily.
This means it is more expensive to buy British pounds in Gibraltar than in the UK, so it is a good idea to bring Sterling that you might have lying around at home into the colony.
Tales of high price tags in Gibraltar are plenty around the Internet’s many travel blogs, too.
“The lunch we had in a cafe in one of the side streets was quite forgettable and memorable only for how much it cost after the cheap meals in Spain. We were happy to leave Gibraltar and see no need to go back,” writes a couple of Aussies on their European road trip blog.
The Lonely Planet notes on its Gibraltar guide page that, “You can spend euros (except in pay phones and post offices) but conversion rates are poor.”
The postcard view from atop of the Rock offers a spectacular panorama over the strait between Africa and Europe. Photo: TravelingReporter.com
The actual town isn’t much to see either, carrying none of the charm and coziness that are generally found in small towns around Britain. As Photito writes on his blog, “Visually Gibraltar is not particularly pleasing to the eye. The population of roughly thirty thousand is rising, and as a small peninsula with a very large Rock in the middle, land is scarce. They reclaim land from the sea – almost continuously – in order to construct tall tower blocks, and in spite of short distances, the Gibraltarians are fond of their vehicles. Too much traffic and a lot of ugly high risers are not my favourite two things in the world, but if you manage to see beyond this, Gibraltar actually has a lot going for it.”
Really, Gibraltar tourism isn’t about offering an abundance of sights and experiences, but rather for the visitor to be able to pick out the good pieces from a rather narrow selection. It helps if you are into history, too, as this is first and foremost a historic landmark.
Gibraltar has some beaches, on the peninsula’s eastern side, so it is possible to stay and relax here for a few days if you pass the place on a Spanish road trip. However, considering the quite high prices and the fact that nearby Spain itself provides an endless row of beaches of all kinds, you probably shouldn’t travel to this British outpost just for the opportunity to go and have a swim.
Instead, Gibraltar’s main drawcard is the imposing Rock, rising 426 meters off the ground. You can buy a tour to the summit, or get the cable car to the top, but it’s also very much possible to drive yourself there. This is done via narrow serpentine roads, winding themselves upwards, passing lookouts and passages good for photos.
The cliff is home to a peculiar sort of monkeys, not afraid of humans and quite intrusive. Suddenly we hear a bump on the roof of the car. The next second a monkey sits on the hood, looking at us inside the vehicle as if we were animals ourselves.
The curiosity of his monkey got the better of him of her. Photo: TravelingReporter.com
But it is the spectacular view from the Rock’s summit that is the real drawcard of Gibraltar. From here, one can easily spot numerous vessels lying at anchor awaiting their turn to approach the port of Gibraltar, which is situated on the west side of the peninsula.
It is an eerie sight, which also explains why Gibraltar was, and apparently is (but perhaps for other reasons), such an important stronghold for the British. From the Rock, it is possible to keep track of virtually every vessel (above water) trying to make it in or out of the Mediterranean. During wartime, possession of the Rock was thus a huge strategical advantage.
These days, it at least makes for a good tourist destination, albeit not much more. But as a monument over Europe’s past, dark times, Gibraltar stands its ground.