It’s amazing how six square kilometers of rock at the edge of a peninsula can be so different from the land it’s attached to. But this is not just any rock – it’s the infamous Rock of Gibraltar, a tiny British enclave surrounded by sea and Spain. And we got to visit.
Gibraltar’s entire aura was a world apart from the working-class, tapas bar-filled, Spanish-speaking town we’d cycled from. As we followed the hordes of Spanish commuters across the border control and the airport runway, I sensed a strong military presence. Classy convertibles zoomed along the narrow, pristine streets. Petrol stations and duty-free shops advertised sales in British pounds. And above it all, of course, loomed that giant mohawk-shaped rock.
It was all very British, yet it wasn’t. As we dismounted our bikes and began to explore the pedestrian-only Main Street, I heard English, of course, but also Spanish. There were pubs on every corner, but they all had tons of outdoor seating because of the very un-English weather. There were red telephone booths and red double-decker buses – but these iconic British sights seemed out of place in a town that boasted a harbor, a multi-million-dollar marina, and 300 days of sun a year. Heck, the residents of Gibraltar even drove on the right side of the road!
Still, we planned to do very British things during our day in Gibraltar. But first, I needed to get out of my sweaty cycling clothes. I headed into the first pub, where, excited to speak English to the waiter, I blurted out, “Please may I use your restroom so I can change my pants?” The moment the words were out of my mouth, I realized what I’d said. The English use the word “trousers” to denote the clothes you wear on your legs; to them, “pants” mean “underwear”. I’d just asked to use the toilet so I could change my underwear! My first time in a country that speaks my mother tongue in months and I’d already put my foot in my mouth! The waiter raised his eyebrows and sniggered as he showed me “the loo”.
Bruno and I wandered up and down Main Street, which, because of big English names – like Top Shop and Mark’s and Spencer’s – amid loads of duty-free shops, felt like an odd cocktail of of England and Andorra La Veilla. When our appetite arrived, I brought Bruno into a proper English pub – with a proper English pub name – and introduced him to a full English breakfast. For only a few quid, we feasted on eggs, toast with jam and butter, beans, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, and of course, English breakfast tea. Later in the afternoon, we would sit at a different pub and down a pint of ale. When in Britain, do like the British, right?
Gibraltar has been a prized piece of rock for millennia. The Phoenicians were the first people brave enough to cross it; thereafter, the landmark denoted the starting point of the Atlantic Ocean. Later, the Romans conquered it, and then the Moors, led by Tarik ibn Ziyad. The name Jebel Tarik, Arab for Tarik Mountain, even gave Gibraltar its current name.
For the past several hundred years, the greatest European powers have fought over Tarik’s Mountain. It was taken by the Brits in 1704 and, though it was made official soon after through a series of treaties, sieges have been more common on this small chunk of rock than almost anywhere else in Europe. Indeed, one historian noted that Gibraltar is “one of the most densely fortified and heavily fought-over places in Europe.”
It’s the strategic position of the peninsula that makes it so desirable. It served as a key stopover point for British vessels en route to India via the Suez Canal; later, it was an all-important tactical element during WWII, as it essentially gave them control of the Mediterranean Sea.
There are an impressive amount of history- and war-related sights to visit as a tourist, especially up on the rock. I’m guessing Gibraltar is a sort of pilgrimage for Brits interested in their own history. I, however, was more interested in the naturalist (and, of course, the gastronomic) side of Gibraltar. I wanted to visit the Rock!
At the tourist office, we learned that, to get to the top of the rock, we could take a tourist taxi, join a guided tour, or take a funicular. But it was a gorgeous day, and we were wearing sneakers. Couldn’t we walk up the rock, we asked.
We got the same kind of look you’d get if you’d asked an Englishman to use the restroom to change your pants.
Still, we persevered, and eventually found out that for 1EUR a person, you can walk up and around the Rock of Gibraltar on its many short walking trails. So that is what we did. And it was the highlight of the day.
We wandered up from Main Street past streets with adorable English names and even more adorable steep walkways. We walked past beautiful cathedrals and old castles overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar, the Union Jack waving in the wind. And we hiked all the way up that steep rock, stopping for views (and our breath) at the many viewpoints along the way.
During our final haul in Morocco, we’d driven into the High Atlas Mountains and caught a very quick glimpse of the Barbary macaques, an endangered species endemic to the Maghreb region of Africa. As it turns out, those very same macaques live a very cushy life on the Rock of Gibraltar. They most likely came to the Iberian Peninsula with the Moors as their pets; now, their population is thriving more than those that still live in North Africa! That’s probably because they’re fed daily by local staff, and because they are the biggest tourist attraction in a country that sees almost 10 million tourists a year!
Or maybe it’s because of local legend, which states that as long as the Barbary macaques exist on Gibraltar, the territory will remain under British rule.
Bruno and I really enjoyed getting to see the apes close-up, especially as we had been disappointed not to see more of them in Morocco. We watched them at the Apes’ Den, then crossed the Queen’s Gate and climbed the 662 steps up the old Charles V Wall, watching the apes all the while. I was a bit nervous on the steps, as there were signs saying the macaques could become aggressive on the narrow wall if they felt trapped. Sure enough, one giant macaque stood in the center of the steps, blocking my view, and it took me a good 10 minutes to muster up enough courage to pass him by.
The tourists at the top of the steps didn’t show the same caution. They were with a tour leader who was illegally feeding the apes so as to attract them onto their shoulders for photo ops. Bruno and I, angered by this irresponsible behavior, took photos of the guide and then found a security officer who was very grateful to receive the photos in order to prosecute and fine the tour guide (apparently tourists rarely react the way we did, go figure). Feeding the apes has already caused them to forget their social structure and become dependent on humans for their food; it had led them to forage down in the city, destroying property in the process; and it has caused more than one unfortunate run-in with tourists. When will tourists – and their guides – learn to view animals responsibly?
The views from the top of the Rock of Gibraltar were indeed beautiful. On one side, we could see the city of Gibraltar, its bay, and the port of Algeciras, where our ferry from Morocco had arrived. You could even see Morocco, which made me slightly nostalgic. On the other side, we could look far out into the Mediterranean Sea, where several tankers were bobbing at a distance. The Rock on this side was steep, rugged, and mostly undeveloped, apart from a single road and two little beaches. I stood at the top of the Rock feeling very much alive and very thankful for our wonderful day.
I hadn’t planned Gibraltar to impress me; in fact, I hadn’t even planned to visit. I’d been vaguely curious about this tiny British enclave, but it was more opportunity (opportunity being a quiet and cheap campsite nearby with a coastal bike path leading right to Gibraltar!) than desire that had brought us to the Rock that day.
I’m learning, more and more, that it’s those unplanned, unexpected moments of travel that are often the best. The surprises that come in between our planned destinations often become the highlights of our time. Our day in Gibraltar was no exception.