Gibraltar – A piece of Britain in the Mediterranean

Known as ‘The Rock’, Gibraltar is a little bit of Britain in the Mediterranean. The ownership of this tiny piece of land has long been a sensitive issue with the neighbouring Spanish. In Greek mythology, Gibraltar (Calpe) was one of the Pilars of Hercules marking the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. The north coast of Africa is just 14 miles away and can be seen from Europa Point, making Gibraltar a place of strategic importance. Britain took control of the Rock in 1713 and it was formally declared a colony in 1830. It was also here where the HMS Victory underwent repairs after the Battle of Trafalgar before returning back to Britain with Nelson’s body. In 2002, there was a referendum where the locals overwhelming rejected any involvement by Spain in their government.

The locals are proud to be British citizens and while on the Rock, you are under no illusion that it is anything other than British. Street names such as “Winston Churchill Avenue”, the cash machines churn out £10 notes (proper ones, not like ones from Scotland), familiar high street names like Marks & Spencer, pictures of the Queen in the hotels, pubs such as the “Lord Nelson”..you get the idea. The one concession that has been made is that traffic flows on the right hand side of the road on the narrow, badly signposted one-way system of Gibraltar.

The airport at Gibraltar is owned by the Ministry of Defence for use by the Royal Air Force as RAF Gibraltar. Civilian flights share the runway which dissects Winston Churchill Avenue. This means every time a plane lands or takes off, the main street has to be closed to traffic for around 10 minutes. While this feature of Gibraltar is part of its charm, it also means that only a few flights a day can land / take off without causing severe traffic disruption. A new airport is planned which will give the airport a large increase in capacity and a tunnel under the runway which will reduce tailbacks and delays. Once completed, the new Gibraltar airport will give both Gibraltar and the Andalucia region of Spain a better air link.

There is a still a big military presence in Gibraltar with the very upper part of the rock out of bounds to the public. For the tourist, the majority of the attractions are in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. If you have a car, you can drive the route yourself otherwise there are plenty of companies who are willing to take you. Once you’ve paid your entrance, the first point of call are the spectacular St Michael’s Caves. Around 300m above sea level, they are one of Europe’s most natural grottoes.

Next stop is Apes’ Den. The most famous residents of Gibraltar are the Barbary Macaques and they roam freely throughout the nature reserve. Despite giving the impression they are tame, visitors must remember they are wild animals who will bite. They aren’t shy about stealing food or other belongings and will almost certainly try to get into your vehicle if given the opportunity.

The Great Siege Tunnels were excavated by the British Army during the siege of 1779-1783. Visitors can’t fail to be impressed with this defence system which gives a fantastic view from the rock over the airport into Spain. The military theme continues at the Military Heritage Centre where there is an array of artefacts housed in Princess Caroline’s Battery.  The City Under Siege Exhibition demonstrates the appalling conditions the British soldiers had to survive under during the Great Siege and there is graffiti dating back to the 18th century.

The final point of interest on the Upper Rock is the Moorish Castle that dates back to the 14th century. It is located on the north-western slope and its Tower of Homage dominates the only land entrance to Gibraltar. Your entry ticket to the National Park also gets you into one more place; the 100 Ton Gun which is located down in the town. This fearsome weapon had a bore of 17.72 inches, fired a 371 kg shell which was capable of piercing 16.3 inches of mild steel at a range of 2,000 yards.

Gibraltar is well worth a visit as it is a unique place for the curious traveller either as a short break or part of a longer trip to Andalucia.

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