The One with Gibraltar, United Kingdom


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

No we didn't stop mid-southern-Spain and fly to the United Kingdom, there's a piece of it at the bottom of Spain: Gibraltar!

It was beautiful one hour drive from Marbella to Gibraltar. We all gasped when we saw the famous rock waaaay off in the distance. It's huge, even from afar!
A little about Gibraltar: "One of the last bits of the empire upon which the sun never set, Gibraltar is a quirky mix of Anglican propriety, 'God Save the Queen' tattoos, English bookstores, military memories, fish 'n chips, and tourist shops. It's understandably famous for its dramatic Rock of Gibraltar, which rockets improbably into the air (I'll say!) from an otherwise flat terrain, dwarfing everything around it. If the Rock didn't exist, some clever military tactician would have tried to build it to keep an eye on the Straight of Gibraltar. From a traveler's perspective, Gibraltar - with its funky combination of Brits, monkeys, and that breathtaking Rock - is an offbeat detour that adds some variety to a Spanish itinerary.

The Rock of Gibraltar as we approached from the north in Spain.
The border crossing proves it: this little spit of land with the oversize rock is not Spain anymore. We waited in a short line to enter. When we got to the Gibraltar border guard we asked him if we could get stamps in our passports. He said no and that they only give them to EU citizens. Bummer! If you make us stop at the border you should at least give us a passport stamp, just sayin'.
Britain has controlled this highly strategic piece of land since they took it by force in 1704 in the War of Spanish Succession. In 1779, while Britain was preoccupied with its troublesome overseas colonies (#Merica), Spain and France declared war and tried to retake Gibraltar; a series of 14 sieges became a way of life, and the already imposing natural features of the Rock were used for defensive purposes. During World War II, the Rock was further fortified and dug through with more and more strategic tunnels. As recently as the mid- to late 20th century, during the Franco period, tensions ran high and Britain's grasp on the Rock was tenuous. But, to this day, it remains a realm of the Queen. Most Spainards aren't thrilled with this enclave of the Commonwealth on their sunny shores. 

See that mass of land across the straight? That's AFRICA. So cool.
After crossing the border and saying "Adios" to Spain for the day, we headed straight for the Rock. A taxi driver got our attention while we were cruising along and told us the cable car was closed for maintenance but he'd love to be our tour guide up the rock. We said, thanks, but no, and decided to just head up the Rock in our Hummer-like van and see what happened. We followed signs for the Rock and stopped at a little booth, bought tickets, they lifted the gate, and we were in! Or, maybe "on." We parked the car near our first stop, the cave of St. Michael's.

The Rock of Gibraltar is the colony's best sight. Its attractions include: the stupendous view from the top, mischievous apes, the cave, and the impressive siege tunnels drilled through the rock for military purposes. 
Monkeys everywhere! When Chris was buying the admission tickets he asked the woman where we could see the monkeys. She said, "Oh you'll see them. They're everywhere." She was right, they weren't hard to find. 
With two little kids, its natural that we always have snacks in our stroller. After we parked we threw my bag in the bottom of the stroller and started walking to the cave entrance and towards where some monkeys were hanging out on the railing. As Chris walked along pushing the stroller, a monkey jumped down off the railing, beelined it for our stroller, expertly grabbed our bag of Gardetto's, and hopped up onto a roof. All in the blink of an eye! The kids thought it was hilarious and kept saying, "The monkey took our snacks!" and laughed their heads off. Fool me once, shame on you... Fool me twice... well... stay tuned...
We crouched down to take a family photo with a monkey on the background but I guess he was camera shy and bolted which scared the beejeezies out of us as you can plainly see.
The Rock is home to about 200 Barbary macaques monkeys. The males are bigger, the females have beards, and the newborns are black. Legend has it that as long as the monkeys remain here, so will the Brits. (According to a plausible legend, when word came a few decades back that the ape population was waning, Winston Churchill made a point to import reinforcements).
Fox with a baby monkey.
As we were walking back to the car another monkey grabbed Jane's shirt and then stole the pretzels out of my bag! GAH!!
When we were satiated with our ape adventures, we headed into the cave of St. Michael.
Studded with stalagmites and stalactites, funkily lit, and echoing with music ranging from classical to rave, this cave is dramatic and awesome and a total surprise for me - I had no idea it even existed! This cave system was alluded to in ancient Greek legends - when the caves were believed to be the Gates of Hades (or the entrance of a tunnel to Africa).
Apparently they hold concerts inside here and the Queen has visited before. But only once.
The Evans Family inside St. Michael's Cave, Gibraltar, United Kingdom, Friday February 6th 2015.
We explored more of the cave, which Fox thought was "super cool awesome," and then head out to see more of the Rock.
Evans family on the Rock, with more of the Rock in the background, on Friday February 6th 2015.
As you might imagine, land is in short supply in Gibraltar so the airport runway cuts right through the main drag into town. When a plane needs to land or take off, they close the road just like a railroad crossing and the plane "flies" by.
We headed into some of the siege tunnels. Also called the Upper Galleries, these chilly tunnels were blasted out of the rock by the Brits during the Great Siege by the Spanish and French forces in 1779-1783. The clever British, safe inside the rock, wanted to chip and dig to a highly strategic outcrop called "The Notch," ideal for mounting a big gun. After blasting out some ventilation holes for the miners they had an even better idea: Use gunpowder to carve out a whole network of tunnels with shafts that would be ideal for aiming artillery. Eventually they excavated St. George's Hall (in the photo below), a huge cavern that houses seven guns.
These were the first tunnels inside the Rock; more than a century and a half later, during World War II, 30 more miles of tunnels were blasted out.
We followed the tunnel all the way to the lookout on the opposite side of the Rock.

Beautiful views on a beautiful day!
Another sight on the Rock is the Moorish Castle. Actually more a tower than a castle, this recently restored building is basically an empty shell. It was constructed on top of the original castle built in A.D. 711 by the Moor Tarik ibn Ziyad.
When we were looking at the runway from the lookout point near the tunnels we were talking about how cool it would be to actually see a plane land or takeoff from the airport. Lo and behold, we saw one as were leaving the castle! See all the cars lined up waiting for the road to open again? So funny.
We left the Rock, formally called the "Upper Rock Nature Reserve," and found a little cafe with a lovely outdoor patio for lunch. I had the best burger I've had in Europe here. Mwah! So good.
Full and refreshed, we were ready to explore the town.
Gibraltar town is long and skinny with one main street (called... Main Street). Though it may be hard to imagine a community of 30,000 that feels like its own nation, real Gibraltarians are a proud bunch. They were evacuated during WWII and it's said that after their return, a national spirit was forged. 
Strolling Gibraltar you can see that it was designed as a modern military town. But over the last 20 years the economy has gone from one dominated by the military to one based on tourism. On summer days and weekends, the tiny colony is inundated by holiday-goers, including Brits who want a change in weather but not in culture. As more and more glitzy high-rise resorts squeeze between the stout fortresses and ramparts - as if trying to create a mini-Monaco - there's a sense that this town is in transition.
We strolled the main drag. Chris found some Mountain Dew (only the second place he's found it outside of an American military post in Europe) so he was content. We walked down to courthouse and the small tropical garden in front of it. John Lennon and Yoko got married here back in 1969. Sean Connery got hitched here, too! Actually, many Brits like to get married here because weddings are cheap, fast (only 48 hours' notice required), and legally recognized as British.
The Catholic cathedral here retains a whiff of Arabia as it was built upon the remnants of a mosque.
The Evans Family enjoying the British culture of Gibraltar by cramming in an iconic red telephone booth. 
 Lovely plant covered building.
We passed by a Marks & Spencer, a department store I remember well from my study abroad in London.
Anglican church.
It definitely has a British feel to it. This little outpost of the UK is so cool.
Top notch!
Looking up at the Rock from the town.
Well, all good things must come to an end and we still had to drive about forty five minutes to Tarifa where we were sleeping that night so we loaded up and headed... well, nowhere. There was a huuuuuuuuuge and slooooooooow line trying to cross back into Spain. Apparently a ton of people cross into Gibraltar to shop (tax-free booze, cigarettes, sugar, etc) so customs takes a while. Even though we hadn't purchased anything, we got stop and searched. Probably because we were driving a large, conspicuous van.
After crossing back into Spain we drove out to get some views of the Rock. We found a perfect place and stopped to take photos. 

Evans family in front of the Rock of Gibraltar on Friday February 6th 2015.
Just for kicks and giggles - John Lennon and Yoko in almost the same spot in 1969:
Next stop: Tarifa, Spain & Tangier, MOROCCO!
Paige Taylor Evans © // Quinn Creatives DESIGN