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It must be a special kind of place if over 30.000 people of many different religions live around and on a massive Rock that once upon a time, in antiquity and Greek mythology, was thought off as the end of the world and the Portal to Hades, the underworld.
We know better nowadays than to mistake this intriguing melting pot at the tip of the Spanish peninsula and just 14 km off the Moroccan coast for the last inhabited place of mankind. Instead, and despite its rather tiny size of 6.7 km2 (2.6 sq mi) it is nowadays known for being a great tourist destination, one of the most densely populated territories in the world and a much fought over geographical hot spot, claimed by Britain as well as Spain.
For me as a half Spaniard, it was a very unusual experience to “travel” the few meters that separate the British Overseas territory from the Spanish town la Linea de la Concepcion, passing a border control with slightly angry seeming Spanish frontier policemen and suddenly being emerged in a completely different world.
A journey to a distinct world of its own – British and then some
I didn’t expect it but Gibraltar truly turned out to be an absolutely contrasting place to Andalusia, the Southern Spanish autonomous community surrounding it. A town with its own character, architecture, a very unique vibe and an interesting population. I also got to experience the worst food and the best macaque shot I had ever taken…more on that later. Our adventure started with my friends and me hopping on the bus that conveniently stopped just off the entry point and brought us to the city center. Wherever I gazed upon: everything was suddenly labelled in English, and even the postboxes, yellow in Spain, denoted their British and in this case red identity.
When we got off the bus we were greeted by some canons pointing at us – well, not directly at us of course, but they were definitely showing off! Canons and other war memorabilia turned out to be an inherent part of the Gibraltarian cityscape – no wonder considering the role wars played in Gibraltar’s history.
Just to get a tiny insight: The origins of Gibraltar as we know it today lead back to 1704, when an Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar from Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession (little side – note for the History geeks: this happened on behalf of the Habsburg pretender to the Spanish throne). The Spaniards did not realize in time how crucial Gibraltar’s extremely well positioned geographical location was to their interests and subsequently ceded Gibraltar to Britain “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Furthermore, it served as an important base for the Royal Navy during World War II. Got it? Awesome, let’s continue our little tale then.
The potato crime or what happened to glorious backed potatoes
Once we had walked around the picturesque historic center of Gibraltar, admiring its unique architecture, statues and variety of churches – you can find everything from the Church of Scotland to synagogues and mosques there- , we figured it would be interesting to try out some Gibraltarian food. It stands to reason that therefore we chose to eat in a British Pub close to the main square. Oh boy…I can just say these words: not-so-yum-at-freaking-all! Not knowing what a typical Gibraltarian food experience would be like, I helplessly ended up ordering a jacked potato. Little did I know then that it would be the completely massacred, tortured and unrecognizable potato cousin from hell, basically the black sheep sibling of my beloved good old yummy potato deliciousness!
I actually still don’t know what that poor potato had done to deserve such a ferocious treatment. Managing to stuff a part of it in my mouth and to almost mask my absolute terror we then decided to flee the place of kitchen crime and find some solace in Gibraltar’s absolutely stunning Botanical Gardens. The beauty of its myriad of plants, cacti, and subtropical flowers flourishing in Gibraltar’s warm Mediterranean climate immediately softened the potato blow.
The Rock of Gibraltar
To the back of the Gardens, the majestic Rock of Gibraltar overlooks the Mediterranean ocean and beckoned us insistently to find out its secrets. Luckily we found a smokey voiced earth mother – taxi driver willing to show us what was still accessible of the Rock on a Friday at almost sunset – and so the adventure mix of nearly peeing my pants on the one hand and sheer fascination and awe on the other hand began.
While the long haired, intimidatingly assertive Gibraltarian women told us all about her hometown with her gin colored Jazz voice, she drove in a slightly disconcerting speed up the Rock, with its narrow, nah rather super extremely narrow roads, and absolutely no freaking gate to protect a possible slight swerve ! I did not know what to focus on: the awe-inspiring beauty of the Mediterranean sea and the closeness of Morocco, which seemed to challenge me to take a dip and swim across, as the Mediterranean sea is only 13 kilometers/ eight miles wide at this point. Or the at least in my mind very realistic option of an untimely death in this Gibraltarian’s possibly chain smoker’s car…
At two points though we could luckily catch a break. At first, we stopped at the ‘Pilares de Hercules’, Pillars of Hercules, a monument describing how the Strait of Gibraltar was seen and called in antiquity. From there you can enjoy a mind-blowing panorama view of the narrow strait that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates Europe from Africa. There is no other place where the two continents are that close! Even swimming the 14 km might be an option for some, or alternatively crossing over by pedaling on a giant manmade sea bike, such as Australian comedians Hamish Blake and Andy Lee attempted.
Hanging out with Europe’s only wild monkey population
We decided not to venture on to Africa this time, but to continue in our speedy taxi and visit the world famous Gibraltarian macaques, one of Gibraltar’s strongest allures, as it is home to the last free-range population of monkeys in Europe! Lucky for us, we had the top of the Rock, located in the protected Upper Nature Reserve, where the monkeys usually hang out, almost exclusively to ourselves.
The monkeys around us were very curious and absolutely unapologetic: they climbed on our taxi, jumped up and down and did all the things monkeys love to do, aka monkey mischief was the go! However, we did also find a very thoughtful seeming monkey doing its evening meditation overlooking the ocean…so no prejudices! Our guide managed to get an absolutely brilliant shot with one of these macaques:
Afterwards, she introduced us a bit more to them: there are approximately about 230 Barbary macaques on the rock, and they hold quite the significance for the place. As the legend goes, Gibraltar stays British as long as there are macaques on the Rock! When numbers seemed to diminish during World War II, Winston Churchill grew so concerned with the legend that he even imported more of the monkeys from the Atlas mountains in Morocco. Powerful little ones! So show some respect when you visit them- also as bites do happen. I mean, how would you react if your home got invaded daily by a horde of unknown nosy guests? Read more on how a Tampon could cause an attack by the monkeys on American Pie actor Jason Biggs ( common, it wasn’t even an apple pie!) or how the guitarist of the Rolling Stones tried to bond with the Barbary macaques over some LSD in the olden days and ended up in tears and completely distraught by their disapproval in the Guardian’s article on Gibraltar.
Just while the sun was setting it was time for us to leave the Rock and Gibraltar, including its peculiar airport strip, one of the most dangerous in the world, its peacefully cohabiting mix of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and believers of other faiths, its distinctly British and then some identity and its many more surprises to be discovered. We will be back though, you amazing Rock City!
Back to you, dear reader: What about you, have you ever been to Gibraltar? What were your favorite things to experience there? Also, have you ever had any encounters with mischievous monkeys at all? Share below if you like and thanks for reading! As always, I´d love to hear from you:)