Sitting just short of the southernmost point of the Spanish mainland is the peninsula of Gibraltar. The imposing rock around which the city thrives is the feature it’s typically known for – but with the rich culture that in turn thrives within the city, its multifarious historical attractions, and, of course, the resident Barbary macaques, Gibraltar promises something for everyone. However, there’s more to this neighbourhood than meets the eye; pinned to the same country that’s trying to suffocate it with its own politics, the Gibraltarian community has proven itself to be as immovable as the rock it has made its home.
In 2013, the peninsula celebrated three hundred years of British rule, yet the topic of Gibraltar’s ownership has been a long-disputed one, and British claim has been met with instances of Spanish indignation on numerous occasions. Attempts to reclaim Gibraltar date back to the Great Siege of 1779 and, on October 31st 2014, the city witnessed a performance of suspected intimidation tactics from the Spanish air force when the untimely entrance of a military jet prevented a British Airways flight (London outbound) from landing at Gibraltar International Airport.
Yet despite the disapproval of the Spaniards, the little settlement remains firmly under the jurisdiction of the Brits, with popular opinion not having changed much from the 2002 referendum (the proposal to ‘share’ the territory between Britain and Spain was opposed by more than 98% of Gibraltarians) up until last year, when the peninsula’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo stated “The people of Gibraltar, the government of Gibraltar, the parliament of Gibraltar – we are all united in wanting to remain British.”
Home to an excess of 29,000 Spaniards, Italians, Brits, Maltese, Portuguese, Germans and North Africans, the city boasts a figure of near 13,000 people per square mile. This puts its population density at double that of the UK. It also endows Gibraltar with a strikingly diverse culinary culture, boasted in its numerous cafes, bars and restaurants.
Catering to Moroccan and Jewish tastes, the restaurant Verdi Verdi humbly presents itself as ‘The Hummus Centre of Excellence’ meanwhile your cravings for aromatic Indian dishes are covered by Charlie’s Tavern and Gatsby’s, with the latter also serving Spanish, French and British cuisine. For that British appetite you just can’t suppress, the Marquis of Bute’s Rock Hotel serves tea and scones daily (in between courses of Iberian and North African-inspired cooking, naturally).
On the days you’re feeling open minded, a stroll around Casemates Square will reveal not only a barrage of art galleries bursting with the works of Mediterranean artists, but also an enticing line of friendly bistros and tapas bars. Look out for Gibraltar’s national dish Calentita – a baked chickpea recipe brought over by Genoese settlers and found in any local eatery. If you visit at the right time of the year you definitely won’t miss it; the peninsula honours its local cuisine annually at the Calentita! food festival.
Despite the welcoming nature of the city itself, it could hardly be nestled against a less appealing area of Spain. 3 miles down the coast, the San Roque oil refinery squats overlook the Gibraltarian Strait, belching out fumes and dirtying the surrounding waters.
Further inland, on the outskirts of La Línea, lies a monstrous Carrefour hypermarket, stocking everything from frozen vegetables to puppies, which peer hopefully up at shoppers from the glass showcases lining the mall walkways they live in until sold (¿Cuánto es ese perrito en la ventana?). Unfortunately, this sucks away what little of the town’s traditional charm remains.
Gibraltar boasts a strikingly diverse culinary culture, with its numerous cafes, bars and restaurants
Not a day goes by without at least a dozen cargo ships and oil tankers crawling across the bay, with the Strait of Gibraltar providing passage for over 100,000 vessels every year. These freighters aren’t simply a polluting eyesore though; recently they have been attracting unwanted attention. In late October 2014, it was reported that the chiefs of the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation had slapped a target on the tankers of the Strait, ordering their disruption either with the use of explosives or through hijackings. In the position that it is, the area faces major problems; the danger presented to the local Spaniards and Gibraltarians by the possibility of beached ships, the destruction of fishing grounds in the case of an attacked tanker leaking oil, and the inevitable decline of the coastline’s tourism industry upon discovery of the threat. Thus, these waters are currently under the protection of NATO vessels, while Gibraltar’s own Royal Navy squadron are also patrolling.
For what seems like an incredibly small settlement, Gibraltar draws an astonishing volume of interest from the rest of the world. Current issues aside, the peninsula has played a big role in past events. It’s a historical hotspot, and its networks of tunnels are evidence enough of this. The first instance of underground work began in 1782, during the Great Siege. These tunnels were later extended massively in order to accommodate soldiers and supplies in the Second World War. The rock’s new interior architecture was no less than a fortress, strong enough to defend from offensive forces.
St. Michael’s cave, an ancient hollow in the heart of the rock, is another site well worth exploring. Rediscovered in the Second World War, the cave was furnished as a stand-by hospital, though it never saw use. Presently, this spectacular cavern is open to tourists and lends itself as a natural auditorium for orchestral concerts and theatre.
Above ground, the Alameda Gardens provide a breath of fresh air and a striking splash of colour. Following Gibraltar’s largely military employment, Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Don envisaged a botanical Eden; somewhere on the peninsula for residents to enjoy as a recreational resource. The result was Alameda. Amongst its collection of plants and trees from around the world, including the Atlantic Island’s Dragon tree, the Washingtonia of North America and the Chinese Hibiscus, the garden displays a number of wartime relics and two notable memorials; The Eliott and The Wellington.
Gibraltar may be small, but it’s not a destination to be overlooked. Trust yourself to this energetic little city. Here, you needn’t go hunting for monkey business – it’ll find you.