There are rock stars and then there’s Gibraltar, the daddy of them all. Looming into view, its broody presence rises majestically above the strategically important Strait of Gibraltar while inside, a fascinating secret world awaits.
During the early days of World War II, no-one mentioned The Rock. Not even Spanish spies uncovered the Allies secret weapon being established inside this granite monolith where a group of British coal miners and Canadian engineers, who had tunneled through The Rockies, were blasting 50kms of tunnels as part of the Allies strategy to defeat the Nazis in North Africa. For the 5,000 men who called it home, the daily routine never varied. Work for eight hours, spend eight hours transporting rubble from the tunnels to build the runway near the coast below before sleeping for eight. No wonder they looked forward to their day off to swim, sunbathe (vitamin D on doctor’s orders), take a bath, play footie and eat a meal before being rostered back on. Physically part of Spain but strategically albeit controversially part of Great Britain, no visit is complete without exploring the dark subterranean world of its famous tunnels.
For Robert, for whom too many World War II television documentaries are never enough, the Gibraltar tunnel tour is a rock solid dream-come-true. “At one time, Gibraltar contained more anti-aircraft defenses than the City of London but Hitler made the tactical mistake of sending more troops to the Russian front rather than securing Gibraltar and they were never put to the test,” said Smudge, a former British Army officer and our tunnel tour guide. Ironically these days, around 40% of all visitors to the tunnels are German.
“I spent five days in the tunnels and when I left and walked into the bright sunlight, the earth was spinning,” said Smudge. To personalise this subterranean environment for its residents, the Rock wasn’t an anonymous series of tunnels. Everyone stationed there had an address with block number and street name. Breezy Great North Road is the Rock’s longest tunnel. Stretching for 3 km, it once housed part of this secret city’s stores, canteens, four hospitals, sleeping quarters and communications centers. The light is eerie and there’s the light sprinkling of a shower. The 200 million year old limestone rock is so porous, it even rains inside the tunnels!
Yo Ho Ho and a Barrel of Rum
Down in the town, the labyrinth of narrow one-way streets bristles with historic ‘blitz’ and pieces. In 1805, HMAS “Victory” was anchored in Rosia Bay Harbour for repairs after the Battle of Trafalgar waged off the nearby Spanish coast. Admiral Lord Nelson won the battle but lost his life and his body, preserved in a barrel of rum, was held here before being returned to England for a stately burial. To mark the spot, a 100-tonne Victorian Supergun is mounted at Nelson’s Anchorage silently commemorating English fire-power and engineering skills. South of the city walls, leafy Trafalgar Cemetery contains a small rectangle of well-tended early 19th century graves where settlers and those who fell during naval actions are interred beneath headstones with faded inscriptions.
With its British Bobbies and pints of ale, Gibraltar gives ex-pat Brits, now residents of the Costa del Sol, a nostalgic taste of Old Blighty. Restaurants are full while Main Street’s shops and bazaars are stocked with Moroccan leather-goods, Spanish shawls, British antiques and tacky souvenirs. Historic gems can be found, however, at The King’s Chapel where Tudor roses embellish the ceiling and a silver chalice records Gibraltar’s capture by the British from the Spanish in 1704. Casemates Square is a short stroll away, a former parade ground and infamous public hanging site while fanning out from this busy square, Baker’s Passage, Tank Ramp, Castle Steps and Bomb House Lane all conjure up images of conspiracies hatched down shadowy alleys.
Over centuries, generations of Genoese and Maltese fishermen, Portuguese and Indian merchants together with the British military have all left their indelible mark through architecture, history and trade. An 11th century Tower of Homage is all that remains of the once extensive Moorish castle that dominated the land entrance to Gibraltar. Jewish-Moroccan merchants who once lived and worked alongside their Moorish masters left centuries ago but in 1713 a new wave of migration from Holland and Morocco rolled in. Their six hundred descendants now have a choice of four synagogues, one nestled alongside a Hindu temple, another by an Anglican cathedral built with Moorish architectural overtones. Looking south from Europa Point and just 54 kms away, the lights of Tangiers gleam tantalizingly. Behind us, the mighty Rock towers over a clearing of land where the impressive Ibrahim-Al-Ibrahim Mosque is a palpable symbol of Gibraltar’s past and present. As the sun sets, taking a cable car ride to the top of this impregnable Rock provides staggering vistas of the Strait of Gibraltar that ties the continents of Europe and Africa with a shimmering, aquatic ribbon.
British Airways and Easyjet have 35 direct flights a week from London’s Gatwick, Luton and Manchester airports. Iberian Airways fly direct from Madrid to Gibraltar. By road, Gibraltar is reached through the Spanish frontier town of La Linea de la Concepcion.
The Rock is a jumping-off point for southern Spain with Cadiz, Malaga, Granada, Ronda and Seville all within easy reach by road or rail. Across the strait, Tangier and Ceuta are serviced by daily steamers that operate from Ferry Terminal, Waterport Wharf Road.
Gibraltar has a limited number of hotels, hostels and accommodation to rent. The Rock Hotel, built by the Marquise of Bute in 1932, offers old-fashioned service with modern amenities including wifi connections in rooms. One hundred rooms and suites have a refurbished colonial atmosphere and all have sweeping views over Admiralty Harbour and Gibraltar Bay. Enjoy a complimentary nightcap before sharing a deep bath with a flotilla of ducks.
The Rock Hotel, 3 Europa Road, Gibraltar. Phone (350) 73000, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rockhotelgibraltar.com
Daily tours of Gibraltar’s major attractions can be arranged through the tourism office in Casements Square or The Gibraltar Tourist Board located in Cathedral Square, Gibraltar. Phone +350 74950. You can also pre-book on line on email@example.com
World War II tunnels, Hay’s Level, Upper Rock. Open Mon-Sat, 10.30am – 4.30pm Adults and children over 12 GBP8: children under 12 free.
For general information visit www.visitgibraltar.gi
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