By Monika Komar
The tiny British overseas territory of Gibraltar might not be the obvious tourist destination, often outshone by the neighbouring Andalusia and Morocco. Chosen for a weekend away, though, it has a lot to offer – from stunning views to adorable monkeys and unique British-Spanish vibe.
Visiting a friend who grew up there I got to spend a weekend exploring this beautiful, weird little country at the end of the world (almost) and discover what hides under the Gibraltar Rock.
Getting to Gibraltar from the UK is easy with cheap, regular flights from London airports as well as some of the major cities like Manchester and Birmingham. Reaching it by air is an adventure in itself – the airport is famous for its runway crossing a four-lane main road, which earned it the title of one of world’s most extreme airports. Every time a plane lands, the road gets closed, creating a bizarre air traffic pattern and significant traffic on the ground. From Europe, you can fly to Malaga, located an hour and a half away from Gibraltar, and if you’re travelling across Spain by bus, heading to La Línea de la Concepción is your best bet – the Spanish town is on the frontier with Gibraltar.
Home to 30,000 citizens, Gibraltar has a feel of a small Spanish town thanks to its location on the Iberian Peninsula and whirlwind history of being once governed by the Spanish royals. Open air architecture, cobbled streets, palm trees – all within a stone’s throw away from Spain’s southern region of Andalusia. The border between the two merely suggests you move across countries as you pass through an office, flashing an ID at the guard and there you are – Spain is your oyster.
But then, Gibraltar is very British in many ways and the Union Jack flaps proudly on top of all important buildings. New housing estates and offices – including what must be world’s smallest World Trade Centre, modern marina and the town centre full of shops you would find on any decent British high street make it seem more, well, British.
It’d be too simplistic to say Gibraltar is a combination of the Spanish and British, though. It really is a unique place that somehow managed to create its own identity, keeping the best of both worlds.
And adding monkeys to the mix. But I’ll get to that later.
The Med Steps
One of the things everyone has to do in Gibraltar is to climb the Mediterranean Steps, a path and nature trail going up the Rock. Advertised as a difficult walk, particularly for those with vertigo, it’s a gorgeous hike and the effort the steep steps might pose is generously rewarded with views of the clear blue water, ships passing by and north Africa on the horizon.
If you’re lucky enough to have a guide with you like I did, the Med Steps are also an incredible history lesson. Although some parts of the path are prehistoric in nature, other bits were created by the military to serve as a communication system and as you climb it, you can see the gun batteries and bunkers dating to the second World War, which in itself is extraordinary when you think about it.
The Med Steps aren’t the end of it, once you’ve reached the top. From there, it’s only a short walk to the other part of the Upper Rock where it all gets real as that’s where you can meet the famous Gibraltar monkeys.
The Rock and the monkeys occupying it are probably what Gibraltar is known for the most. The Rock is actually full of secrets of its own. Most of its upper area is covered by a nature reserve – home to 300 macaques. Down below, it hides a system of underground passages, known as Galleries or Great Siege Tunnels. Those tunnels made the Rock crucial for defending shipping routes to the Mediterranean when the World War II broke out. Gibraltar was incredibly well fortified against a possible German attack and the most interesting, or bizarre perhaps, part of the defence plan was concealing some servicemen inside the rock, equipped with radio to report enemy movements, for two and a half years, as my friend-guide informed me. Not the best of jobs, but luckily they never had to be actually sealed in there.
Above all the history, monkeys picked the Upper Rock as their home. First, we saw an old one just sitting in the middle of the road, looking bored. Going further up, more of them emerged. Big and small, they were mostly ignorant of us walking past. Some of them were playing, others groomed one another, some slept. Gibraltar helps to feed them and in the spot where they get their goodies, the situation was a bit more chaotic, with monkeys jumping from the rocks on to the cars and people’s shoulders. They might look cute and cuddly, but they are far from being tamed and wouldn’t think twice about snatching your chocolate bar. Still, they are a lot of fun to watch – preferably from a slight distance.
Tapas and accommodation
Cuisine is where Gibraltar’s geographical location works to its advantage the most – the choice of tapas bars and Moroccan restaurants is overwhelming, particularly if you count in the neighbouring town of La Linea, which you can reach walking or by taxi. Throughout my stay I indulged in delicious tapas – fried prawns, olives and croquetas accompanied by a glass of tinto de verano (red wine typically mixed with with Sprite) dominated my diet. Apart from typically Spanish food, there are good pizza, curry and fish places to try. Prices in Gibraltar are a bit higher than in Spain – and you pay in pound sterling – but the quality of food is excellent. For a slightly cheaper option, La Linea offers loads of great tapas bars and restaurants.
Accommodation in Gibraltar is probably where a bigger chunk of your budget will go – luxury hotels dominate the scene, however, there are also cheaper rooms, self-catered options, a youth hostel (yes, a single one – but right in the city centre) and some Airbnb properties to pick from. Booking in advance and off-season will definitely cut the cost.
In its own exotic way Gibraltar is a beautiful, fun and intriguing destination, full of surprises, sun and delicious tapas. Learning about its military heritage, discovering the Spanish influences and enjoying the fantastic landscapes are truly worth a trip under the Rock.
Monika is a UK-based journalist and freelance writer. She moves about as often as the seasons change and loves the feeling of waking up in a new place. In her spare time, she pets every dog she that crosses her path, reads until it hurts and updates her list of places to visit.
She runs a travel blog documenting her trips across Britain: muddywelliesuk.wordpress.com