Axarquia, Costa del Sol, Andalucia, Spain

EXPLORING GIBRALTAR

Driving westward from Málaga along the Costa del Sol, sooner or later you spot Gibraltar
Gibraltar runway
The Rock of Gibraltar
To the ancient Greeks and Romans, Gibraltar was one of the Pillars of Hercules, (the other is the huge mountain Jebel Musa in Morocco), and marked the mythical edge to the known world. These days the pillars mark the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea and just 25 kilometres separate the two continents on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar. Gibraltar was inhabited long before the Greeks and Romans however. 50,000 years ago, give or take a few, Neanderthal man wandered the Rock as skulls found in 1848 and 1928 bear testament. Gibraltar was to change hands often over the ensuing centuries. The Phoenicians and ancient Greeks inhabited the rock and later it became the initial landing point for the Islamic invasion which was to shape so much of Andalucía's history. From AD 711 to 1462 the Muslims held Morocco in a vice-like grip until Castile took it from them. In 1704 an Anglo-Dutch fleet captured the Rock and in 1713 Spain signed on the dotted line to officially hand Gibraltar to the English. This did not stop attempts to regain it, but the Brits stood their ground and developed it into an important naval base and to this day the British Navy continue to use Gibraltar. There is still a lot of bad feeling between the English and Spanish governments over sovereignty of Gibraltar - under Franco the relationship was so icy that, in 1967, the border was closed. It didn't re-open again until 1985, 10 years after Franco's death. Although Britain still holds sovereignty over the Rock, Gibraltar now governs itself and has its own parliament. Spain continues to throw the odd fly in the political soup and this is most evident by the time consuming custom checks when leaving by vehicle - the cause of lengthy queues when crossing from Gibraltar to Spain.

Main Square GibraltarEnough of history - OK! Today Gibraltar is home to around 29,000 people, most of whom are classed as Gibraltarians and the population speaks a strange form of Spanglish. It is not unusual for the residents of the Rock to slip between Spanish and English mid sentence and both languages are spoken with distinctive accents. The Rock which rises to a height of 462 metres and is 5km long and 1.6km at its widest doesn't leave many flat surfaces on which to live and Gibraltar town is not a big place. It is decidedly English with Real Ale served up in its many pubs, fish and chips, and joy of joys for many Costa del Sol residents - a Safeway and Marks and Spencer! Gibraltar is tax free so retail therapy is a must when visiting although you may want to do your sight- seeing before getting weighed down with shopping bags.

A good way to see the Upper Rock is to take one of the organised taxi tours. The drivers are usually well versed in Gibraltar's history and will take you around the Nature Reserve's sights whilst filling you in on useful information at the same time. If you are a keen bird-watcher then make sure to pack your binoculars, as the Strait is a key point of passage for raptors, storks and other migrators between Africa and Europe. Outbound flights (southern migrations) occur between late July and early November and inbound flyers can be spotted between mid February and early June. It has been known for as many as 3,000 storks to congregate to cross the Strait of Gibraltar at one time so a decent hat may also be a good idea!

Barbary ape of GibraltarProbably the most famous inhabitants of Gibraltar all live high up on the Rock - a large colony of Barbary Apes and the only wild primates in Europe. The Ape's Den will definitely be a stop off point on your tour, or if you go it alone the Den is near the middle cable car station. Legend has it that when the monkeys disappear from Gibraltar, so will the English and so, fearful of this actually being true, the British shipped in re-enforcements from nearby Africa when numbers dwindled slightly during WW2. Recently, however, the opposite is the case and the authorities are considering contraceptive implants and repatriation to their native Africa as two measures to alleviate this problem. It is advisable not to get too close to the monkeys especially when they have young with them - remember that they are wild animals and although used to being gawped at and photographed they certainly will not take kindly to a quick cuddle.

Main Street Gibraltar St. Michael's Cave is a must on a tour of the Upper Rock. Used as a hospital during WW2 and once home to Neolithic inhabitants, the caves are a fairytale grotto of fine stalactites and stalagmites with concerts and plays often staged in one of the larger caverns. Inside the Rock a network of tunnels, used mainly during the war, have a combined length of 70km and The Great Seige Tunnels (situated near the Ape's Den), representing a small percentage, are open to the public. During WW2 General Eisenhower had an office in one of the many secret and impregnable tunnels. Also within the Upper Rock Nature Reserve are the 'Gibraltar - A City Under Seige!' exhibition which as you might imagine deals in the Rock's chequered history and the 'Tower of Homage', the remains of Gibraltar's Muslim castle built in 1333. Perhaps the most spectacular sights however are simply the views on a clear day: Africa; the sheer precipices of the Rock's eastern side and the Spanish mainland - sadly spoiled by Algerciras' many industrial stations - built by the Spanish (it is claimed) out of sheer spite to ruin the view from Gibraltar!

Mosque at Europa Point, GibraltarWithin the town itself there are a few interesting sights although most old Spanish or Islamic buildings were destroyed in the 18th century sieges. British fortifications such as gates and gun emplacements are everywhere, however, and if you are a bit of a war or history buff the Gibraltar Museum on Bomb House Lane is well worth a visit with exhibits dating back to prehistoric times. Religious sights include the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity built in the early 1800's, the Catholic Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned which was built on the site of Muslim Gibraltar's chief mosque and the King's Chapel, part of a 16th century Franciscan convent - now the governor's residence. At Gibraltar's southern tip - Europa Point is home to what is claimed to be the largest mosque in a non-Islamic country. Like the mosque on Marbella's Golden Mile, it was paid for by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and opened in 1997 as a focal point for Arabs travelling in southern Europe. Europa Point is also home to a lighthouse and the Christian Shrine of Our Lady of Europe.

The Bay of Algeciras, off Gibraltar, is home to a large population of dolphins and several boats operate dolphin-spotting trips out of Watergardens Quay or Marina Bay. It is unusual not to see these intelligent, friendly creatures and if you are really lucky you may even spot a whale. Under the water too, Gibraltar offers great sight- seeing, the meeting waters of the Atlantic and Meditteranean making for great visibility. Shipwrecks are probably what attract most divers to Gibraltar but there is also a small reef a little way off the coast.

All in all Gibraltar (or "Gib to most) is a great day out for all the family. A weekend is also an option with an overnight treat at the Rock Hotel for example - see the sights, eat good old fish and chips, take in a movie, shop till you drop all the while soaking up the history of the Rock of Gibraltar.

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