This place Rocks.
When flying into Gibraltar, one wonders if the pilot needs to check his map. As the small airplane starts its descent, the white walls of the Rock looms. One more avian turn, and the Rif mountain range of Morocco is clearly visible, followed by the Spanish beaches of La Linea. Then the Rock appears again, chalky white against the brilliant blue of the spring sky.
Cars and scooters scuttle across the main road linking Gibraltar with Spain before the red and white booms slide down preventing any more crossings for a full ten minutes. The pilot finds his direction and lands, crossing the main road and braking metres before the short runway ends in the Mediterranean. Noted as the fifth most dangerous airport in the world and the first most dangerous in Europe, landing at this airport is not for novice pilots or nervous travellers.
It is a common sight to see tourists spilling out of the tiny airport, their luggage trundling behind them, taking the fifteen minute walk down Winston Churchill Avenue into town. No-where is far in Gibraltar, so for holiday-makers, walking is the easiest option, although there is a regular bus route from the main centre to the furthest attraction, Europa Point.
There is a variety of accommodation in Gibraltar to suit most holiday budgets. From the one star Cannon Hotel, where approximately 26 pounds will buy you a single bed, a tiny television atop a wooden stool, a toilet and shower in a room overlooking what is probably the noisiest street in Europe. Unless your sleeping habits involve going to bed after three a.m., you would be advised to avoid this particular establishment. Returning alone after dinner, the dimly lit uneven staircase and passages, that smell quite strongly of...well, let’s call it cabbages, is quite disconcerting.
There are a couple of three and four star hotels, notably the rather elegant Eliott Hotel with great views from the rooftop swimming pool, and the Caleta Hotel, near Catalan Beach on the tranquil eastern side of the Rock. The hotel is pitched on the very edge of land, with the Rock at its back, and the terraces offer sights and sounds of the ocean in close proximity. A perfect setting for early evening drinks.
There are modern self-catering apartments in Ocean Village, adjacent to the bustling Marina and within walking distance to the Casino and several good restaurants. Take an early morning jog along the boardwalk where the expensive private yachts are moored, the sunlight bouncing off gleaming chrome and polished decks, the gentle rocking of the lapping ocean making tackle and pulleys chime.
Close to Casements Square, the centuries-old meeting place, walled by a great stone fortification that travels along the perimeter of the old city, is a small kiosk where the smell of cooking grease emanates from open shutters. A boiling vat of churning oil behind a tiled counter is manned by Antonio, a short, moustachioed man, with a once- white apron straining over his stomach. He barks instructions in Spanish to a thin man with a hang-dog expression, holding a nozzle and piping a thick batter into the boiling oil. An Andalucian Laurel and Hardy.
Popular with the locals, Churros is a fried batter coil, dipped in sugar or melted chocolate and eaten for breakfast. It is crunchy on the outside, and spongy-soft in the middle, similar to a doughnut, but much nicer.
In Casements Square, the morning shadows from the Rock spreads over the time-worn cobbles and the early coffee trade in the cafes that spill out onto the tree-lined square is brisk. The newspaper kiosk opens up and the morning’s Daily Mail, the FT and La Guardia can be enjoyed with a cup of coffee and English breakfast in the Spanish sunshine.
Business is good on a Saturday morning and the pedestrian-only Main Street is busy with sidewalk entertainment provided by buskers. An accordion whines a lonely lament played by an old man, gratefully receiving any coins that are dropped into a battered biscuit tin guarded by a dog, of indiscriminate breed, who lays its shaggy brown head on its paws with a sigh, settling down for the morning.
Main Street in Spring is dressed with baskets of flowers adorning ornate iron street lamps, the red telephone booths, post boxes and patrolling Bobbies on the beat providing a hint that this is British owned territory.
Liquor outlets, jewellery stores and perfumeries line Gibraltar’s narrow shopping street, elbowing the leather shops and electronic outlets, jostling for business. In between them, small doorways are portals to three or four storey high narrow buildings containing small flats with colourful shutters kept open to the sounds and smells from the street below.
Hundreds of passengers disembark from the enormous cruise ships and walk from the harbour, taking up the breadth of Main Street, eager to benefit from the duty-free status, enticed by signs in shop windows “Welcome to Gibraltar, Dawn Princess – less 10 percent for passengers”.
The microcosm of Gibraltar is composed from an influence of the Spanish, British and Moroccan invaders over the centuries. Archways to small tiled courtyards, a flash of yellow flower contrasting against blue and white tiles hints at Moorish architects. Pass down one alley, and it could be a winding cobbled pathway in a Cornish town, complete with a fish and chip shop flying the Union Jack.
With a plethora of traditional pubs offering pork pies, sausage and mash, the choice of food is staggering. From posh Indian at the Queensway Marina, to a meaty feast at the Brazilian-inspired Ipanema restaurant, most tastes will be satisfied.
One of the quaintest and possibly the smallest pub is The Aragon just off Main Street, a block or two away from the popular watering hole of Irish Town. Boasting the speciality of the house written in chalk on a blackboard stationed outside its small doorway guarded by a mural of Catherine herself.
Gibraltar of course is dominated by The Rock, and once you are there, you can understand why the ancient Greeks named it one of the Pillars of Hercules. The Rock is omnipresent, visible from everywhere in Gibraltar and no visit to ‘Gib’ would be complete without going up The Rock.
Built by Swiss engineers in 1966, the cable car wiggles over the car park and heads straight up the side of the Rock, jostling over pylons, skimming the dense vegetation and passing over the small road that brave and fit people can do in a two hour walk but there are no facilities on the way, so water provisions must be packed in a haversack.
The famous residents of the Rock are the Barbary Apes, tailless monkeys originally from North Africa. They bound effortlessly along the boulders and it is quite possible to get close enough to take great photographs. However, care should be taken and any plastic bags or bottles must be hidden away as they are opportunistic thieves and will try to steal anything that may be considered food.
Once at the top, the views from the various observation levels are magnificent. The sea is dotted with both large shipping vessels and smaller recreational craft. The tiny town, at least up here, is peaceful. The airport runway crossing the Spanish isthmus, the marinas and new residential developments can be looked down upon like an architect’s model. Closer, breaching up the skirt of the Rock, are old buildings and snaking Dickensian alleyways. The spire of St Andrew’s church can be seen poking out from terracotta tiled roof tops.
Although the entire country is smaller than an average sized town, what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm, friendliness and uniqueness. Small it might be, but its history is worthy of any great European city.
When standing on top of this limestone monolith, looking at the ships in the Mediterranean; seeing two continents, three countries and the meeting of two great bodies of water, to be higher than the seagulls, and to look down and watch airplanes land across the main road, one can agree that Gibraltar truly rocks.