Travel: Europe - Funny thing, this rock business

Inside the Rock of Gibraltar are miles of caves and tunnels that could become the territory's main attraction.

The insurance salesman who insists that the policy he thinks you should buy is as "solid as the Rock of Gibraltar" is not to be believed. The Rock is safe enough, having survived the shot, shell and Machiavellian scheming of the Spanish, the Germans, the French and even the Italians to lower the British flag first raised there in 1704; but solid it is not.

Buried deep behind that imposing facade, regarded by the ancients as one of the Pillars of Hercules guarding the placid Mediterranean from the stormy Atlantic (and utilised by the British for just that purpose), is a bewildering and often beautiful network of natural caves and passages.

These are criss-crossed by a man-made warren - no less impressive in its way - of tunnels, roads, ventilation shafts, gun emplacements and escape routes spanning two centuries years of imperial history.

The methods used to penetrate the Rock were mostly rudimentary - a combination of painstaking hand-drilling and high explosives. But even though several generations of sappers have left behind 34 miles of tunnelling, much of it now unused, the "garrison in the dark" was constructed with such care that there is little likelihood of a landslip like the tunnel collapse that nearly engulfed Heathrow four years ago.

Although one of the tunnels is now a two-lane public road, providing a short cut from one residential part of the Rock to another, most of Gibraltar's 35,000 inhabitants are unaware of the sheer scale of the labyrinth beneath their feet.

It is a Herculean project that began during the four-year siege by the Spanish in the 1780s. Ever since those precarious times, the tunnels have been owned by the military; civilian access has been severely restricted.

But as the likelihood of air raid or nuclear alert recedes, various plans are afoot to open up the hidden secrets of the Rock to tourists and cavers.

The potential is enormous. "There are two things about Gibraltar which are unique," says Rock historian Richard Desouza: "The apes and the tunnel system. Leaving the tunnels hidden away is like going to a town and being shown one small shop, and ignoring an entire shopping mall down the road."

Indeed, far-off shopping centres spring to mind as the military signposts lead you from Queensway to Maida Vale via Clapham Junction, where a number of different systems converge.

During the war, four power stations provided electricity and kept the stultifying humidity at bay; reservoirs supplied each man with two gallons of fresh water and 25 gallons of salt water a day. It was here that General Eisenhower plotted the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Elsewhere, a hidden tunnel leads down a steep flight of steps from the cliffs to a secluded cove from which the governor of Gibraltar would have escaped had the Rock fallen.

It never did, of course. Today, with Gibraltar's strategic importance diminished, vast lengths of the tunnels are now disused and decaying: an important slice of history is in danger of being lost for ever.

The potential for converting the tunnels into a money-spinning tourist attraction is enormous. There's a comparable system on Jersey, where a solitary war-time tunnel, just one mile long, is visited by as many as 1.4 million fee-paying tourists a year.

Gibraltar looks on enviously. Keen to encourage tourism, but being short of development funds, it has to be content with its Barbary apes and down- market reputation as a haven for duty-free lager in British-style pubs.

As yet, only a fraction of its underground treasures are open to the public gaze. The best-known of these is St Michael's Cave, a massive fissure about 1,000 feet above sea level that gives on to a natural amphitheatre, is used today for concerts and light shows. It was once a fully equipped military hospital, complete with operating theatres, laundry and air-conditioning.

The typical visitor strolls gently through in 20 minutes, browses in the souvenir shop and returns to the sunshine and bustle of the town below.

A few stay on to don safety helmets, and join one of the unofficial tours deep into the spectacular Lower Cave, which was discovered during the war-time excavations.

Tito Vallejo, a senior guide who has explored every accessible inch of the tunnels and the 143 caves, delights in showing off their extraordinary features to anyone with a decent pair of trainers and a lack of claustrophobia.

Hidden lights illuminate a scene resembling one of those fantastical rock album covers of the Seventies - cathedral-like chambers, freshwater pools and lakes, spectacular formations of inorganic coral and limestone, giant stalagmites, translucent curtains of rock and ... utter silence.

Legend has it that an as-yet-undiscovered passage leads out of the cave and under the sea bed all the way to Africa. After all, where did those apes come from?

Tito is highly sceptical but, mindful of the Rock's declining fortunes, he would be delighted if a few thousand more visitors arrived every year to try to prove him wrong.

The territory's own airline, GB Airways, flies at least daily from Gatwick and weekly from Manchester, on behalf of British Airways (0345 222111).

The lowest fare for travel in September and October is a World Offer of pounds 192 return. Monarch Crown Service (01582 398333) flies on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Luton to Gibraltar.

Cave tours: Tito Vallejo (00 350 54244) takes parties down St Michael's Lower Cave for pounds 5 a head. Tours should be booked in advance, and last about three hours. Caving and expert scuba-diving parties by arrangement.

Gibraltar information: 0171-836 0777

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'