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

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project