48 HOURS IN...
The Rock has been in British hands for more than 300 years, but is now forging a new cosmopolitan identity. Dodge the Barbary apes and discover 'Gib', says Richard Madge
Saturday 19 April 2008
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WHY GO NOW?
With sterling slumping against the euro, here's a place in the sun that uses pounds and pence. Located on the skirts of the Rock at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, Gibraltar has always been strategically vital; the Moors landed here in the 7th century to begin the conquest of Spain. This chunk of Britain has guarded the entrance to the Mediterranean for more than 300 years, but now only a token military garrison remains. "Gib" is losing its Aldershot del Mar reputation, forging a cosmopolitan new identity for city breaks and visiting yachts. Nonetheless, the Rock remains reassuringly familiar, with pubs, pints and British bobbies.
From Gatwick, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) competes with British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), while Monarch (0870 040 5040; www.flymonarch.com) flies from Luton. From other parts of the UK, you could fly on Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberiaairlines.co.uk) via Madrid. From the airport you can walk into the town centre in about half an hour, catch one of the frequent buses, or pay about £5 for a taxi ride south.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Gibraltar is a peninsula about three miles long and up to two miles wide. But it is also startlingly three-dimensional. The higher reaches of the Rock rise to above 1,300ft along the eastern side, while the town – a dense network of streets and alleyways, plus the former dockyards – occupies the north-western corner, and looks west to the Spanish port of Algeciras. Africa lies 13 miles south across the straits; to the east is the Mediterranean.
The overture to the town is Casemates Square (1), flanked by some of the fortifications that have evolved over the centuries. Just on the western side of this triangular plaza is the tourist office (00 350 74982; www.gibraltar.gi/tourism), which opens Monday to Friday 9am-5.30pm, Saturday 10am–3pm and Sunday 10am-1pm. From here, Main Street runs south.
The town can easily be covered on foot, but buses run frequently, all the way from the Spanish border to Europa Point (2) at the southern tip. The Upper Rock is a nature reserve on the outside and a complex network of caves and tunnels on the inside.
Gibraltar's small size puts hotel accommodation at a premium, but rates have fallen compared with Spain – and all the prices include English breakfast. Top of the class for colonial grandeur and good views is the Rock Hotel (3) on Europa Road (00 350 73000; www.rockhotelgibraltar.com). Doubles with a sea view start from £100; the penthouse is £295. The four-star Bristol Hotel (4) is centrally located at 10 Cathedral Square (00 350 2007 6800; www.bristolhotel.gi), and has interior-facing twin rooms from £74. Decent budget options are the small and friendly Cannon Hotel (5) at 9 Cannon Lane (00 350 51711; www.cannonhotel.gi), with an excellent location just off Main Street and en-suite doubles for £47; and the Queen's Hotel (6) Boyd St (00 350 200 74000; www.queenshotel.gi) has doubles with bath from £65.
TAKE A VIEW
Close to the Queen's Hotel is the base station (7) for the cable car (£8 return) that climbs more than 1,300ft to the top station on the Rock, which, according to the Classical world, was one of the pair of pillars of Hercules. From here you can see three countries and two continents. (Alternatively, you can walk up using the road and the marked footpath.)
Gibraltar is home to Europe's only resident species of monkey: the Barbary apes, which originate in North Africa. As you will constantly be reminded, legend maintains that should they ever die out, British rule over Gibraltar will end. With this superstition in mind, it is rumoured that their numbers have been topped-up secretly on at least one occasion.
Today the primates are thriving, and can be seen near the upper cable car station (8) and the Apes' Den (9), where they will readily jump on your shoulder and pose for photos. They may look cute, but it is illegal to feed them, and they have a nasty bite. Hold on to your camera and other belongings, too: some are expert pickpockets.
TAKE A HIKE
The walk south from the lower cable-car station to Europa Point (2) takes you past much of the post-naval detritus. Soon you reach the southernmost point of the Rock (though not of mainland Europe, an honour that belongs to Tarifa, just west in Spain). Europa Point may initially disappoint: other than the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque and a lighthouse, there is very little of interest. But the coast of North Africa is clearly visible; your mobile phone may even lock on to a Moroccan network. The mountain on the Moroccan side is Jebel Musa, the other Pillar of Hercules. The myth maintains that it and the Rock of Gibraltar were originally one, but Hercules smashed through its middle, splitting the mountain in two and linking the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
The "Little Britain" tag applies to Casemates Square (1), at least in terms of fast food; The Tunnel serves fish and chips, plus kebabs, while the nearby Lord Nelson Bar has pizzas. For a home-grown option, Gibraltar Confectionery (10) at 228 Main Street sells mouth-watering cakes and pastries, as well as sandwiches and pasties (9.30am-5pm daily).
Main Street is home to many familiar names from the British high street. Neither sales tax nor VAT applies in Gibraltar, though this saving is mostly negated by higher import costs. "Sin" taxes are low – expect to pay about £7 for a litre of Scotch or £11 for 200 cigarettes. Strict customs limits apply when returning to the UK, or crossing into Spain: no more than 200 cigarettes and one litre of spirits.
The Gibraltar Museum (11) at Bomb House Lane (00 350 74289; www.gib.gi/museum) charts the colony's natural history, as well as its more recent past and military traditions. A section is devoted to the Great Siege of the late 18th century, when Spain tried unsuccessfully to recapture the Rock. This experience was crucial in forging the distinct identity of Gibraltarians. In the basement are the preserved Moorish baths, dating back to the mid-14th century. The museum opens Monday to Friday 10am–6pm, Saturday 10am-2pm; admission is £2.
The Horseshoe Inn (12) at 193 Main Street is a British pub with familiar ales and lagers on tap. On the other side of the street is The Royal Calpe, another comfortingly familiar option.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
The Rock wasn't known in the past for its culinary delights, but things are changing. The new Queensway Quay Marina (13) is the place for dining. Casa Pepe, The Boatyard and The Waterfront all offer fish dishes and meat grills. Expect to pay about £8 for a starter and £11-22 for mains. Or try the Viceroy of India (14) at 9-11 Horse Barrack Court or Hong Kong Restaurant (15) at 11-13 Market Lane; there are also kosher and Moroccan spots.
SUNDAY MORNING: A WALK IN THE ROCK
Put on a sturdy pair of shoes and take a walk on the Upper Rock; an inclusive admission fee for all the attractions costs £8. The grottoes of St Michael's Caves (16) (9.30am-7.15pm) are a multicoloured underground wonderland of stalagmites and stalactites, with such amazing acoustics that regular concerts also take place here. Advance booking or joining a tour is recommended. After this, walk about a mile and a half to the opposite end of the Rock to visit the Great Siege Tunnels (17) (9.30am-7.15pm). In contrast to the naturally formed St Michael's Caves, these were dug by army engineers during the Great Siege – it was here that the British Army turned all its firepower on Spanish forces, and the exhibition gives a flavour of the desperate conditions inside. The defensive chambers have a bird's-eye view of the military cemetery, airport and the Spanish town of La Linea.
On the walk down, drop into the Military Heritage Centre (18) (9.30am-7.15pm) for more on the Rock's historical defences. Finally, pass the imposing, 14th-century Moorish Castle (19), from which the Union Jack flies proudly. The only way to visit, and not recommended, is at Her Majesty's pleasure, due to its working role as a prison.
If your feet are still blister-free, take a walk round to the less-visited eastern side of the Rock and dip them in the Mediterranean at one of the three sandy beaches.
GO TO CHURCH
Gibraltar's diversity of places of worship reflects its status as a melting pot of English Protestants, Scottish Presbyterians, Maltese and Genoese Catholics, Jews and Muslims. At noon each Sunday, follow the soldiers marching from Bomb House Lane (11) to Casemates Square (1), where they re-enact the Ceremony of the Keys when the British took control of Gibraltar more than 300 years ago. Their final destination is the Catholic Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned (20), which is built on the site of a mosque. Two hundred yards away in Cathedral Square (21) stands the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, while up on Engineers Lane is the Great Synagogue (22).
OUT TO BRUNCH
The Gibraltar Arms (23) at 184 Main Street offers an all-day breakfast, jacket potatoes and fish and chips, plus a very rich triple chocolate cake. Dishes average £4-£5.
TAKE A RIDE
Taxis (00 350 70027; www.gibtaxi.com) operate an Official Rock Tour from a number of departure points in town, complete with a commentary. These cost £30 per person, based on two travelling together, and the price includes entry fees. The trip takes about 75 minutes and provides a time-efficient alternative to individual trips.
The waters around Gibraltar are home to whales and dolphins. Competing operators (including www.dolphinsafari.gi and www.dolphin.gi) based at the new Marina Bay development (24) operate dolphin-watching tours for about £20.
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