The complete guide to: Gibraltar

For Brits who like to feel at home, Gibraltar is ideal. But there's much more to the place than red pillar boxes and bobbies on the beat, as Frank Partridge discovers


Still British after all these years?

Gibraltar is as rock-solid as ever, and likely to remain a Crown Colony and strategic UK military base for the foreseeable future, although the Ministry of Defence has been scaling down its presence on the Rock since the 1980s. There are still about 1,000 military personnel based here (out of a population of nearly 30,000), and some MoD buildings have been sold and converted by the government of Gibraltar into low-cost housing. But don't doubt for a moment that the Rock is British to its foundations. Helmeted bobbies walk the streets; sterling is interchangeable with the Gibraltar pound; you can post a letter in a red pillar box, drink in pubs with names like the Admiral Nelson, and plug electrical appliances into familiar three-pin sockets. Indeed, it's the very familiarity of the place a home-from-home at the southern tip of Europe that attracts many of the Rock's three million annual visitors. It almost comes as a surprise to discover that most of the population is bilingual, and that they drive on the right.

Why is it British rather than Spanish?

Because it was ceded to the Crown under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, having been captured from Spain by a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet nine years earlier. In our post-colonial times, the Treaty would surely have been overturned if it hadn't been for Gibraltar's strategic importance, guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean, and the attitude of its people. Time and again, this curious mix of Mediterranean people has voted to remain British, and their constitution states that sovereignty cannot be transferred against their wishes. Above the desk of the Chief Minister, Peter Caruana (recently re-elected for his fourth term of office), sits a large portrait of the Queen. Last month, he told me: "Our desire to govern ourselves doesn't derogate from the fact that we wish to remain part of Her Majesty's realm." The inhabitants of the Rock will not be moved.

Spain insists that Gibraltar is part of Madrid's realm. The local maps in this subdivision of the Province of Cadiz suggest that the recalcitrant peninsula at the southern tip is part of Spain: the border is unmarked. Having said that, relations with Spain are better than they have been for years. A year ago, Britain, Spain and Gibraltar signed an agreement that has opened up the border. Now, a visit to the Rock rewarding in itself also gives easy access to a fascinating corner of southern Spain called the Campo de Gibraltar.

Not long ago, unfriendly Spanish border guards used to keep people waiting at the frontier for up to four hours on a bad day. Since the Cordoba Accord was signed last year between Spain, Gibraltar and Britain, the only delays have been caused by the weight of traffic going in and out. What's more, Spain's national airline Iberia resumed scheduled flights from Madrid a year ago (regarded by the Spanish as a domestic hop). Gibraltar's economy is thriving, Spanish people can secure well-paid jobs there (and fill up their petrol tanks at a 20 per cent discount), while for British visitors, the Rock has once again become a convenient stepping-stone to south-west Spain and beyond.

What's on the Rock?

Gibraltar crams an extraordinary amount of history, culture, colour and life into its area of less than six square miles. It has prehistoric caves and well-preserved military fortifications; quirky architecture from Moorish to modern times; 11th-century baths and a ruined castle; two cathedrals, two mosques and a Hindu temple; giant marinas; excellent shops and restaurants; hot summers and mild winters; unrivalled views of Morocco and Andalucia; and unique flora and fauna that includes Europe's only colony of free-ranging primates.

No visit is complete without seeing these tailless monkeys in their ancient habitat on the upper slopes of the Rock, but the novelty rapidly wears off when you realise that they disdainfully regard the visitor as little more than a likely source of food, to be harassed and even pickpocketed at will. But they do make for a great holiday snapshot, and having survived in the rocky scrubland for the best part of 1,000 years, their presence has become symbolic. When the apes leave the Rock, it is said, so will the British a saying that was of such concern to Winston Churchill that when he heard their numbers had become depleted during the Second World War, he arranged for a fresh consignment to be imported from Africa.

Other essential sights?

The first is awe-inspiring, especially if you arrive by plane. As you walk across the runway (which also happens to be a public highway), the great limestone monolith almost fills your field of vision. On closer inspection, the face of the Rock is riddled with holes many of which are former gun emplacements and inside it there's an extraordinary honeycomb of natural caves, chambers and man-made tunnel systems. The legend "as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar" couldn't be further from the truth (see panel, left).

The most direct route to the top of the Rock is by cable car (10am-5.45pm daily except Sunday, return fare 8), which starts its ascent at the Alameda Botanical Gardens on Grand Parade. During high season, the two access roads to the summit become congested with taxis and coaches, and the most rewarding route for those who can manage it is to walk up the refurbished Mediterranean Steps, which take you around the southern flank of the Rock from Jew's Gate to O'Hara's Battery, the Rock's highest point at 426m (1,396ft). It's a hard mile of steady climbing, but the luxuriant plants and flowers, the profusion of birdlife, and the unforgettable views of the meeting point between two continents will compensate for any breathlessness.

Back at sea level, the focal point of town is Main Street, which has been pleasantly pedestrianised in recent years, and runs from colonial-style official buildings at one end to the main tourist haunt, Casemates Square, at the other, with a warren of intricate side streets, lanes and steps to explore. The Catholic cathedral of St Mary the Crowned (215 Main Street; 00 350 76688) lies roughly in the middle, with a separate entrance next door for the exquisitely decorated side chapel, which is quite unaffected by the commercial bustle all around. Near the former convent (now the home of the Governor), Bomb House Lane contains the excellent Gibraltar Museum (00 350 74289; www.gib.gi/museum), a warren of small rooms and imaginative displays that lies on the site of Moorish baths, which have been excavated below ground level. Among the exhibits is a replica of the 60,000-year-old Neanderthal skull found in one of the caves. The museum opens 10am-6pm Monday-Friday; 10am-2pm Saturday; admission 2.

All the land beyond the sea walls has been reclaimed at various stages of Gibraltar's history, and the section of waterfront facing the Bay of Algeciras is nearing the end of a decade of reconstruction that will produce amenities to rank alongside any of the luxurious apartment/marina complexes of the Costa del Sol. Gibraltar's justification for pouring so much rubble and concrete into what used to be the sea is that property investment is one of its main sources of income, and it has to move with the times. By the middle of 2008, Ocean Village ( www.oceanvillage. com) is expected to provide a complex of shops, bars, restaurants, as well as a casino and a much-needed (under-sea) car park, to supplement lofty apartments and berths for super-yachts and powerboats.

A less exclusive development will next year transform the most southerly tip of the Rock, Europa Point. Visiting Gibraltar without going there is like leaving Land's End off a trip to Cornwall, but the area has been allowed to fall into disrepair. In January, work will begin on new walkways and other amenities to go with its lighthouse, mosque, and superb vantage points across the 14-mile strait to Morocco.

Can I shop the Rock?

Yes, quite rewardingly. There is no VAT on the Rock, so many (some say too many) of the Main Street shops deal in the kind of tax-free items you find at airports: jewellery and watches, cameras and electronics, alcohol and tobacco. One store, unashamedly calling itself Booze & Co, pretty well sums it up. It's not pretty, but the number of Spanish voices in the street suggests that it's not only British visitors who are taking advantage of the low prices. Another attraction especially for UK expatriates who drive down for the day from the Costa del Sol is being able to stock up on food and clothing from familiar stores such as Marks & Spencer, BHS and Mothercare, but there's no price advantage in shopping for tea, biscuits and nappies in Gibraltar rather than Gillingham. Imported leatherware is demonstrably cheaper, but if you're looking for something authentically Gibraltarian, the only option is Gibraltar Crystal (Casemates Square; 00 350 50136; www.gibraltarcrystal.com), where you can watch eye-catching glassware being made in the workshop, and buy it in the adjoining showroom.

I want to break free

Allow at least two days to explore the Campo de Gibraltar. Among the region's attractions are some of Spain's finest golf courses; rugged hills sprinkled with whitewashed villages; speedy links to Morocco; and several natural parks, including one of the largest cork forests in the world. The bus station at La Linea is a five-minute walk from the frontier, with connections to far and wide. Route 1, to the busy container and ferry port of Algeciras, from where dozens of ferries leave for Morocco every day, takes 45 minutes and costs 1.78/1.25. Route 2 takes you to the attractive port of Estepona in 70 minutes, with a single fare of 3.45/2.40. Car drivers can take advantage of Andalucia's modern motorway network to reach Tarifa or Jerez in less than an hour, while Gibraltar's main tour operator, Bland Travel (00 350 75552; www.blandgroup.com) offers day-long excursions to the scenic hill-towns of Ronda and Casares for 20 per head.

A few minutes across the frontier, the town of San Roque is what Gibraltar might have become if the British hadn't claimed it. When the Spanish inhabitants of the Rock fled there in 1704, they took artefacts from the cathedral and built a church with the same name St Mary the Crowned. You reach it from the pretty central square up a narrow, cobbled street.

Tarifa, which just pips Gibraltar as Europe's most southerly point, attracts large numbers of visitors both human and feathered. In spring and autumn, millions of birds migrate across the strait, while in summer, wind- and kite-surfers are drawn from afar by its 10km beach and ever-present winds, caused by the confluence of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. There's a relaxed, bohemian feel to the place a hippie lifestyle that predominates along the undeveloped Costa de la Luz, stretching away to the north. Going in the opposite direction, Tarifa's fast ferry ( www.frs.es) whisks you across the strait to Tangier in around 45 minutes: the return fare is 55.80/45.

Heading inland from the A7 coastal motorway, the A405 climbs steeply through the orange groves, following the so-called "Marmalade Route" into the hills of western Andalucia. Wind turbines revolve on every horizon. The whitewashed villages of Jimena, Gaucin and Casares, with their medieval ruins and arts-and-crafts communities, stand proudly on rocky promontories. Birds of prey hover menacingly on the thermals. Include them on a circular tour, which can be extended to the dense cork forests of Los Alcornocales Natural Park, before heading back to the coastal resorts of Estepona and Sabinnillas. Both have attractive, palm-fringed promenades, beaches of shingle and sand, outstanding fish restaurants, and an authentically Andalucian air. Neither have allowed the development that has disfigured so much of the Costa del Sol to get out of hand. And every time you look up, the magnificent Rock stands proudly on the southern horizon.

An affordable round of golf?

Not on the world-famous courses of Sotogrande or Valderrama, but Cadiz province alone has a long list of courses that welcome casual visitors, although some impose restrictions on tee-off times. San Roque (00 34 956 613 030; www.sanroqueclub. com) has two 18-hole courses, with green fees on the lesser of the two starting at 80/56 in low season. Another attractive course within easy reach of the Rock is Almenara (00 34 956 582 054; www.sotogrande.com), a 27-hole arrangement where two people can play in winter, with an electric buggy thrown in, for an all-inclusive price of 120/84.

Where should I stay?

If you are seeking cutting-edge boutique hotels, Gibraltar is not quite the place. There are some perfectly pleasant places to stay, but they tend to range from predictably corporate to cheerfully modest such as the Cannon (00 350 51711; www.cannonhotel.gr) where an en-suite double costs 47 including a full English breakfast . For a more indulgent stay, head south and west to the town of Tarifa, bursting with interesting places many of them devoted to the surfing community, but a number that are suitable for normal people such as the atmospheric Hotel Pension Correos (00 34 956 68 02 06), in the former post office at the heart of the old town. A double room costs around 50 (35), excluding breakfast. A few miles down the coastal highway beyond Tarifa, the Hurricane (00 34 956 68 49 19; www.hurricanehotel.com) is the location of choice for families seeking both an excellent situation (the ocean is a few steps away) and indulgence in the hotel's restaurant. The low-season rate is 100 (71) for a shore-facing double room, including breakfast, but rises in summer.

How do I get to Gibraltar?

By air from the UK, there are two choices. GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies twice daily from Gatwick from 84 return; when easyJet takes over the route from next summer, it is likely to maintain the same level of service. Monarch (0870 040 5040; www.flymonarch.com) has a daily service from Luton, with return fares starting at 88.

Where can I get more information?

The Gibraltar Tourist Board in London (178-179 Strand, WC2; 020-7836 0777; www.visitgibraltar.gi).

A rock full of holes

Long before man colonised the Rock, nature was eating away at the porous limestone to create an interior that, in places, resembles a fantastical filmset from The Lord of the Rings. The Phoenicians believed that the gigantic St Michael's Cave the largest of the 140 discovered so far was the gateway to Hades. Today, amid the stalagmites and stalactites, concerts, banquets and even the annual Miss Gibraltar contest are held in the vast auditorium. The basic admission price to the Upper Rock nature reserve (open 9am-6.15pm daily) is 8.

The more adventurous head to Lower St Michael's Cave, which has an underground lake and a multitude of tricky rock formations that require ropes and a guide. A three-hour tour with qualified guide Tito Vallejo (00 350 71871) costs 8.

When the Spanish laid siege to Gibraltar in the 1780s, the forerunners of the Royal Engineers tunnelled into the Rock to build defences that would house a prototype gun that could fire downwards. These and other tunnel systems were augmented during the Second World War, when the "fortress within a fortress" became big enough to house a hospital, power station, military HQ and accommodation for upwards of 6,000 troops.

The complex is linked by 32 miles of roads, along which messages were carried by motorcycle dispatch riders. Part of the system was opened to the public in 2005. Visitors are guided around 1,000 yards into the Rock on an hour-long tour. The tunnels are open 10.30am-4.30pm (and on Saturdays by prior appointment). Admission is 6, in addition to the 8 fee for visiting the Upper Rock.

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