Rock star

Craving some winter sun, Karen Martin jetted off to Gibraltar to discover what this British outpost has to offer visitors…


There’s nowhere in the world quite like the rock that is Gibraltar. At the southern tip of the Iberian peninsular, it is a sunny tax haven and gaming mecca with grand ideas to make its mark as an up-market tourist destination.

At 6.8 square kilometres, it’s just three times the size of the tiny principality of Monaco and you don’t need billions to play at the roulette wheel. The currency is sterling so you can leave your euros, dollars and yen at home. And there’s no need to get the Ferrari out of the garage because the top speed limit in the tight narrow roads is 50kph.

This playground of the not so rich and famous is more Mark & Sparks and Next than Gucci and Prada and provides a warm welcome whatever your bank balance. Monaco has a Formula One Grand Prix, Gibraltar hosts an international darts festival.

There are plans to attract upmarket hotel chains and, ingeniously, Sunborn Gibraltar offers a five-star solution to the shortage of development land. This floating yacht hotel has nearly 200 rooms starting at £225, a casino, two restaurants and a spa. It sits between marinas, buzzy cafes and bars barely a wingspan away from the airport runway.


Military History

Heavily defended for millennia, Gibraltar is a strategic outpost at the gateway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. One of the last remnants of the British Empire, there’s evidence of its military history in the fortress architecture and street names of the densely populated city.

Many decommissioned buildings have been adapted for commercial and residential use. Packed into these historical buildings and modern high-rise apartments are 30,000 English speaking Gibraltarians. Religious buildings and traditional Spanish, Portuguese and Moorish architecture are also scattered across the lower reaches of the rock. The higher terrain belongs to the famous protected barbary macaques and is watched over by an ancient Moorish fortress and unseen eyes concealed within the remaining military lookouts.

This rockiest of rocks conceals an extraordinary landscape. Hidden below the surface, is a network of tunnels built during hundreds of years of conflict to provide shelter and create an impenetrable fortress defended by cannon and gun. These are now museums to the brave and the besieged.


007 Connections

James Bond author Ian Fleming learned how to deploy secret tunnels and ingenious gadgets for the defence of the realm when he was posted here as a young officer. During World War II, he worked on ‘Operation Tracer’, creating a ‘Stay Behind Cave’ where spies would remain concealed in the event of German occupation. This recently discovered bunker was never needed but inventions to make it possible included self-heating soup and a bicycle with a leather chain to silently charge up a radio to communicate intelligence to British forces.

Fleming returned to Gibraltar later in the war for Operation Goldeneye, a mission to keep the Spanish out of the war and Hitler from invading. His wartime adventures provided rich material for his iconic fiction and he named his Jamaican home and one of his books after this covert exercise. Casino Royale could as easily have been set in Gibraltar as Monte Carlo and, much later, the Rock played a central role in the opening credits of Bond movie ‘The Living Daylights’.

Another Bond connection is a romantic one. 007 star Sean Connery married both his wives in Gibraltar and Roger Moore spent his honeymoon there. Weddings can be arranged without fuss within a day at Gibraltar City Hall or other venues around the city. The City Hall also houses the National Art Gallery and portraits of the city’s mayors including a striking example of Gibraltar’s own Grace Kelly. Former Miss World beauty queen Kaiane Aldorino Lopez may not be a princess but she was Mayor from 2017 to 2019.


Multicultural Hub

Across the deep waters of the Gibraltar Strait is North Africa and the Moroccan mountains can be seen on a clear day. Spain is just a short drive over the airport runway to the border. The city is home to a harmonious diversity of cultures and religions. Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish communities thrive there, many blown in on the winds of centuries of seafaring trade.

Varied British, African, Asian and European influenced cuisine is on offer in a wide variety of restaurants. Gibraltar’s own celebrity TV cook Justin Bautista shares a unique fusion of spicy food in books of traditional recipes from his grandmother Lottie’s kitchen. Owner of Spirit of the Rock craft gin distillery Peter Millhouse provides a fascinating history of ‘mother’s ruin’ in an entertaining tasting experience. His aromatic gin is pretty good too and a bargain at duty free prices.

Irish pubs, fish and chip takeaways, chic tapas bars and restaurants from everywhere ethnic crowd the streets and squares. Standouts are The Chimney Tapas Bar where fresh seafood and superb seasoning make delicious dishes and The Queen’s Picturehouse, a converted cinema where history and cuisine entertain and delight.

In this little Britain there are the red telephone boxes on street corners and bobbies on the beat wearing traditional domed ‘custodian’ helmets. Tourists flock to snap selfies with these quaint colonial throwbacks.


World Heritage Site

The natural wonders of Gibraltar are truly remarkable. Gorham’s Cave Complex is a Unesco World Heritage site where evidence of Neanderthal and early modern human colonies spanning 120,000 years has been discovered. Greek mythology describes Gibraltar as one of the pillars of Hercules which divided Europe from Africa and there is new evidence emerging in the tunnels deep within the cliffs of ceremonial rituals from this period. Archaeological artefacts are on display at the City Museum. There is a clifftop viewing platform above the caves and a waiting list for the descent down 300 steps for a scramble across the rocks to visit this historic site.

High above the shoreline and deep within the rock is St Michael’s Cave, regarded in Greek mythology as the gate to Hades underworld. Today it’s illuminated for more than a million annual visitors with a spectacular light show highlighting the cathedral-like rock formations. This natural wonder is also a theatre with an auditorium seating 600. Recent performers include comedians Sarah Millican and Michael McIntyre. Another natural amphitheatre is in the Alameda Botanic Gardens where carefully tended terraces are a scenic setting for open air events and weddings.

Above the gardens is a sanctuary for monkeys, snakes, parrots and other rescued, injured or displaced creatures lovingly cared for at the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park. Here, visitors can get up close to rescued exotic pets and threatened species being bred as part of a global conservation programme. This is a charming and fun place to observe wild and domesticated animals thriving in a safe environment where important conservation work is taking place.

Beneath the clean deep waters of the Strait, dolphin and tuna flourish without fear of industrial net fishing. Great pods of dolphin frolic like kittens around the hulls of tourist boats and whales can also be spotted hunting in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Gibraltar may be tiny but its past significance as a neolithic haven, mythical gateway to the underworld and embattled military fortress makes it a remarkable rock of ages. The entire civilian population was evacuated during the Second World War and they returned to build a peaceful, welcoming and very British cultural melting pot where high and low rollers can enjoy a flutter at the tables and a cool beer or glass of fizz in the Mediterranean sunshine. It may not have the glitz and glamour of Monaco but it has a bigger place in history and plenty to explore above and below ground, on land and at sea.



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