An Introduction to Gibraltar


A light-hearted look at somewhere I have a lot of affection for.  Already this is nostalgia, as a lot of things have changed since 2007 when I worked there for 6 months.

La Linea de la Concepçion

La Linea de la Concepcion is the Spanish border town you have to negotiate on your way to Gibraltar, unless you have a yacht, and I don’t. La Linea’s a seaside town awash with hotels, boarding houses, boats and restaurants. From here Gibraltar, could be an island. But there’s the rub. It’s not an island at all. It’s a little beauty spot on the bottom of Spain.

Gibraltar Airport

After you’ve walked, (yes walked, because the border roads are sardine-tight with traffic, through the Spanish and Gibraltarian checkpoints) the Airport buildings are immediately upon you. The estate’s about the same size as that of a small UK provincial airport, like Blackpool or Cardiff.

A few hundred yards further on, the concrete runway crosses Winston Churchill Avenue. The wide expanse of tarmac, bounded by the sea at both ends, is one of the shortest in the world. When a plane is due to land, the crossing is closed by the police, and large pedestrian and traffic jams are the order of the day.

There’s a feeling of great space out there, in spite of the fact that lying ahead of you is a big fat chunk of limestone, as unlikely on this plain as a piece of green cheese. Presumably the Rock of Gibraltar was splattered on to this giant marble board, in a mighty geological upheaval, millions of years ago. Today it looks more than a little bit odd.

The important sounding Britannia Stadium squats on the side of the road across from some RAF utility buildings. It’s modern. There are no flying buttresses or a roof that closes when it rains, but nevertheless it’s the National Stadium, with smart new buildings and nice looking green pitches outside. An awful lot of local schoolchildren keep trim here.

There are a few wealthy dwelling houses and some Defence buildings on the Upper Rock. But the majority of Gibraltar’s 28,000 plus citizens live in the main town, which clusters ’round the Rock in two tiers, just as a tutu might cling to a cute, but portly dancer.

The intriguingly named Devils Tower Road is the first road left, after the Airport. The RAF buildings and garrison blocks huddle together nearby on the south side of the runway. The Devils Tower must be a local name for that part of the Rock which rises up in frighteningly sheer splendour above the Road. It runs alongside a thin sliver of dirty yellow sand, optimistically named Eastern Beach. Here the Devils Tower looks as though it might even topple over one day onto the good burghers below, but I managed to escape during my travels up and down the road.

The first half mile is an industrial estate, housing a print shop, some garages, a little manufacturing and a church. Further on, the town’s rubbish tip perfumes the air on very hot days with a lugubrious scent. It’s best to move swiftly on when the heat is turned up, as it often is in Gib.

Catalan Bay, a tiny suburb also has its own Hotel. Apes from the Upper Rock come down and cause their own particular brand of mayhem to hotel guests, parked cars, and the hotel bins. Signs at the Hotel warn against leaving a bedroom window open for fear of inviting in a monkey.

Hot on the heels of Catalan Bay further along Devils Tower Road, comes a curiously named housing community, Both Worlds. Not surprisingly however, the buildings are architecturally of this world. They formed a hotel, before becoming residence to island dwellers aged over 50. This little hamlet hugs the shore in a lazy shallow curve. Small apartments, on a couple of floors, some looking like little chalets, have balconies and a sea view of moored cargo ships. The odd Spanish fishing vessel putters to and fro, sometimes pursued by the coastguard. Perhaps it should be mandatory for all coastguard vessels to play the Benny Hill theme over their loudspeaker systems.

Pray don’t fret on behalf of the inmates of Both Worlds, because residency here is not compulsory for those who have reached, or even surpassed the grand old age of 50. These apartments aren’t ‘grace and favour’ though. They are purchased or leased.

Closed in 2002, following the death of a man on foot in a rock fall, the Dudley Ward Tunnel is currently being refurbished for re-opening later in 2009, or early 2010, dependent on when the Gibraltarians get round to it. In spite of his antipathy, the real Llanito has one trait in common with his Spanish neighbour, and that’s the charming concept of mañana. I understand this. “It’s just too darn hot to rush over things, let’s do it tomorrow… Oh it’s hot again! Let’s try again tomorrow”. Amen, hermano.

From here Mr. Ward’s tunnel runs to Europa Point, from East to the West as it were. Talking of the East and the West, Europa is home to the fabled Pillars of Hercules, the lighthouse and the very large Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, a present from the Saudi Arabian, King Faisil.

I was here one late afternoon in 2008, when the sun was still slung high over the yardarm. As I stepped off the bus, the recorded soundtrack of a mullah calling the faithful to prayer, joined with the sound of the waves and sea birds, in what I can only call a sonic wonderfullness. Rather worryingly the ‘New Flame’ cargo boat sat bolt upright like a tombstone, following a collision with another ship a few days before my visit.

On that, no doubt, ordinary day at Europa Point I counted 18 other cargo ships, all more buoyant than the New Flame, fanned out across the blue water, awaiting entry to the harbour, for dropping off, picking up or repair. A gas ship can stay out there, waiting for the price of their commodity to rise, before the Captain makes a sale in Gibraltar.

Ah well, let us clean our hands of Mammon, and move quickly on, past the Royal Naval Hospital, sprawling over the hill, where sick sailors have been cared for since 1591. And come onwards with me, past the famous Rock Hotel, where Mrs Mifsud’s art shop is.

The Hotel stands proud, high up, sheltered by another side of the Rock. It’s stylish rooms boast famous visitors from yesteryear, like Sir Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, Burgess and Maclean, and even John Lennon who got married to Yoko Ono there on the island in 1969. However there is absolutely no truth in the rumour that Lord Lucan may have once spent a sleepless night there.

A little further down the road, towards town, a white cable car rises, slung from a metal string, up and out of a huge car park, carrying passengers and their bags, to face the tender mercies of the Barbary Apes on top of the Rock. Rather those visitors than me, dear reader, for I have not yet had my “shots”.

Don’t hang back now! We’ll tarry over there by the graves of old sea dogs, who died in ancient and glorious battles on the Spanish Main. They are laid in cool damp earthen beds, shaded by sad cypresses, in the small Trafalgar Cemetery.

Look, across the road is the Trafalgar sports pub, in which I nearly reached my own unfortunate end, amongst many pints of grog, one hot and fateful Saturday afternoon. Enough, that’s a tale for another day.

John Mackintosh Hall on Main Street is a flat roofed building in municipal ‘stylie’, as the young are wont to say. It dates from 1964, and comprises rooms of various sizes, surrounding a quadrangle open to sun and tropical storm.

John Mc Hall, as they call it here, hosts the Library, a Tourism office and shop, and Holy of Holies, the Scrabble Club. This august society meets every Monday, (save Bank Holidays, when the meeting changes to a Thursday).

When I arrived ,in Gibraltar, my wife became concerned for my well-being, alone as I was in a strange society. She thought meeting in communion with other like-minded souls over the famous green and white board could save me falling over the brink into utter madness. I was concerned however that instead I would be hopelessly lost in a massive room, filled with countless forms, crouching over hundreds of boards, stretching into the far distance. As fate would have it only 5 people attended that evening, and there was a place at table for me.

I remember one mesmeric night the size of the crowd actually swelled to 10, but that was a unique and very special occasion. The people that play here are expatriates from all corners of Britain, well 5 of their corners at least.

The Main Street running from the Ince’s Hall Theatre, past John Mackintosh Hall, is pedestrianised through the Lower Town. It consists of gift shops, a Marks and Spencers, electrical shops selling computers and digital cameras, places to eat, pubs and bars. Lots of them.

There are tourist bars and army bars, and ne’er the twain should meet, in my opinion. At its northern end, Main Street opens out into Casemates Square, where there are more gift shops, more places to eat, more pubs and more bars. Thankfully some eating places provide umbrellas to shade the visitor from a blowtorch sun. It’s a wide expanse, that as well as posing as the bread basket of Gibraltar, hosts parades by the Gibraltar Regiment. Concerts and other musical treats and towering firework displays are held here on certain celebratory days, such as National Day on September 10th each year.

The real character of the place, where the old-style polyglot peoples live, is in the Upper Town. Here Gibraltarian, Hebrew, Moroccan, little Englander and the occasional rogue ape pulling down the washing, live together in a dense low rise sprawl of apartments and old colonial houses. There are local shops some selling kosher, some Arab, set side-by-side in quaint narrow winding streets, like Mill Lane and Engineers Lane. After all, it’s nearly a 30 minute walk with little shade on yet another roasting summer’s day, to Europort, where there’s a branch of the English supermarket, Morrison’s squatting on reclaimed land.

However even the very rich are powerless when the Levantine wind puckers up its lips to softly blow Levanter cloud on top of the Rock. Then, the gloom can hang around for a couple of days making everyone miserable, especially in winter, when the sun hasn’t quite the strength to burn the moisture away.

The Upper Town is also a very far cry from the millionaire apartments of Queensway Quay, and Ocean Village. I sometimes think skyscrapers may one day block out the sun, for all but those who can still afford a high-rise sun-bathing position.

From parts of Gib you can see Spain, in the seaside at La Linea and the oil refineries of Algeciras, just waiting her chance of sovereignty of the Isle. The old Señorita is settled in for the long haul. Still, she has an occasional vexed glance over at revellers on the Rock, those paddling in the sea and flashing neat pairs of Union Jack shorts at her.

© adewils, 2009