Brit abroad: a guide to Gibraltar

Simon Calder
03 February 2012

With its handsome setting, proud past and all the joys of Mediterranean life, Gibraltar hits the spot for Simon Calder

On a clear day, the journey possibilities from the summit appear to stretch on forever. To the north, beyond the bold stripe that constitutes Gibraltar's airport runway, the hills of Andalucia jostle for attention. Follow the coast northeast, and your gaze is tugged by a thread of beaches that ripples into the haze. Looking west, the coast curls around to point directly to mainland Europe's southernmost point. Turn south and the foreground is alive (on the surface) with the world's shipping and (beneath) with seemingly half the world's cetaceans. Beyond, the might of Africa rises up.

I know of no other perch where you feel so connected to the world. But then, I've always been a Rock fan. 
I first visited the Crown Colony 30 years ago. At the time I said something to the effect that it resembled Britain in 1952 (not that I was around at the time). It's a travel cliché to suggest that Gibraltar is cheerfully out of step with the rest of Europe — and like most travel clichés, it is wide of the mark yet contains a grain of truth.

The new airport terminal, which opened just before Christmas, is way ahead of the Continent. The £75m facility teleports Gibraltar into the 21st century, as both a state-of-the-art gateway to the colony and a regional airport for southern Andalucia. Folk on both sides of the frontier with Spain no doubt toasted the development as sealing the spirit of the Cordoba Agreement about Gibraltar's future: no more the forlorn fragment, but a forward-looking hub for southwest Europe. Oh, and it's a great base for a holiday. Trust me, I've tried.

Every trip starts with the same splendid overture. First, a landing that reminds pilots of the supreme joys of flying: Gibraltar is a Category 3 airport, which demands special training, because of the challenge of making gentle contact with a runway extending into the bay while lively winds swirl around the rock. Next, a stroll across the runway: Winston Churchill Avenue, the main road connecting Gibraltar to the rest of Europe, marches right across the concrete on which, a few minutes earlier, the pilot earned his or her wages.

If my luggage is light and the mood takes me, I'll turn left at the roundabout to seek a late lunch at La Mamela, overlooking Catalan Bay, where you can believe the fish leaps straight from Med to plate. But more likely I'll zig and then zag into Casemates Square and see what's new and what's still comfortably familiar three decades on.

It's busy, not least because of the flourishing cruise business that delivers thousands of day-trippers every week. But with more time to sit and gaze, you can contemplate the handsome setting that has witnessed much intrigue. As gatekeeper to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar has long been an object of desire. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans were well aware of its power — as were the Moors, who used the Rock as a stepping stone in their conquest of Spain in the eighth century (and left behind elegantly and robustly built baths and a castle — just refurbished). The Spanish reclaimed it, only for the British to stake a long-lasting claim, cemented by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713: it will be interesting to see how the tri-centenary of the agreement that changed so much of the world is celebrated in 2013.

A good way to begin a visit is to delve beneath the Rock. Gibraltar may be barely three miles from Spanish frontier to Europa Point, yet there is 30 miles of tunnelling beneath it. The key to maximising military might, the British soon concluded, was to make the defending garrison as well-protected and nimble as possible. Men and munitions endured the Great Siege of 1779-1783 in the tunnels, and during WWII, Spitfires were assembled here.

The Britishness of the Rock was underlined in 1954, when the young Queen made it one of the first places she visited after her Coronation — and this year, Gibraltarians will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. But the signatures of many other cultures are in evidence. In the protected heritage sites of the town centre, you can find Genoese balconies alongside forbidding Georgian fortifications. Sacarello's 19th-century coffee house transports you to Vienna, and hosts recitals and art exhibitions.

With space always at a premium in a territory whose modest footprint is further disrupted by a massive Rock, all kinds of locations become performance venues. St Michael's Cave delves deep into the limestone and ends in a lake. The perfect auditorium? You decide, perhaps with a visit to the National Week concert in September when leading international performers come to terms with its remarkable acoustics.

In these more peaceful times, the handsome King's Bastion has been reinvented as a leisure centre with two cinemas and a couple of features that are uncommon in southern Europe: a bowling alley and an ice rink. It might seem trivial, but for me the greatest change in Gibraltar is summed up by outdoor cafés. They signify the joy of Mediterranean life — unlike 30 years ago, when all I could find was a dark, smoky pub.

The shift from monochromatic Navy town to relaxed Mediterranean café society is also signalled in the way that the waterfront has been opened up. The Ocean Village and Queensway Quay marinas feel as though they have drifted down the coast from Marbella, the forest of masts symbolising a shimmering set of geographical possibilities. If you have not yet acquired a berth for your yacht, but still fancy some maritime thrills, Gibraltar offers a spin around the bay with star quality. The Strait of Gibraltar is more than just a mercantile superhighway: the bottleneck between the Atlantic and the Med is also rich in sea life. One of my more memorable mornings was spent aboard a bobbing vessel that became the centre of attention for a flotilla of whales and dolphins — and as if the premier-league marine wildlife were not enough, the surroundings are spectacular. The Rock — one of the fabled Pillars of Hercules — to the north, the serrated shore of Africa to the south.

Back on shore, the tip of the Tom Thumb territory is Europa Point, where Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, came ashore. Today you will scan the horizon in vain for pirates, but gain another perspective from a confident, outward Gibraltar. A short way inland, the Alameda Gardens provide a link with the past: the grounds were laid out in the 1800s, as an exotic outpost of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and remain a good place to get up close to nature.

Some visiting couples have, over the years, looked no further than each other's eyes. The prize for the top celebrity wedding goes to the late John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who got together in Gibraltar just as The Beatles were falling apart in 1969. Gamely, Sean Connery has married here twice.

The options for a wedding breakfast have multiplied in the past few years. The marinas have helped to haul dining expectations higher, with the Calentita! food festival in June proving that Gibraltar's chefs have plenty to offer in terms of culinary innovation. No problems, these days, choosing gifts: the higher that taxes rise in the rest of Europe, the more of a bargain the VAT-free stores lining Main Street look. For British travellers, this is one place on the planet where a pound is still worth £1.

Time for more wildlife. If there is one thing everyone knows about Gibraltar, it is that Barbary apes colonise the Rock (and if there's a second thing, it's the legend that, were they ever to leave, British rule would end). But few people are aware of a much rarer creature: the Barbary partridge, which is found only in Gibraltar — in fact, it's a wonderful place for bird-watching in general. Climb back to the summit, as the sun drags the remains of the day westward across the ocean, and keep your eyes open: always a good plan in a territory with a proud past, looking to the future.