By Marilou Trias
Gibraltar is a headland and a British Overseas Territory, located on Spain’s southern coast. It is dominated by the Rock of Gibraltar. This promontory of a 426-meter-high Jurassic limestone ridge was formed some 200 million years ago. Originally formed from multiple layers of compacted shells from tiny sea creatures. Gibraltar’s majestic rocky outline is one of the most iconic sights of the Mediterranean. Also referred to as “The Rock”, it is physically connected to Spain by an isthmus. Since the 1980s Gibraltar has also reclaimed some land, which makes of around one-tenth of its current size.
During 711-1492 AD, they were under Roman rule. Prior to that, under the Phoenicians and even before that, Corinthians. The Moors settled in over the middle ages and then later, Gibraltar was ruled by Spain. In 1704, Anglo-Dutch forces captured Gibraltar from Spain and finally, the outpost was ceded to the British in 1713.
Many of the people in Gibraltar hold careers that are connected to gaming, are financial lawyers and/or accountants. Gibraltar makes it difficult for money laundering to happen there.
Its population of approximately 35,000 are highly educated and densely located mostly at the foot of the Rock. English is their official language and their currency is the pound. Their culture is very diverse with high concentrations of Jewish and Maltese backgrounds. In past centuries, Gibraltarians have been successful in exploiting opportunities for trading and money-making. As Gibraltar tries to adapt to the international world, their commercial and financial skills can bolster them in the future.
Europa Point, located the most southern point of Gibraltar, is at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. On a clear day, North Africa can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar. It is also where the Trinity Lighthouse that was erected under the order of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland and their dependencies. In 1841, Trinity Lighthouse was inaugurated.
Situated centrally, Cathedral Square is near the tourist offices. Simply referred to as Gibraltar Cathedral, it is notable for its Moorish architecture. The architecture was inspired by the long period of Moorish control in Gibraltar’s history.
Kings Bastion: Overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar, it is one of the artillery fortifications of Gibraltar. During the Great Siege of Gibraltar, it played a crucial role. The siege, initially by the Spanish and reinforced by French forces, lasted three years and seven months. Today it serves as Gibraltar’s leisure centre with an ice-skating rink and cinema.
Prehistory in Gibraltar
Neanderthals of Gibraltar were amongst the first to be discovered by modern scientists. The area was considered a refuge for the dwindling Neanderthal communities until around 42,000 years ago.
A Neanderthal skull found in 1848 belonged to a female of the species and was named Gibraltar Woman. This skull was the 2nd Neanderthal skull ever found. They were known to occupy 10 sites on the Gibraltar peninsula. Scientists believed that Gibraltar is one of the densest areas of Neanderthal settlement anywhere in Europe.
The first fossilised skull was found in Germany, therefore they believed that Neanderthals migrated south from Germany and found the shores of Gibraltar. Neanderthals of the north developed tools that Gibraltar Neanderthals did not need.
However today it is submerged, the peninsula was once located at the edge of a fertile coastal plain. The region sustained a wide variety of animals and plants providing Neanderthals with a highly varied diet. The moderate temperatures were ideal, bolstering a much more stable and temperate climate than almost anywhere else in Iberia.
Neanderthals climbed into the highest areas and settled into the many caves of the area. Evidence shows that for at least 100,000 years Neanderthals occupied the peninsula. The many remains of animals found in caves show that they were active hunters. The Tools found show that Neanderthals relied on using thrusting spears in close-quarter ambushes.
Gibraltar is one of Europe’s centrepieces for migratory birds. 145 species are represented in the fossil finds at the caves. Neanderthals also consumed tortoises and even monk seals proposing they may have hunted or partially scavenged marine mammals. Without a doubt, they dined on shellfish in large quantities. An abundance of mussel shells has been found in the caves. Scientists hypothesized, Neanderthals amassed them from the seashore and hauled them back over great distances in bags of animal skins.
Gibraltar Apes Den
About thirty people crowded into the cable car taking us up to the Ape’s Den. This aerial tram runs every 10-15 minutes daily. Our tour guide described the historical background, sites and all I could think of was how fast we were ascending. Cars in the adjacent parking lot shrank and beautiful homes with genoise shutters on the hill overlooking the harbour looked like miniature models. At last, we neared our destination as our first monkey is spotted.
These tailless monkeys are Barbary Apes originating from the Atlas and Rif Mountains of Morocco. Gibraltar is the only place in Europe continent where such animals are found living in the wild. They also have the most fantastic views of Southern Spain, Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar.
These curious apes are mischievous and thieving. I witnessed one in a tug-of-war over a bag of potato chips with a person eating lunch. Another climbed into an open van window filled with passengers causing panic. As I was taking a photo of a monkey family, the mother left to walk atop the wall towards an unsuspecting tourist. She opened up the tourist’s backpack, pulled out a red jacket and threw it down the cliffs, all within a few seconds. With their constant contact with humans, they’ve learned to unzip, unbutton, steal hats, glasses or anything that fancies them. You have been warned.
While these apes are experiencing a decline in Africa, the Gibraltar population are increasing. The monkey population on Gibraltar are estimated to be around three-hundred. They are supported by the government who feed and care for them. Spanish historian, Ignacia Lopez de Ayala wrote in his book about the monkeys:
“Neither the incursions of Moor, Spaniards nor the English nor cannon nor bomb of either have been able to dislodge them.”
St. Michaels’ Cave
In the upper reaches of the Rock, roughly 980 feet above sea-level, there are several limestones caverns. St. Michael’s Cave is the largest cavern and that currently, hosts concerts thanks to its acoustic qualities.
Inside this cave, rock structures formed as pillars and columns are stalactites and stalagmites. A type of rock formed from calcium deposited by ceiling drippings. A time period can be identified from these structures much like rings on a tree. To date, the bottom of this cave has not been found; therefore, it has been considered bottomless.
It’s not public knowledge but there are 27 registered caves in Gibraltar. One of those, Gorham’s cave, is where the 1st Neanderthal bones of the area were found in 1848. Rich archaeological and paleontological evidence were found in this and Vanguard caves. Around 42,000 BC, Neanderthals went extinct due to drought, long after they died out in the rest of Europe. There was no water and no rain as determined from stalactites and stalagmites in the caves.
Additionally, St. Michael’s Cave was used in Operation Torch during WWII. Operation Torch (8 November 1942–13 May 1943) was an Allied invasion of French North Africa during the Second World War directed by US General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Anyone who was injured or that ended up with scabies were brought to Gibraltar and treated in this cave. There are three naval hospitals In Gibraltar; One in the caves and two more built inside the tunnels.
This was also where General Dwight Eisenhower set up his headquarters during WWII exemplifying Gibraltar’s vital role as a British fortress.
The Great Siege Tunnels of Gibraltar
This network of tunnels faces the north of the peninsula and the Spanish Border. During the Great Siege of 1779-1783, the Spanish and French tried to capture Gibraltar while the British were busy with the American Revolutionary War. With the aid of gunpowder blasts, the work was carried out using mainly sledgehammers and crowbars.
During WWII, the main excavations were carried out to accommodate and sustain the whole garrison. All sorts of facilities were provided underground; Barracks, workshops, generators, stores, hospitals and so on.
From the 1700s to 1969, there were six-hundred and thirty-three guns that were installed in the tunnels on the Rock. Excavations did not stop until the 1960’s concluding with 33 miles of tunnels.
Gibraltar National Museum
This museum houses a variety of displays characterizing The Rock’s millennia-old history and unique culture of its people. Located in its basement are remains of a 14th-century Moorish bathhouse built during the rule of the Marinid dynasty.
There are rooms that have been dedicated to Gibraltar’s history. Reconstructed walk-in Neanderthal cave and its inhabitants in one room and replicas of guns from the Great Siege in another. A horse-drawn carriage of Maltese tradition used during the 19th-20th centuries located on the main floor. The Gibraltar National Museum can be found at Bomb House Lane, providing awareness to the Rock’s History and Development.
Where else can one say that from one spot, they can see two continents and three countries? Gibraltar is tactically located at the portal of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. This is where Europe and Africa meet.
From there, three countries are physically visible.
1) On the other side of their airport is Spain.
2) In the horizon, across the Strait of Gibraltar, is Morocco.
3) Of course, the land one is standing on to see these vistas is the Overseas Territory of Great Britain.
Most Gibraltarians ethnic origins are a mix of Andalusian Spaniards, Genoese, Maltese, Portuguese and British. It’s not difficult to see Spanish and British influences there. After all, it is connected to Europe through its neighbour, Spain and, it is a territory of Great Britain.
Sephardic Jewish, Hindu Indians and Moroccan Muslim communities had been long established in Gibraltar. In the 18th century, the Genoese came to Gibraltar, then the Maltese and Portuguese in the 19th century. All were in search of work and trade in the British garrison.
Gibraltar survived invasion after invasion for multitudes of generations. The result is a tiny territory of four square miles possessing multi-ethnic Gibraltarians of various religions. They identify themselves as having a common culture. They share a common history, inter-marriages, mutual tolerance and hold full, regular British citizenship. They emphasise and routinely specify that their diverse ethnic make-up is a crucial factor in their identity.
Gibraltar Quick Facts
Gibraltar is the only country in Europe that has a coin with two heads. On one side is the Neanderthal Gibraltar Woman and on the other is Queen Elizabeth. Australia is the other country with a two-headed coin.
Cathedral of St. Mary, The Crown, is the main church for Catholic worship. Ever since the 14th-century, there has been a place of worship, including a mosque on this site.
There are seven synagogues in Gibraltar.
In 1967 Gibraltarians voted to stay under British rule angering Spain’s dictator, Franco. For sixteen years he closed the borders to Spain. During those years separated families were cut-off from each other.
Gibraltar has one of the most dangerous airports. Not only due high winds that make it difficult for planes land and depart but their runway is shared with pedestrians. Yes, pedestrians! A light on the runway signals when pedestrians and vehicles can safely cross. Normally crossings are allowed after a plane had finished using the runway.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married in Gibraltar. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the wedding, Gibraltar issued postage stamps featuring an image of the pair standing in front of the famous rock at the airport.
The Gib Government has been working on all areas of the Rock, eg shops to tourist sites, to be accessible for all. There are a limited number of wheelchair accessible taxis that offer twin ramped access so not suitable for all types of wheelchair. Gibraltar has improved access for all in recent years. Wheelchair & mobility scooter access at the majority of tourist sites. (Information thanks to Alan Broadbent of Accessible Services)
Marilou is a freelance travel writer and photographer based out of Oahu, Hawaii. She focuses on sharing her experiences of cultures through food, history, and entertainment. Born in the Philippines and grew up in Seattle where she got her education, worked and retired from Seattle City Light. Taking one footstep at a time to discover cultures, history and destinations on this small blue planet, her work has been published in Epicure and Culture, Rovology, Short Weeks – Long Weekends and more.
Note to editors: Marilou writes in US English, but we edited it for Travel Inspires