This is my birthplace, and a return fifty years later. My father was station commander when I was born here on October 24th 1961. This also tallies with my mother’s 80th birthday and so provides a good excuse for a trip down memory lane.
Gibraltar is truly an extraordinary piece of rock, being precisely the same type and height as its equivalent Pillar of Hercules 12 miles to the south in North Africa. This gateway to the Mediterranean was created when the African plate split from the European and the Atlantic flowed in. As a site of massive strategic importance, it has been the scene of battles ever since. Nelson’s legendary battle of Trafalgar was fought just round the corner from here. The Spanish have tried everything to capture it – laying siege to the place frequently – and the Germans attacked from the sea along with generations of Moors and Turks.
The rock itself is something of a phenomenon. It contains 70 miles of tunnels, used for a variety of purposes usually to do with war. On the North Front, these provided lookout and munitions points where guns could be fired on the invading Spanish. On the southern tip is the large St. Michael’s Cave, scene of a concert by the Beatles and still a working venue hewn out of limestone and decorated by enormous stalagmites.
At the very top is a vertiginous narrow road occupied mainly by the famous rock apes or Barbary macaques. They will steal your hat in a flash, or rip the aerial off your car. They dance around with gay abandon, seemingly oblivious to the sheer drop to Sandy Bay below. On a clear day the views are breathtaking. Migrating birds of prey gather in large quantities to make their last stop before the final push over to Africa, as gulls wheel constantly overhead. Africa can be seen in the distance, and the bay is bustling with oil tankers.
Land reclamation is a main feature, and various marina projects have increased the size of the peninsula as Spain encroaches from all sides. The airport runway cuts across the north front, and the main road drives over it past the now modest military base. A new terminal is being built, and on the weekends 1,000s of Spaniards pour across the border for duty free shopping.
Old aerial photographs taken by my father in 1960 show a wide strip of no man’s land to the north. This is all now totally built up, with no buffer zone left. We stay at the art deco Rock Hotel, a slightly crumbling monument to a bygone age. Many places are a short walk away, but a taxi round the rock provides a faster canter past some milestones. The 100 Ton Gun, a ridiculously oversized cannon south of the harbour that was never fired in anger. A range of mosques and lighthouses. The Moorish castle and old town – picturesque in relation to the newer, functional blocks that have sprung up. Drive up the rock to see the view and visit the caves, or take the cable car. The main street bustles but could be anywhere.
Gibraltar is worth a couple of nights. It doesn’t offer much to do of a modern nature, but it does have a lot of history.