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‘You’ve probably never heard of this town, but after three visits I’m in love’

Gibraltar was ceded by Spain to Great Britain in 1713 and officially declared a British colony in 1830. Many Spaniards have found work here, but tensions persist between Spain and Great Britain over Gibraltar’s maritime law. A recent referendum of the people of Gibraltar showed quite strongly that they were reluctant to sever ties with Britain.

There are many tour operators and tours on the rock. The easiest and cheapest way to see the sights was to take a local bus from Winston Churchill Avenue just behind the runway and run to Europa Point and back. This is one of the southernmost points in Europe, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean and the Trinity Lighthouse has been in operation since 1841. According to legend, Hercules came here to fight the giant Geryon – his tenth job – and to open the road. Creation of the pillars that got his name, beyond which the ancient sailors were afraid to venture.

The top of the rock. Source: Liz Sier

When we got off the bus at the cable car station next to the Alameda Botanic Gardens and Wildlife Park at the north end of Europa Road, we were lifted high to the top of the rock to the terraces and lookouts. On a clear day you can see not only Spain but Africa too. This explains the importance of Gibraltar’s strategic geographic location and the role it has played throughout history. Gibraltar has a varied military heritage, from the expulsion of the Moors to the unsuccessful Great Siege of Spain from 1779 to 1883, its role in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and World War II. The rock is full of caves and tunnels, many of which were excavated during the siege and further expanded during World War II. These can be seen on multiple tours but we didn’t have time for them. The defenses include the 100-ton cannon, several cannons from the 18th and 19th centuries, pistol embrasures and batteries. The most popular cave is St. Michael’s Cave, a virtual underground cathedral. It is believed that there are over 140 caves, some of which date from the Neanderthal era and which were created by the erosion of the limestone monolith. A visit to Trafalgar Cemetery is also popular with the British.

On our second visit, as we walked from the docks to the main square, we noticed a touching memorial commemorating the forced evacuation of around 16,700 civilians in World War II – the elderly, the sick, women and children who were forced to close their homes leaving the Rock for temporary accommodation in Jamaica, Madeira, Northern Ireland and London. It was not until 1951 that the last evacuees returned to their homeland.

On top of the rock, we enjoyed the most popular attractions of Gibraltar – the macaques or barbary macaques. These tailless monkeys are pretty cute most of the time, but since they are wild creatures, feeding them is forbidden as they can get quite aggressive. It makes sense to remove caps and sunglasses nearby as they are known to steal straight from your head. We saw a macaque walk into the cafe and steal a muffin from a young child and hop away with it. It was pretty alarming. We were warned not to take food outside of the cafe.

Casemates Square is the city’s social hub. Named for the barracks at the north end of the square, this place has served many purposes, including the site of public executions. Nowadays it offers a variety of cafes, bars and restaurants as well as handicraft markets and live open air concerts. We stopped at the outside tables to have iced coffee and use the free wifi to get emails and the like. The currency here is pound sterling and everyone speaks English. Still, it’s nothing like an English city other than shopping. Main Street, the center of Gibraltar’s business district, runs south and offers ample opportunities to buy tax-free goods in stores like Marks & Spencers that remind British tourists of home. Another memory is in the name of this area – Irish Town.

Casemate SquareThere is a lot to see in Casemates Square. Source: Getty

We took a self-guided walking tour of this old town to discover various notable architectural styles of the different nationalities that have lived in the area over the centuries – English, Dutch, Spanish, Maltese, Genoese, Portuguese, Jews and of course the Moors. The Gothic Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned was built in the 15th century on the site of a ruined mosque, shortly after the Moors were driven out. Only the inner courtyard remains from the original complex. Oddly enough, the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral looks more like a Moorish palace from the outside due to its Moorish revival style, although it was built much later in the early 19th century.

Originally a Franciscan monastery founded in the 16th century, the monastery has been the official residence of the Governor of Gibraltar since 1728. Due to renovations in the 19th century, it lost many of its original features. The adjacent royal chapel was part of the Franciscan monastery and later became a garrison church. It was the first purpose-built church built in Gibraltar. Opposite is the Convent Guard House with two large cannons in front of the door. Another attractive building is the former headquarters of the Central Police in Irish Town. This Victorian Gothic building was built in 1864.

So after three visits we haven’t seen everything yet. It may not be a very large area, but there is no shortage of interesting things to see and do!

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