James Smith, The Real Rock, Gibraltar


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THE REAL ROCK by James Smith

To most North Americans the Rock of Gibraltar is merely a symbol for an insurance company, It has become an almost universal symbol of stability to us. However the "Rock" or "Gib" as it is sometimes also known is all too real. A British Crown Colony, one of the last remnants of the once great British Empire, Gibraltar is a vibrant community and a rather unique place to visit.

Gibraltar is not only politically different from Spain. The country this tiny peninsula extends from but physically too. The Rock is made of Jurassic Limestone. This is different from the nearby Andalusian Mountains of southern pain.

There is also a physical gap between the mountains and the rock as well. In fact the Rock of Gibraltar more closely resembles the Atlas Mountains of nearby North Africa, miles south across the straits that bear the same name. There is a theory base on this that the peninsula was once time physically connected to Africa, a land bridge connecting the two continents.

Gibraltar is only six kilometres long with most of that area taken up by the rock itself. There are 30,000 inhabitants, in this tiny town that clings between the water's edge and the steep rise of the hill. The tip of the peninsula, Europa Point is the most southerly point in all of Europe. It is here the waters of Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Seas meet. On a clear day it is possible to gaze across the straight and see the mountains of distant Morocco.

That old adage "solid as the Rock of Gibraltar" is a little misleading. The rock is in fact rather hollow. There are more than 140 caves of varying sizes scattered throughout it. The largest St. Michaels Cave was actually used as a Hospital during the Second World War, and now serves as a theatre. In addition the British have been tunneling here for three hundred odd years and a literal maze of tunnels and passages cris cross beneath the surface. Incidentally a lot of the present day town and the airport runway, sits on landfill made from the excavation from these tunnels.

The population of Gibraltar is a mix of British, Spaniards, Maltese, and Moroccans among others. English is the official language, although Spanish is widely spoken too. Currency is the Gibraltar pound, which has the same value of it's British counterpart. Spanish Pesatas and more recently Euros are also accepted in most places, and prices are often posted in all these currencies.

The name Gibraltar comes from the Moorish leader Tarik ibn Zeyad in the tenth century. He christened it "Gebel Tarik," Tarik's mountain. From 911 AD to 1309 the area and in most os Spain was overrun by the Moors from North Africa. The Spanish recaptured Gibraltar in 1309 and for the most part managed to hang onto it for another 400 years.

In 1704 the British invaded and captured the peninsula. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, seceded the territory to the British. The Spanish were not willing to accept this and continued to attempt to retake the peninsula. Gibraltar was besieged no less than fifteen times over the next 300 years. The longest was the great siege that commenced in 1779, and lasted three years and seven months. It was during this time that the British commenced their immense tunneling projects.

Even in the twentieth century, the Spanish refused to relinquish their claim on the territory. The border was sealed by General Franco from 1969 until 1985, forcing all goods to be brought in by sea or air. A referendum on whether the territory would remain British saw 12,000, votes cast to remain a colony and only 12 to join Spain

Gibraltar has long been a major military and naval base. The local economy has long benefited and in fact depended on this fact. With the end of the cold war, the British have been scaling down their military presence in the colony. Fortunately there is a ready replacement for the lost income, tourism.

Gibraltar is an easy flight from London, and there is daily regular air service. There is also a regular ferry service to Morocco, a marina, and cruise ship dock. By far though, the bulk of visitors arrives by land across the border. The majority come from the resorts of the nearby Cost del Sol on day package tours and/or overnight trips. Up to 30,000 people cross the small border checkpoint daily.

Incidentally crossing the border is something of an experience. The airport's single runway is located right at the border, and one must either drive or walk across it after clearing customs and immigration. Don't worry there is a cross walk and traffic light.

A large infrastructure of new hotels, condos, shops, restaurants, and pubs to support this influx has sprung up. There is even a casino, for those who feel lucky. One of the major attractions for visitors, especially the large British expatriates' population living in southern Spain, is the fact that Gibraltar is a duty-free port.

Great bargains on tobacco, alcohol and electronic goods can be found in the shops here. It is a two-way trade across the border too. Groceries and other produce are often cheaper in Spain, and the colonies population often crosses to do their shopping there.

There is a lot else to see and do here. Tours of the tunnels, both World War Two and 18th century variety, can be arranged, as can one of Saint Michaels Cave. There is a cable car to the summit, and the view is spectacular. Europa point and its lighthouse are also not to be missed. Finally there are of course the famous apes and their playful antics. Guided tours can be arranged through local agencies, and for those coming from the Costa del Sol sightseeing and shopping excursions can be booked locally.

An organized tour is recommended for two reasons. First it will ensure you don't miss any of the sites tucked away in the nooks and crannies of this tiny colony. More important, as I noted the whole place is barely six kilometres long, most of that taken up by the rock itself. The 30,000 inhabitants own almost 70,000 vehicles including military and other government ones. Added to this are another 30,000-40,000 cars and buses that cross the border daily. Driving on the narrow twisting streets of Gibraltar is not for the faint of heart.

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