One sunny July day in southern Spain, we decided to walk to the UK, just for the day. Don’t get the wrong idea though; I’m no superhuman. How might one achieve this unspeakable feat, you ask? Via Gibraltar, of course. Kidding aside, Gibraltar might be one of the strangest 2.6 square miles I’ve yet encountered.
While staying in a small beach town on the Costa Del Sol in the south of Spain, Casares, we had decided to take a series of day trips to various spots nearby. As beautiful as it is, with the exception of the stellar beachfront restaurant, there was little to do other than the usual beach stuff. And the best part was, you could usually do both if you started early enough.
And I have to take a moment to say; this beachfront restaurant really was spectacular. My American sensibility tells me to be wary of any open-air restaurant actually on the beach, especially when it‘s the only one. In my experience, they are either far too expensive, terrible, or both. This is not the case in Spain. I could go on, but this is a different story.
A peninsula jutting out from the southern tip of Spain, essentially making a gateway to the Mediterranean, the history of Gibraltar is a strange one. Since about 70 years before the Declaration of Independence, Gibraltar has been a part of the UK. I won‘t get into the dense history, but this was the result of war and despite Spain making claims to the territory, the population consistently voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
I have officially crossed two international borders by foot in my lifetime. One was from Tijuana (and we definitely don’t need to talk about that) the other was on this day, from Spain into the UK.
Before this brief visit, I knew very little about Gibraltar. Well, I knew two things: 1. there was a substantial rock there of some fame and 2.citizens of the Uk could visit without a passport, this much I knew from an autobiography of a double agent British spy. Not a lot. So here’s some of what I didn’t know then.
Humans have been living in and around Gibraltar since at least neolithic times. There are plentiful caves and, sure enough, at one time, cavemen lived in them. Add in just about every seafaring group that we know of in the Mediterranean and they’ve had a presence in Gibraltar.
The name, like much of southern Spain, comes from a bastardization of an Arabic name. “Jabal Tariq” meaning either “mountain of Tariq”, a Moorish general from the 8th century, or “Mountain on the way” on the way from Africa to Iberia, that is. In fact, the Moors, as far as is known, were the first group to make a permanent settlement there around the 10th century AD, and the castle they built still stands.
After about an hour’s drive, ⅓ of which you could actually see the Rock of Gibraltar in the distance, we had arrived. So it goes like this: You pull into a parking lot, park your car (you can drive in, but it would simply be to pull in and park in another country) you walk across the street into a small building, and have your passport ready.
Other than myself, the group consisted of all EU travelers. Thus we were briefly separated because of my American passport. Since this time, Gibraltar has left the European Union along with the rest of the United Kingdom, so I imagine this process would be a little different today. Anyhow, The extremely bored seeming passport controllers let us right through with no issue and boom, we were in the UK.
Directly at the border, there are mostly gas stations and shops, but after a brief walk, you find yourself on a harbor, all pedestrian. It seemed like some sort of festival was happening, there was a stage with a band playing.
Though very few people were even around to listen - it was still early in the day. My immediate feeling was that it felt a bit like Disneyland. In fact, the whole area had the vibe. It’s hard to describe, but something I have never experienced across the border in Spain. It’s like an area designated only for tourists. There’s no real culture, only what they’re serving up for the tourists passing through. Always nice to be on a harbor, though.
All this crossing of borders had made some of us hungry, so we grabbed a table at a pizza joint. Having been in Spain for some time, I expected automatically to be speaking Spanish once our server arrived.
I was wrong, dead wrong. She was British to the core. It definitely took me by surprise. And I would continue to be surprised by this. After finishing our extremely mediocre pizza, we continued on. To be fair, I had wanted to search for better food options, knowing that offerings near entrances are usually dismal, but the rest of the group was too hungry, so pizza it was.
Our next destination was the shopping district. Gibraltar is a destination for big shoppers as they do not charge any sales tax. This area is something to see; high-end jewelry shops seemed to be most prevalent, as were art galleries, as well as almost any shop you can imagine catering to people with lots of money who don’t want to spend it on tax.
There was also a strange prevalence of boutique electronic shops that seemed to cater to a different crowd. The group split up for a little bit, and I headed straight for a sunglasses shop. My current shades were falling apart, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. At this time of the day, I was the only patron in the shop, and both employees helped me try them on. This might have been the most unique part of my shopping experience.
Both of these female employees were by far the most glamorous sunglasses shop employees I‘ve ever seen. They looked like two runway models taking a break to sell some sunglasses on the side. They were also both exceptionally engaged in finding the perfect pair for me, and yes, it felt great.
Both were vaguely European, but neither British nor Spanish. I didn‘t ask. Needless to say, they sold me a pair of Ray-Bans (which in the end, I saved nothing to speak of) so it must be a lucrative business, even for runway models. For some reason, these details stand out to me.
New sunglasses in hand, or on my face rather, I met back up with the group and we took a stroll through the town, and headed to our next destination, the main attraction, the ROCK.
This may sound strange, but as we walked through the streets, I couldn’t help but feel like parts of Gibraltar reminded me of Charleston, South Carolina. I suppose it’s not so odd of a comparison; both were built by the British around the same time (or Barabadan colonial British in the case of Charleston). And both take a lot of African/ Caribbean influence as well. Also, both have a King Street.
Additionally, I couldn‘t help but be surprised at the constant British accents I heard throughout the street. I had assumed the connection to the UK was a formality, but there were Brits everywhere. Apparently, Gibraltar has its own dialect, called Llanito. This is a Spanish-based language mixed with a lot of English. It‘s a very odd thing to hear.
It wasn‘t a long walk until we arrived at the base of the mountain, which juts straight up from the edge of the town. We took one look at the queue for the cable car and seemed to silently ask each other, “Do we really want to do this?” (yet another Disneyland comparison here). Before we could come up with a conclusive answer, a man approached us. He spoke with a Spanish accent and was all business.
For a moment, I was worried about which business that might be, but as it turned out, he had a van and could drive us to the top, we didn’t need to wait in the long line. It would only be twelve euros each. A little steep comparatively, but he assured us he would be a great tour guide, and it would be a VIP treatment.
We mulled it over and gave him our resounding answer, “Yes“. As soon as he collected our money, though, he gave us the bad news. We just needed to wait now for four more people so he can have a full van. “WHAT?“ we all said simultaneously, “well how long is that going to take,“ I asked. He assured me it wouldn’t take long. So we waited and chatted amongst ourselves for the better part of twenty minutes, occasionally watching him try his spiel on other tourists.
None of them were having it. We eventually had had enough, we asked for our money back, which he begrudgingly gave us, and we headed over to the cable car queue, which was now longer than when we had arrived. The time passed quickly, though, and up into the sky we went.
As you rise up towards the top of the rock, you really see how massive the port of Gibraltar is. It seems bigger than the town itself. Once you exit the building, you enter a viewing area, and you really get a sense of how spectacular and unique this place is. The rock comes straight up out of the sea and seems to catch the clouds.
It is only fourteen miles across the water to Morocco, so even though it wasn’t a clear day, you could still see the faint outline of the African continent and countless ships in the distance. We took this in for a few minutes, watching the strange cloud formations before moving on and exploring more of the mountain. Almost immediately, we came upon the real attraction here. MONKEYS!
Gibraltar is home to a population of Barbary Macaques, the only wild monkeys anywhere in Europe today. No one really knows their true origin, there are identical macaques in the mountains of Morocco, so it‘s likely that they were brought over at some point.
There is also a possibility, though, that they are the remnants of the Southern European population, which did exist at one time. Either way, these guys are really funny to see and really cute. They really aren’t afraid of people at all and will just hang out around tourists. In fact, one particularly bold little guy decided he deserved a bag of chips more than the visitor who was eating them.
It really is endlessly entertaining to watch them. They fight and play, and mama‘s carry their cute little babies. As we walked around the nature preserve that takes up the highest part of the mountain, we finally saw our van guy from earlier. He was just pulling up, probably 2 hours since we had rescinded our offer. We had probably made the right choice.
However, I will say, once he got out and started giving his tour, I had to give him credit. He was a pretty good tour guide. Not to mention, this guy had a way with the monkeys. He was letting people play with them, putting them on the shoulders of fearless tourists. I did hear a warning that they will bite if they‘re scared, but none of that seemed to happen.
Eventually, as the sun was beginning to set, it was time to say goodbye to the monkeys and descend again. I briefly entertained the idea of hiking to the bottom but was talked out of it. So that was it, we made it down and headed back to the car.
Before we crossed over, we stopped into a Border shop. I was yet again reminded of South Carolina here. When I was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, fireworks were illegal in our state (weirdly, they’ve become legal since. Take that progression!).
So, border states like South Carolina would have huge fireworks shops right on the border, so you could buy as much as you can before heading home. Gibraltar’s border store didn‘t have fireworks but was full of British food and goods, junk food mostly, candy, drinks, whatever British delight your heart desires, this was the last chance to pick it up.
I picked up a British candy bar, and we slipped through the border. Back to Spain, we went!
Want to know more? Are you interested in becoming a contributor for Pedacitos? We'd love to hear your stories! Send me a message and I will get back to you!