The original rock star

Historic marvel ... the Rock of Gibraltar.
Historic marvel ... the Rock of Gibraltar. Photo: Sandra Jackson

For all its battle-weary history, Gibraltar remains a mesmerising place, writes Carol West.

It's an impressive sight, there's no denying it. Driving through the Spanish countryside, a forest of white wind farms to one side, the Atlantic rolling onto Tarifa's broad beaches on the other, the mighty Jurassic limestone Rock of Gibraltar looms up to greet us.

Foreboding from a distance, the jagged monolith's 426-metre peak is shrouded in its own microclimate of cloud.

Overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, it may occupy less than five square kilometres of land but its strategic value is immeasurable. It's been a guardian of the vital trade route to India and control point where the US's General Eisenhower masterminded the North Africa landings during World War II.

Before reaching the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and the narrow isthmus that links British Gibraltar to the Spanish mainland, we pass through Spanish and English passport controls within a metre of each other. We're fortunate today because the queue is moving at quite a good pace.

The Moors ruled here for seven centuries until they were ousted by the all-conquering Spanish in 1462. The Rock fell to a combined Dutch-Anglo force in 1704 when the Treaty of Utrecht ceded the Rock to the "Crown of Great Britain". The Spanish lob the occasional border-check go-slow to demonstrate their continuing annoyance and got so cheesed-off in 1969 they closed the border for 13 years.

Queuing ahead of us, a perma-tanned, bald geezer is driving a powder-blue Rolls-Royce. Gibraltar is an hour's drive from Marbella and the Costa del Sol, which, to borrow W. Somerset Maugham's description of Monte Carlo, reminds us of a sunny spot for shady characters.

We'd driven past McVillas clustered discreetly around golf courses on gated estates and seen the Roller at Marbella's marina where people sip lychee martinis while watching their stately floating assets through mirrored sunglasses.

Sitting on the Upper Rock at sunset as a Griffon vulture swoops over the rim of O'Hara's Battery - a discarded gunnery placement - we can see the lights of Tangier across the Strait. At 54 kilometres, this is the narrowest point between Europe and Africa and a funnel for past migrations. Genoese, Portuguese, Jewish, Maltese, Indian and British have all left a heritage that is etched on people's faces.

Near the airport on tiny Catalan Bay, descendants of the Genoese fishermen and ship-builders who settled here in the 18th century still speak Italian. On weekends, its waterfront restaurants are filled with local families and visitors enjoying locally caught sea bass and sardines washed down with chilled Australian beer.

However, throughout all the sieges, battles and war, Gibraltar's overwhelming connection is with the Union Jack.

It is long established as the travel key to unlocking the Mediterranean for British tourists looking for a spot of sunshine to go with their fish'n'chips. High Street brands, a pint at one of the English pubs and British bobbies provide all the familiarity of Old Blighty with a touch of history.

At Hay's Level on the Upper Rock, we don hard hats and enter a small section of the 50 kilometres of tunnels carved deep inside the Rock during World War II. Four hundred visitors a day traipse through here and "Smudge", a British Army veteran-turned-tunnel guide, is there to keep us in line.

"A small city of tunnels was created in just three years as protection against Hitler's 'Invasion Felix' and to control the shipping lanes of the Gibraltar Strait," Smudge says.

Built by an elite group of British coalminers and Canadian engineers, they remain a towering feat of engineering.

The air is cool, damp and breezy and the men who lived here six days a week for three years must have yearned for their one day off to swim and relax in the sunshine.

Despite locals coming into the tunnels to work each day, the Germans never got wind of this hidden city of stores, canteens, four hospitals, sleeping quarters and communications centres that once was home to 6000 men.

Most of the tunnels are still under the control of the British Ministry of Defence and are used to practise tunnel warfare, particularly for troops heading to Afghanistan. Ever discreet, Smudge wouldn't comment on whether Prince Harry had trained inside the mighty Rock.

Down in the town, everything is cheek-by-jowl with more than 130 cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs crammed into Gibraltar's labyrinth of narrow, one-way streets.

The cafes on Casemates Square, once a parade ground and infamous public hanging place, are packed with tourists enjoying English pies and pints, a gastronomic blip among the tapas and sangria of nearby Spain.

Abandoning the car, we stroll along Main Street where shops stock leather goods and jewelled pashminas from Morocco.

In a rambling 1870s building, James Sanguinetti's is a treasure trove of antiques and bijous and at Organics Plus we lunch on home-baked lamb and beef pies made with Ramshaw's award-winning organic meats favoured by Rick Stein.

Wandering off this pedestrian plaza into evocatively named passages and laneways, we discover small Jewish bakeries and Italian cafes. Built on the site of an old mosque, the Catholic cathedral has retained the original Moorish courtyard with half-tiled walls and a towering palm tree.

A Hindu temple and one of the town's four synagogues are all within a short walk of each other and the Anglican cathedral is built with Moorish references. It's like a historic layer cake of religious tolerance.

Along Bell Lane, the Tudor-style Aragon bar and restaurant is serving ploughman's lunches and shepherd's pies for five quid. Down Cornwall's Lane, Jewish delis, Indian food stores, Moorish food and Gibraltarian corner stores offer a variety of foodstuffs.

As with the food, Gibraltar's architecture is a pastiche of its past. Green, wooden window shutters echo Genoese style; decorative Portuguese tiles frame doorways and embellish walls; black, wrought-iron balconies and casement windows reflect Georgian England and everywhere you look, the Rock looms at the end of narrow laneways like an eminence grise.

Capping it all off are spectacular views of the strait and Morocco on an eight-minute cable-car ride to the Apes Den to get acquainted with the Rock's most famous residents - and the only free-range primates in Europe - the Barbary apes.

For these tail-less macaques, introduced from North Africa by the British in the 18th century, Gibraltar certainly does rock.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

British Airways and Easyjet have 35 direct flights a week from London's Gatwick and Luton airports and Manchester Airport. Iberian Airways fly direct from Madrid to Gibraltar. By road, Gibraltar is reached through the Spanish frontier town of La Linea de la Concepcion.

Staying there

Gibraltar has a limited number of hotels, hostels and accommodation to rent. The Rock Hotel, built by the Marquis of Bute in 1932, offers old-fashioned service with modern amenities including Wi-Fi connections in rooms. 3 Europa Road, Gibraltar.

Phone +350 73000, see rockhotelgibraltar.com.

Touring there

Daily tours of Gibraltar's major attractions can be arranged through the tourism office in Casemates Square or the Gibraltar Tourist Board in Cathedral Square, Gibraltar. Phone +350 74950. You can also pre-book by emailing tourism@visitgibraltar.gi.

World War II tunnels, Hay's Level, Upper Rock. Open Monday-Saturday, 10.30am-4.30pm. Adults and children over 12, £6 ($13).

Further information

See www.gibraltar.gov.gi.

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