May 15, 2011

A Visit to The Rock of Gibraltar

The gateway to the Mediterranean, the southernmost point on the Iberian Peninsula and a symbol of solidity since ancient times, the Territory of Gibraltar is a British Protectorate of 2,642 square miles bordering Andalusia, Spain. Visitors to Gibraltar are greeted with Metropolitan Police "Bobbies", double decker buses, prices in Pounds Sterling and a plethora of pubs serving fish & chips and stout!

Of course Gibraltar is most famous for the Rock that has marked the separation between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea for mariners since the beginning of civilization. Originally inhabited by the Phoenicians, it had been occupied briefly by the Carthaginians, Romans and the Visigoth Kingdom of Hispania before coming under Moorish control for seven centuries. In 1462 Spain re-asserted its rule until the Anglo-Dutch of 1704 that ultimately gave Britain dominion after the Treaty of Utrecht.

Gibraltar's location at the tip of Spain and just a stone's throw from Morocco made it an ideal naval base and it played a key part in Lord Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar, the Crimean War and control of the British Empire east of the Suez Canal. Today the economy of Gibraltar is based on tourism, financial services and the shipping industry and its 30,000 inhabitants enjoy a special relationship with both England, the governor, and Spain, the cultural inspiration.

Now I have to admit that I knew very little about Gibraltar when I arrived there the other day, but I came away very impressed with the rich history and its unique situation due in large part to the geography of the region. The Rock of Gibraltar, or as Greek legend has it, one of the two Pillars of Hercules (the other being Morocco's Mont Abyla), dominates the landscape both physically and sentimentally, but there is more to Gibraltar than The Rock.

A walk along the waterfront takes me to "Irish Town", a quaint section of narrow streets and low, tile-clad houses, all with the requisite Spanish balconies looking onto the lanes. Farther along I came to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, an unimposing structure with a heavily Moorish flavor that serves as the seat of the Anglican Diocese in Europe. Near the Cathedral is the Museum of Gibraltar that offers a charming history - natural, political, military and cultural - of the region including the archeological remains of a Moorish bathhouse. On I went, past the cemetery where many sailors who perished in the Battle of Trafalgar are buried (Lord Nelson himself was preserved in a barrel of wine and transported to England to be laid to rest), past the Governor's Mansion where John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married, to the Botanical Gardens to wait for the gondola that would take visitors up the 1,400 foot elevation to the summit of The Rock.

A six-minute ride and there we were - on top of The Rock of Gibraltar! Needless to say the view was impressive with Spain on one side, Africa on the other and two major bodies of water as the dividers. But the most amazing sights of all were the only true native inhabitants of the area - the famous Barbary Macaques, or Apes as they are more commonly referred to. Superstition holds that if the monkeys ever leave, so will the British, but they seemed to be thriving, and rather enjoying their habitat, so there is probably no need for concern.

Back down The Rock and a little more exploring through the delightful old town before it was time to leave. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit Europa Point, Gibraltar's southernmost tip, or The Great Siege Tunnels, excavated during the Spanish War of Succession and used most recently during World War II, but I enjoyed my brief visit enormously and have a new appreciation for anything as "Solid as The Rock of Gibraltar"!

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