Rock of Gibraltar
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It's a surprise to many people, sailing into the Bay of Gibraltar for the first time, to realize that the Rock, that famous promontory, actually faces Spain and not the Strait of Gibraltar leading into the Mediterranean. Once the cloud cover clears, and the entire enormity of it is revealed, though, it's an amazing sight that's visible from the cruise ship docks.
Gibraltar may well be a British Crown Colony but geographically it's an isthmus of Spain (you literally can walk across the road, though you do have to pass through some pretty tough customs guards). This proximity over the years has caused no end of irritation on the part of the Spanish government. In fact, during the reign of Ferdinand Franco, he got so upset that the British refused to cede the territory to Spain that he closed the border and cut off telephone communications. Recent relations between the British and the Spanish governments have been quite cozy, with Great Britain even entertaining thoughts of handing Gibraltar over; a referendum in 2002 put the kabosh on that, though, since the Gibraltarians would have none of it; they are British and want nothing to do with Spanish citizenship.
The 1400-foot-high "rock" is a limestone formation, riddled with as many as 140 caves. Remains of pre-Neanderthal humans have been found inside the rock and in areas surrounding it, but the territory's more recent history is at once turbulent and inspiring.
In turn peopled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Muslims, Moors, Spanish, Dutch and finally the British, the town of Gibraltar was formed in the 11th century by North African Islamics. The city is said to be "British Colonial built on Spanish Colonial built on Moorish." And that is exactly what the charming city resembles, with all of the influences present in its architecture.
Owing its current status to Lord Nelson (who protected it during the Great Siege), there are several monuments honoring the Admiral, and museum exhibits that explain the most recent history of the region. The strategic location of the territory has caused it to be used over the centuries as a fortified battlement, and in fact, the Rock itself has over 30 miles of roads within it.
Traveling to the top of the Rock is almost mandatory and is easily accomplished via land tours or a quick cable car trip. At the top is a splendid nature preserve, and along the way one can visit with the Barbary apes and even the Barbary partridge, both unique to Gibraltar.
Beyond the Rock and the handful of museums, the old town of Gibraltar consists of a main street jammed with tiny shops and a handful of famous British chains, such as Marks and Spencer, BHS, and NEXT. For North Americans, however, there are few bargains as all prices are in the Gibraltar pound, which is equivalent to the pricey one in the U.K.
As for the future of the territory, it is claimed that as long as the Barbary apes inhabit Gibraltar, it will remain a British colony. You can bet that the apes are prized and pampered and coddled, and have no plans to leave the Rock anytime soon.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
English is the spoken language in Gibraltar, although Spanish and Arabic are widely spoken as well.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Gibraltar pound (on par with the British pound) is the standard currency, but items are priced in both pounds and euros (we had no trouble at all using euros). Shuttles at the cruise dock will accept U.S. dollars for passage; there are plenty of ATM's in the city center, and several exchange booths, most of which don't charge a commission (check first).
Gibraltar Crystal (Grand Casemates, telephone: 350-79980): Items are produced in Gibraltar and entirely handmade; you can watch them being formed and even design your own pieces, from wine glasses to large vases. The glass factory is located in an old army barracks in the town square.
Stuffed Monkeys: We're partial to the wide array of stuffed monkeys available on the Rock, meant to capitalize on the Barbary apes that call the region home. Never mind that the apes have no tails and most of the stuffed animals do -- they're fun and range from teeny squeakers for the pups to great big, fat and fluffy stuffed companions.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at Gibraltar's recently built cruise ship terminal just a mile from the center of town. Expansion plans call for a promenade to be built, linking the terminal with the core shopping and entertainment areas.
The cruise ship terminal is small but does offer international telephones, a snack outlet and a couple of touristy/trinkety kiosks for souvenirs. Otherwise, it's bland and there is nothing else around it except a yacht marina.
Gibraltar comprises just under four square miles, so ostensibly one could do everything on foot, but in fact it's impractical due to the vertical geography of the Rock. The town center is just a mile from the dock and is a relatively easy stroll. Shuttles are offered by the port as well, but prepare to shell out for the quick ride; cost each way is 1 pound sterling, 2 dollars or 2 euros each way. In town, taxis are readily available but fairly pricey relative to the short distances traveled. Also, prices are based on a four-person minimum, so even if there are just two of you you'll still pay 8 euros.
If you choose to book a shore excursion in town rather than through the ship, the buses and guides leave from a central area near the main square.
You can take the cable car from Main Street to the top of the Rock and see both Spain in Europe and Morocco in Africa; the trip takes eight minutes to ascend the 1000 feet to the top, where there are a restaurant, souvenir shop and pub. On your way up or down you can stop to see the Barbary apes at "The Ape's Den," the cave in which they reside. Cost is about 8 pounds for the roundtrip fare, including a stop to see the apes.
Partway up the Rock face is a stop at the Ape's Den, where you can get out and explore. The tail-less Barbary apes will visit with you, but beware -- they love snatching purses, cameras, hats and sunglasses.
Also known as Cathedral Cave, the unique geophysical properties of Upper St. Michael's Cave, descending some 250 feet below the entrance, makes it ideally acoustic, and part of it is set up as a concert venue. These days, classical music is piped through for tourists, but the chambers are still used for concerts, solo performances and ballets. Entry is free with a cable car ticket.
Gibraltar is tax-free and the shopping is lovely. There are many British stores like Marks and Spencer, some Spanish stores, and some that are unique to this multi-ethnic community. Linens and Spanish mantillas are available in the main square at most reasonable prices; leather goods and clothing can be found along the main street, for pedestrians only, that winds its way to the Alameda Gardens at the foot of the Rock.
Been There, Done That
A tour of Lower St. Michael's Cave is not for the faint of heart, nor for the physically challenged. It requires descending several hundred feet using ropes, pulleys, ramps cut into the stone, and scary walks across slippery and narrow pediments. At the end of it, though, you come upon an underground lake surrounded with magnificent stalactites and stalagmites dating from millions of years ago. There is a small entry charge.
Several companies (and cruise ship excursions) offer tours out into the Bay of Gibraltar, where three species of dolphins (common dolphin, striped dolphin and bottlenose dolphin) live and play. Not only are you more than likely to come face to face with these exuberant mammals (or the occasional whale!), but it's also the best opportunity you have for taking photos of the Rock itself.
Diving: Gibraltar is surrounded by more than 30 wrecks and reefs and is a haven for experienced divers, but even novices can take a short "resort course" and go out for a few hours at shallower depths. If your ship is in port until late, night diving is also available.
Birdwatching: Ornithologists aren't the only ones entranced by the multiple species seen migrating through the Straits of Gibraltar. If you are a nature lover, this is an outing that you will enjoy tremendously, as migrating birds are in evidence at almost all times of the year. Depending on when you visit, you might see white storks, honey buzzards, short-toed eagles and sundry other species of sea and land birds. And Gibraltar has its own, the Barbary partridge, which, like the apes, can only be found here.
Most of the lunch spots in the tourist areas of Gibraltar serve British "pub-style" food, but try to find one that serves Gibraltar's unique dishes, calentita and panissa. They are similar, both made of chickpea flour, with calentita having the addition of lemon juice. They are like baked falafels, sometimes served in sandwiches.
For pub grub, we like the little area called Irishtown. It's located a block parallel from the Main Street crowds.
Bunters: This charming wine bar/restaurant is located on College Lane just off Main Street. One of Gibraltar's fancier and more expensive restaurants, there is a wide assortment of fresh fish, meat and poultry dishes.
Star Bar: Located in Parliament Lane just off Main Street, this is the oldest tavern in Gibraltar, and one of the only ones with a children's menu.
Perhaps folks are craving home food because Latino's Diner (194/196 Main), which serves Cokes and burgers and chicken wings, was the busiest joint in town on our visit.
Serving classy but inexpensive Moroccan-style food, La Bayuca (21 Turnbulls Lane, 350-75119) is a favorite of Britain's royal family when they visit Gibraltar.
Angry Friars (287 Main St., 350-71570) offers typical British fare -- steak and kidney pie, and pints of ale -- and is located on the main shopping street with a big outdoor patio.
We loved The Clipper (Tuckey's Lane & Irish Place) in Irishtown. Serving pub fare and with British news channels on the bar's television, it attracts a great blend of locals and visitors alike.
Also try: A walk around the seafront or the marina will introduce you to many little bars and pubs that have "proper tapas," the Spanish influence quite evident and appropriate for this location.
Dolphin Watch: Suitable for all family members, these tours take you out on the Bay of Gibraltar to seek out the three species of dolphins that live in these waters, and the tour guides -- depending on the time of year -- will attempt to find whales, turtles and flying fish. Average cost is $70 per adult, $40 per child. The tour takes about two hours.
Gibraltar Highlights and Upper Town: Some of Gibraltar's most famous monuments are featured in this tour, including the Moorish Castle, the Europa Lighthouse, the Barbary ape den, the top of the Rock, and a walk through Upper Town's twisty, narrow streets. Average cost is $30 per adult, $20 per child, and the tour takes about two hours with the option of returning to the ship on your own.
A City Under Siege: A comprehensive tour that includes highlights of Gibraltar's history, how the inhabitants fought off the invaders, the ingenious manner in which the Rock was used as a fortress, and a historical perspective of Lord Nelson's life and death in the region. Requires a lot of walking. Average cost is $55 per adult, $40 per child; this tour lasts approximately four hours.
Staying in Touch
Cafe Cyberworld (14 - 16 Ocean Heights Gallery, Queensway, telephone 350-51416): Just off Main Street, with high-speed (ISDN) lines. Cost is 2.50 Gibraltar pounds for half an hour; under half an hour is 10 pence per minute. Bar and lively atmosphere, open from noon to midnight.
International telephones are located at the cruise ship dock, and calling cards are available there for purchase.
For More Information
On the Web: Gibraltar Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: Europe Exchange
--By San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.
Images of Rock of Gibraltar, St. Michael's Cave and Barbary ape appear courtesy of the Gibraltar Tourist Board. Images of historic Gibraltar and Barbary ape souvenirs appear courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown.