Known for its famous rock, Gibraltar is a fascinating place – a racial and cultural fusion of Britain, Spain, Italy and North Africa.
Contrary to many assumptions, Gibraltar is not an island but a narrow peninsula. Located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, the British overseas territory was first settled by the Moors in the 12th century. Later, it was ruled by Spain. In 1704, Britain claimed it during the war of the Spanish Succession.
The territory is only 2.6 square miles, making it the third smallest “country” in the world after Vatican City and Monaco. Yet it’s also one of the most densely populated countries with over 33,000 residents.
Our time in Gibraltar got off to a rocky start (no pun intended) and unfortunately, didn’t get much better.
Our journey began with a harrowing ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar. After spending the night in Algeciras, Spain, we stored our backpacks at the bus station, then took an hour-long bus ride to La Linea, the Spanish port town bordering Gibraltar. From the bus station, it’s just a 15-minute walk to Gibraltar (passports required for entry.)
The day we visited, the weather was terrible – chilly temperatures, heavy rain and strong winds.
We couldn’t even see the top of the Rock of Gibraltar due to the massive storm clouds. We stopped in Cafe Bar Eclen for a ham and cheese baguette, lamenting whether or not our less than 24 hours in Gibraltar would be a total bust.
Eventually, the rain turned to a light drizzle. We strolled by the historic Convent Guard House with its shiny cannons out front, visited a nearby park, and eventually made it to the main pedestrian shopping street.
Wandering in cold, wet weather is just not fun. Especially in a place that boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year. We looked up – we still could not see the top of the Rock.
We decided to walk all the way to the end of the peninsula – the area called Europa Point. There are several sights here including the Lighthouse and the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Europe.
The most impressive structure was the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque with its stark white exterior and optimal location, directly facing the Strait of Gibraltar. A gift from the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, it’s one of the largest mosques in a non-Islamic country. In fact, only 4% of Gibraltar’s total population is Muslim.
The rain and wind picked up again. We looked up – we still could not see the top of the Rock.
To put things in perspective, summiting the Rock is pretty much the thing to do in Gibraltar.
We’d seen amazing photos of how the limestone “monolithic promontory” normally looks in clear, sunny skies. A stunning crest with majestic peaks that were formed during the Jurassic Period, over 200 million years ago.
The Rock’s central peak is called Signal Hill and stands at over 1,200 feet tall. Once an artillery battery, today, it serves as the base station for the Gibraltar Cable Car. Built in 1966, the aerial tramway can carry up to 30 passengers to the “Top of the Rock” in just six minutes. Interesting fact: despite the name, the “top” is actually the second highest peak of the Rock.
Another intriguing aspect of the Rock is the Galleries, a system of underground tunnels that traverse a length of nearly 1000 feet. There were built during the Great Siege of Gibraltar when Spain and France tried to unsuccessfully capture the territory from the British for over three years. It was the longest siege endured by the British Armed Forces.
The views from the Rock are supposed to be spectacular, but we wouldn’t (and still don’t) know.
We had it all planned out. We’d take an invigorating hike via the Mediterranean Steps, located near the Jew’s Gate. The hike is apparently steep, but less than a mile long with views that make it all worthwhile.
Along the way, we imagined encountering the infamous Barbary macaques that inhabit the Rock. But the only monkeys we’d see that day were stuffed animals sold at the souvenir shops.
The rain and wind continued. We looked up – we still could not see the top of the Rock.
In a last ditch effort, since we’d survived a near-death experience on the ferry, we decided to pursue the Rock. In lieu of the hike, we’d splurge on the cable car. We walked back into town, found the ticket kiosk and asked the cashier for two tickets for the “Top of the Rock.”
The cashier looked us with a blank stare. “Today?”
She got ready to ring us up, then stopped. She looked at us and in her polite British accent remarked, “Sorry to say, it won’t be worth your trouble. I don’t want to sell you tickets because… well, you won’t be able to see ANYTHING.”
Okay Gibraltar, we got the hint. But we’ll be back (after we first check the weather.) And we look forward to finally seeing the top of the rock.