What better way to escape the bitterly cold British winter weather than to spend a week in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. At only 3 miles (5km) long and 0.75 miles (1.2km) wide it’s a tiny relic of the former British empire but with more than enough to keep us entertained during our stay.
After an overnight stay at the Ibis London Heathrow Airport ahead of our 7.10 a.m. British Airways flight, three hours later we were walking down the aircraft steps at Gibraltar airport. Looming in front of us was the 1400 feet (426m) limestone rock for which the territory is world famous.
The fun started straightaway as Gibraltar airport is one of the most unusual in the world as it is bisected by the busy Winston Churchill Avenue. A barrier comes down and the road closes before a plane takes off or lands. For spectacular landing views I would recommend sitting on the right hand side of the aircraft but depending on the wind direction this isn’t guaranteed, as was the case with our arrival.
Getting into the centre couldn’t be easier as Buses 5 & 10 operate regular services between the airport and the centre, day tickets are good value at just £3 with taxis also available outside the arrivals hall. By 11.30 a.m. we were checking in to the landmark historic Rock Hotel nestled into the lower rock and affording the best views in town. As we were early we left our bags at reception and looked forward to seeing our room later in the day.
With so much to see and do in Gibraltar there was no time to waste and we were soon on our way to Gorham’s Cave Complex located on the steep sided limestone cliffs on the eastern side of the Rock. The four sea level caves here are considered to be one of the best known habitations of the Neanderthals in Europe and since 2016 the site has been bestowed with UNESCO World Heritage status.
We took part in a tour escorted by a guide from the Gibraltar National Museum. Please note that the tour is to the viewing platform of Gorham’s Cave but does not go inside the caves in order to protect the fragile archaeological deposits. Our guide was very informative and explained that the caves contain 39,000 year old etchings described as some of the earliest examples of abstract art ever found.
From Gorham’s Cave we had views across the headland to Europa Point so we decided to head there next. This is the southernmost point of Gibraltar and on clear days there are great views to be had across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. We’d arrived on a hazy day but could just make out the outline of the Moroccan mountains. It was hard to believe that we were standing a mere 15 miles from Africa, a continent I’m yet to visit but I’m confident of getting there one day.
Standing proud is the red and white striped Europa Point Lighthouse serving as a beacon for the large number of vessels travelling along the strait between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and the only Trinity House Lighthouse located outside of the U.K and the Channel Islands. Since 1994 the lighthouse has been fully automated with its old historical optic now on display at the University of Gibraltar Europa Point Campus just a five minute walk away.
Also located at Europa Point is the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim mosque, the most southerly in Europe and one of the largest in a non-Muslim country. The mosque was a £5m gift from the King of Saudi Arabia.
We then popped into a café on the headland for a welcome cup of coffee and on leaving strolled over to take a look at the Sikorski Memorial which commemorates the former commander-in-chief of the Polish army and Prime Minister of the Polish Government in exile. General Sikorski died when his plane crashed after take off from the Gibraltar British military base in 1943.
Next on our itinerary was a visit to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve (entrance £13) which includes admission to numerous attractions. Please note that only local cars and taxis are permitted to enter the nature reserve. Visitors can also arrive by cable car or follow one of the marked trails but please be advised that these can be very steep in places.
We’d come to visit St. Michael’s Cave, the largest chamber of which has been transformed into a concert hall. With its extremely good acoustics the Cathedral Cave is equipped with a stage and seating for approximately 700 people. Upon entering the cave, it feels like a magical experience with its glimmering red, white and grey stalactite columns, resembling a cathedral complete with pulpit, chancel and organ pipes.
The upper section of the cave was discovered more than 2000 years ago and over time has been used for various purposes including a hospital during the Second World War. In 1942 additional deeper descending chambers were discovered leading to an underground lake. Special 3 hour guided tours can be arranged to view this part of the cave but unlike the upper section, a certain amount of scrambling and some minor climbing with ropes is required to view the lower cave. This wasn’t open to visitors at the time of our visit but it would certainly be interesting to explore on a future visit to Gibraltar.
Not far from St. Michael’s Cave on Royal Anglian Way lies the Windsor Suspension Bridge, at 71m long the attraction boasts spectacular views over the city and Bay of Gibraltar. The bridge is suspended over a 50 metre deep gorge and as it was a windy day it swayed gently as we crossed it, so it’s perhaps not for the faint hearted. It’s actually part of the Thrill Seekers Trail, more of which we planned to undertake during the coming week. There’s no need to worry about crossing the bridge though as it is completely safe and supported by huge anchors on either side driven deep into the rock face.
From the middle of the bridge we were rewarded with more breath taking views and after taking lots of photos we set off again, this time for Queensway Quay on the waterfront for some lunch. This stylish quay is one of three marinas in the territory.
Overlooking the water are a selection of inviting restaurants and bars each with a spacious terrace facing the marina. We enjoyed lunch at Monique’s Bistro sat at a window table in the conservatory as it was a little too breezy for dining on the terrace.
This was our first taste of local cuisine and Monique’s definitely set the standard as my Risotto Marisco (seafood risotto) tasted fresh and creamy. My son, Simon opted for the steak and caramelised onion sandwich which was served just to his liking and was reported to be delicious.
As we’d eaten so little since leaving the U.K. we decided that a lunchtime dessert was in order. I selected the very British, apple and berry crumble served with custard and ice cream whilst Simon’s huge slice of Bailey’s cheesecake was also a clear winner. The bistro has a relaxed atmosphere, good food with a friendly service. With its waterfront position it’s perfect for sitting out on the terrace, sipping a cocktail and dreaming of owning one of the expensive yachts moored in the harbour, what could be nicer?
After our long, lazy lunch it was approaching 4.00 p.m. and time to meet some monkeys, the famous Barbary macaques to be exact. Gibraltar is home to around 300 macaques and Brian Gomilla, a Barbary macaque expert is Gibraltar’s only qualified primatologist. He runs Monkey Talk Gibraltar taking small groups to observe a particular troop and to describe their interactions. Tours commence during the two hours prior to sunset and start outside St. Michael’s Cave near the Jew’s Gate entrance to the nature reserve.
After a brief introduction about the species, we followed an uphill path towards a rocky outcrop above Spur Battery overlooking Europa Point. Whilst there, he explained that there are seven distinct groups of macaques in Gibraltar, with each one moving around as a unit led by the alpha male, and sleeping within their own established territories.
Numerous inquisitive monkeys were running around and we were advised by Brian to try not to look them directly in the eye, remain unflustered and to stand our ground. After a short scramble up the cliffside we crouched down on a ledge to quietly observe the macaques who carried on with their daily routines, just giving us a cursory glance before moving off.
It was interesting to learn that by not cowering in fear from the macaques, we were asserting our dominance resulting in the apes losing interest. When apes come close, tourists frequently shriek in terror creating the impression that the monkeys are the ones in charge and they then take the opportunity to seize bags or take things out of people’s hands in the search for food, so it’s advisable to remain calm and to leave bags behind when visiting the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
Brian indicated that part of the problem is that the macaques are seen purely as a tourist attraction on the Rock but visitors to the nature reserve should instead treat the apes with respect and be proud to be in the company of the only non-human primates in Europe instead of trying to pose for selfies with them and invade their space.
After scrambling down from our vantage point we continued along to Apes Den close to the Cable Car middle Station. We learnt that the group living around Apes Den is known as the Queen’s Gate troop. They feed on the nature reserve’s natural vegetation but also receive food left out for them at feeding stations by park rangers. It is illegal to feed the Gibraltar macaques and hefty fines are handed out to those breaking the law.
The two hour familiarisation experience with Brian changed our perceptions on the macaques and we found it to be both interesting and educational. During the coming week we’ll undoubtedly be coming across apes again and I now feel assured that we will behave correctly in their presence.
What an interesting day we’d had and it wasn’t over yet as we returned to the Rock Hotel to pick up our room keys and settle into our gorgeous room. The hotel exudes timeless elegance and adorning its hallway is a hall of fame with photos of famous guests including Winston Churchill, Prince Charles and Bruce Forsyth. During our stay we had great fun trying to recognise as many of the pictures as we could.
Our colonial style room on the third floor with its French windows opening out onto a spacious balcony with views across the bay was everything that we could have wished for. The art-deco hotel opened in 1932 and has recently been refurbished meeting the needs of the modern traveller whilst retaining its charming character.
The wind had dropped and it was warm enough to sit out on our balcony taking in the twilight views of the twinkling lights on the boats moored out in the bay and of the Spanish coastline almost within touching distance.
Later in the evening we dined in the hotel’s elegant Terrace Restaurant with its chequered tiled floor, palms and starched white tablecloths. The restaurant excels in fine dining and stability with the head chef taking up his role at just 22 and still at the helm over 40 years later. It’s the same with a number of the waiters who have given lifetime service to the hotel with their impeccable service and friendly smiles.
We selected from the daily changing three course house menu and my starter of tomato and asparagus salad, followed by baked hake with celery and potatoes were beautifully presented and tasted just as good as they looked. Although we’d already indulged in desserts at lunchtime we couldn’t resist again and our mille-feuille and rich chocolate mousse were the perfect end to our first day in Gibraltar. Would we ever want to leave? It seemed unlikely.
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