An Introduction to Gibraltar

A light-hearted look at somewhere I have a lot of affection for.  Here’s how I saw it in 2009 but 15 years later this is nostalgia. A lot of things have changed since 2007 when I worked there for 6 months, but as I’ve returned 8 times, Gibraltar must have said something to me.

La Linea de la Concepcion is the Spanish border town you need to negotiate over land, on your way to Gibraltar. La Linea’s a seaside town awash with hotels, boarding houses, boats and restaurants. From here Gibraltar, could be an island. But there’s the rub. Before I went I might have thought Gibraltar was an island but it’s a peninsula, almost a little beauty spot on the bottom of Spain.

The Rock from La Linda de la Concepcion

After you’ve walked, because the border roads are sardine-tight with traffic, through the Spanish and Gibraltarian checkpoints the Airport buildings are immediately upon you. The estate’s probably smaller than that of a small UK provincial airport, like Blackpool or Cardiff.

Gibraltar Airport from Winston Churchill Avenue

A few hundred yards further on, the concrete runway crosses Winston Churchill Avenue. The wide expanse of tarmac, bounded by the sea at both ends, is one of the shortest in the world. When a plane is due to land, the crossing is closed by the police, and large pedestrian and traffic hold-ups are the order of the day.

There’s a feeling of great space out there, in spite of the fact that lying ahead of you is a big fat chunk of limestone, as unlikely on this plain as a piece of green cheese. Presumably the Rock of Gibraltar was splattered on to this giant marble board, in a mighty geological upheaval, millions of years ago. Today it looks more than a bit odd.

Looking towards the Costa del Sol from the top of the Rock

Britannia Stadium squats on the side of the road across from some RAF utility buildings. It’s modern. There are no flying buttresses or a roof that closes when it rains, but nevertheless it’s the National Stadium, with smart new buildings and nice looking green pitches outside. An awful lot of local schoolchildren keep trim here.

There are a few wealthy dwelling houses and some Defence buildings on the Upper Rock. But the majority of Gibraltar’s 28,000 plus citizens live in the main town, which clusters ’round the Rock in two tiers, just as a tutu might cling to a cute, but portly dancer.

The intriguingly named Devils Tower Road is the first road left, after the Airport. The RAF buildings and garrison blocks huddle together nearby on the south side of the runway. The Devils Tower must be a local name for that part of the Rock which rises up in frighteningly sheer splendour above the Road. It runs alongside a thin sliver of dirty yellow sand, named Eastern Beach. Here the Devils Tower looks as though it might even topple over one day onto the good burghers below, but I managed to escape during my travels up and down the road.

The first half mile is an industrial estate, housing a print shop, some garages, a little manufacturing, a church and some cemeteries. Further on, the town’s rubbish tip perfumes the air on very hot days with a lugubrious scent. It’s best to move swiftly on when the heat is turned up, as it often is in Gib.

Catalan Bay, Gibraltar
View of Catalan Bay, just off Devil’s Tower Road

Further along Devils Tower Road is Catalan Bay, a tiny suburb with its own Hotel. Apes from the Upper Rock come down and cause their own particular brand of mayhem to hotel guests, parked cars, and the hotel bins. Signs in the Hotel rooms warn against leaving a window open for fear of inviting in a monkey.

Hot on the heels of Catalan Bay further along Devils Tower Road, comes a curiously named housing community, Both Worlds. Not surprisingly the buildings are architecturally of this world. They formed a hotel, before becoming residence to island dwellers 50 years of age and over. This little hamlet hugs the shore in a lazy shallow curve. Small apartments, on a couple of floors, some looking like little chalets, have balconies and a sea view of moored cargo ships. The odd Spanish fishing vessel putters to and fro, sometimes pursued by the coastguard. Perhaps it should be mandatory for all coastguard vessels to play the Benny Hill theme over their loudspeaker systems.

Hotel converted into Both Worlds Retirement Village by Sandy Bay
Both Worlds

Don’t fret on behalf of the inmates of Both Worlds, because residency here is not compulsory for those over 50. Apartments aren’t ‘grace and favour’, they’re bought, leased or rented.

The closed Dudley Ward Tunnel near Both Worlds

Closed in 2002, following the death of a man on foot in a rock fall, the Dudley Ward Tunnel is currently being refurbished for re-opening later in 2009, or early 2010. In spite of his antipathy, the real Gibraltarian has one trait in common with his Spanish neighbour, and that’s the concept of mañana. I understand this. “It’s just too darn hot to rush over things, let’s do it tomorrow… Oh, it’s hot again! Let’s try again tomorrow”. Amen to that hermano.

From here Mr. Ward’s tunnel runs to Europa Point, from East to West as it were. Talking of the East and the West, Europa is home to the fabled Pillars of Hercules, the lighthouse and the very large Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, a present from the Saudi Arabian, King Faisil.

Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque

I was here one late afternoon in 2008, when the sun was still slung high over the yardarm. As I stepped off the bus, the recorded soundtrack of a mullah calling the faithful to prayer, joined with the sound of the waves and sea birds, in what I can only call a sonic wonderfullness. Rather worryingly the ‘New Flame’ cargo boat sat bolt upright like a tombstone, following a collision with another ship a few days before my visit.

On that, no doubt, ordinary day at Europa Point I counted 18 other cargo ships, all more buoyant than the New Flame, fanned out across the blue water, awaiting entry to the harbour, for dropping off, picking up or repair. A gas ship can stay out there, waiting for the price of their commodity to rise, before the Captain makes a sale in Gibraltar.

Ah well, let us clean our hands of Mammon, and move quickly on, past the Royal Naval Hospital, sprawling over the hill, where sick sailors have been cared for since 1591. Come onwards with me past the famous Rock Hotel, where Mrs Mifsud’s art shop is.

The Rock Hotel

The Hotel stands proud, high up, sheltered by another side of the Rock. It’s stylish rooms boast famous visitors from yesteryear, like Sir Winston Churchill, actor Errol Flynn, spies Burgess and Maclean, and even John Lennon who married Yoko Ono on the island on 20 March 1969. However there is absolutely no truth in the rumour that Lord Lucan may have once spent a sleepless night there.

A little further down the road, towards town, a white cable car rises, slung from a metal string, up and out of a huge car park, carrying passengers and their bags, to face the tender mercies of the Barbary Apes on top of the Rock. Rather those visitors than me, dear reader, for I have not yet had my “shots”.

Don’t hang back now! We’ll tarry over there by the graves of old sea dogs, who died in ancient and glorious battles on the Spanish Main. They are laid in cool damp earthen beds, shaded by sad cypresses, in the small Trafalgar Cemetery.

Part of the Gibraltar Regiment on Trafalgar Day

Look, across the road is the Trafalgar sports pub, in which I nearly reached my own unfortunate end, amongst many pints of grog, one hot and fateful Saturday afternoon. Enough, that’s a tale for another day.

John Mackintosh Hall on Main Street is a flat roofed building in a municipal style built in 1964. It comprises rooms of various sizes, surrounding a quadrangle open to sun and tropical storm.

John Mac Hall, as they call it, hosts the Library, a Tourism office and shop, and Holy of Holies, the Scrabble Club. This august society meets every Monday save Bank Holidays, when the meeting changes to a Thursday.

John McIntosh Square (the Piazza!) on National Day, Sept 10th every year

When I arrived in Gibraltar, my wife became concerned for my well-being. She thought meeting in communion with other like-minded souls over the famous green and white board could save me falling over the brink into utter madness. I was concerned that instead I would be hopelessly lost in a massive room, filled with countless forms, crouched over hundreds of boards stretching into the far distance. As fate would have it, only 5 people attended that evening, and there was a place at table for me. In fact every Monday evening would find me at the Scrabble club after that initial visit.

One night a journalist and photographer from a Gibraltarian newspaper called Panorama dropped in on the Scrabble club to research and write a story.

When published the text of the story in Panorama read …
“The game of Scrabble is growing in popularity, with many people In Gibraltar becoming hooked on this fascinating game of words. The local Scrabble club has 16 members and has been meeting in the Mackintosh Hall for a number of vears. and is open to Scrabble aficionados of all ages. They are now busy preparing for the Scrabble tournament which will take place in May as part of the Spring festival
The Scrabble club meets every Monday night at 7.30 pm at The John Mackintosh Hall.”

I don’t remember ever seeing 16 people playing, as the journalist wrote, although one mesmeric night the size of the crowd swelled to 10, but that was a unique and very special occasion. Although everyone was welcome, the people that mostly play here are British expats.

The Main Street running from the Ince’s Hall Theatre, past John Mackintosh Hall, is pedestrianised through the Lower Town. It consists of gift shops, a Marks and Spencers, electrical shops selling computers and digital cameras, places to eat, pubs and bars. Lots of them.

There are tourist bars and army bars, and ne’er the twain should meet, in my opinion. At its northern end, Main Street opens out into Casemates Square, where there are more gift shops, more places to eat, more pubs and more bars. Thankfully some eating places provide umbrellas to shade the visitor from a blowtorch sun in the summer. It’s a wide expanse, that as well as posing as the bread basket of Gibraltar, hosts parades by the Gibraltar Regiment. Concerts and towering firework displays are held here on certain celebratory days, such as National Day on September 10th each year (later changed to the North Mole).

Upper Town from the Rock

The real character of the place, where the old-style polyglot peoples live, is in the Upper Town. Here Gibraltarian, Hebrew, Moroccan, little Englander and the occasional rogue ape pulling down the washing, live together in a dense low rise sprawl of apartments and old colonial houses. There are local shops some selling kosher, some Arab, set side-by-side in quaint narrow winding streets, like Mill Lane and Engineers Lane. After all, it’s nearly a 30 minute walk with little shade on yet another roasting summer’s day, to Europort, where there’s a branch of the English supermarket, Morrison’s squatting on reclaimed land.

However even the very rich are powerless when the wind puckers up its lips to softly blow Levanter cloud on top of the Rock. Then, the gloom can hang around for a couple of days making everyone a little bit miserable, especially in winter, when the sun hasn’t quite the strength to burn the moisture away.

The Upper Town is also a very far cry from the millionaire apartments of Queensway Quay, and Ocean Village. I sometimes think skyscrapers may one day block out the sun, for all but those who can still afford a high-rise sun-bathing position.

From parts of Gib you can see Spain, in the seaside at La Linea and the oil refineries of Algeciras, just waiting her chance for sovereignty of Gibraltar. The old Señorita is settled in for the long haul. Still, she has an occasional vexed glance over at revellers on the Rock paddling in the sea flashing neat pairs of Union Jack shorts at her.

© adewils, 2009






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