Ancient sailors feared it, our prehistoric ancestors took shelter in it, medieval empires warred and feuded for centuries over it and today it remains as strategic and desirable a location as ever.
It’s a thriving hub of trade, commerce and tourism and is at the forefront of the booming online gaming sector.
It’s also one of the most curious places you’re most likely to visit.
After all, where else can you have afternoon tea and tapas while listening to people who switch languages mid-sentence? Or walk along a main street that doubles as a runway?
“The Rock”, as Gibraltar is lovingly known, is a vibrant dichotomy, a tiny outpost of olde Britain mere kilometres from the coast of Africa. With its red pillar post boxes and phone booths, ubiquitous fish and chips restaurants and cheesy gift shops nestled alongside tapas bars and Moroccan teashops, it’s the perfect Mediterranean melting pot gilded with traditional English seaside kitsch. But don’t for a second think this is just another British expat outpost.
Landing In Gibraltar
With a population of around 30,000, the British territory on the southern tip of Andalucía may be small, but it’s also very busy. Millions of tourists come to visit every year, while thousands of workers cross the border every day to work. A large majority of these workers, an estimated 12%, work in the online gaming industry. [Source: The Guardian]
Having jostled your way through the border control from Spain, past rushing commuters and bewildered tourists, you arrive on Winston Churchill Avenue – which the Huffington Post once called “the Most Inconvenient Runway EVER.”
The main thoroughfare runs perpendicular to a very short runway and traffic is regularly halted so facilitate take-offs and landings. Tourists are easy to spot; they’re the ones taking photos while the commuters roll their eyes. For them it’s just business as usual.
“The Cradle of History”
Situated at the far end of the runway is a plaque celebrating Gibraltar as “The Cradle of History”, though pre-history may, in fact, be more accurate.
Palaeontologists now believe that Gibraltar was one of last remaining sites where Neanderthals flourished before their eventual supplantation by man. Its position, as a junction point of two continents, ensured a pivotal role in human history.
The Straights of Gibraltar were known to the ancients as “The Pillars of Hercules”. To Mediterranean mariners, such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians, it was the proverbial edge of the world.
In the middle ages the Rock became a Moorish stronghold until it was recaptured by the Spanish in 1462. Then, in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession (one of many complex European free-for-alls of the colonial period), a joint British/Dutch force captured the peninsula from the Spanish. The territory was officially ceded to Britain following the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713.
The territory has remained in British hands ever since, much to the annoyance of officials in Madrid. Its strategic position has served Britain well; helping Nelson halt Napoleon’s naval advance at the Battle of Trafalgar, as well as providing strong fortified position for Britain during World War 2.
Despite being less than seven square kilometres in size, Gibraltar enjoys a rich and varied culture. In addition to both Spanish and British influences there’s also a sizable Jewish community dating back centuries. In 1969, meanwhile, following the closure of the Spanish border by Franco, Moroccans came to Gibraltar to work, and today there is also a large North African community.
The predominant culture, known as “Yanito” culture, is a bizarre fusion of Spanish and English that seems to follow no grammatical rules, beyond a minimum speed limit.
The first time Gibraltar really clicked in my head was when I encountered bagpipe band in 30 degree heat speaking mostly in Spanish but dropping in English words in order to communicate as quickly as possible.
So, while a Brit might say, “let’s go to John’s house” and a Spaniard will say “vamos a casa de Juan” a Gibraltarian is likely say, “vamos a John’s house”
Gibraltar can be as swanky or as campy as you’d like it to be. It’s the perfect place to go whether you’re looking for a thrilling adventure or fancy some proper, five-star pampering.
The famous rock of Gibraltar is, without a doubt, the first stop on every tourists list. Rearing up out of the Mediterranean, this imposing monolith dominates the landscape. One can’t truly appreciate it on ground level, however, instead you must get to the top.
Special taxi tours are available to take you up to see the Rock, as is a cable car service. Attractions include the caves and tunnels, of particular interest to history buffs, plus the famous Barbary Apes. Those looking for a more strenuous, but ultimately rewarding, experience can opt to go on foot up the Med Steps, a hiking trail that runs around the Rock providing spectacular views over the Straights between Europe and Africa. (Plus, what with the strenuous climb and all that fresh sea air, you’re guaranteed to sleep soundly later.)
On descent you’ll arrive into the British-styled old town, opening out onto Casemates Square. Cross the road from here and you’ll find the boutique district of Ocean Village with a broad range of bars, restaurants and casinos popular with tourists and expats alike. This is also the ideal place to book a dolphin-spotting tour or, if you fancy a more luxury boating experience, you can visit the Sunborn – a decommissioned cruise liner that was recently converted into a five-star hotel.
The Future Of Gibraltar
Just outside Ocean Village construction continues on Gibraltar’s own World Trade Centre. Despite Brexit, and the threat of an unsure future marked by ever-thornier relations with Spain, Gibraltar remains confident in its continued economic success.
Already it’s host to the majority of the biggest names in online gaming, including William Hill, 888, Gala Coral, Bet365 and Ladbrokes, as well as serving as the ideal launchpad for the second wave of i-gaming start-ups.
One such start-up, online lottery betting company Lottoland, immediately released an impassioned statement declaring that Brexit wouldn’t blunt its commitment to Gibraltar in the slightest. “We began operating from Gibraltar in May 2013”, said CEO Nigel Birrell, “and it has been the perfect base for our business, providing an excellent platform for our success” he told the local Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper.
Over 95% of Gibraltarians have voted to remain within the EU and are now facing uncertainty. Alarmists from the older generation fear a repeat of the Franco days with closed borders and increased brinkmanship from Madrid. Though this scenario is unlikely, there is still a distinct possibility that the threat of travel restrictions may rear its head in the not too distant future.
So, with that in mind, I would urge you to visit this incredible little country now, while it’s still very easy to do so. Not only are there daily flights direct from the UK, Gibraltar is also easily accessed via Malaga, Jerez and Granada airports on the Spanish side. So if you’re travelling throughout Andalucía there’s really no excuse to swing by. Gibraltar is an ideal day-trip if you fancy a change of pace and scene.