Gibraltar: Britain's Spanish Rock of Ages

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Life on the Rock isn't all that easy for the ex-patriot Brits who made it their own. Getting on to Gibraltar is more complicated than it need be - Spain still isn't happy about yielding land to the British in 1713.

Photography by the authors

Life on the Rock is not all that easy for the ex-patriot Brits who have made it their own: flying direct might make it seem easy, but the airport runway lies on the ocean.

When intrepid British European Airways captains landed their DC3s there in the storms of the 1950s they were deified by their stewardess flight crews with the kind of reverence husbands could never dream of seeing in their wives.

The Rock of Gibraltar is only 1,398 feet high but it dominates the western approach to the Mediterranean. Britain’s territory is only 2.642 square miles so Gib had to build its airport on top of the sea. Locals walk across the base when planes are not flying.

The winds around Tarifa across the nine-mile wide Straits of Gibraltar, this clash where the Atlantic Ocean enters the Mediterranean Sea, can be so extreme they have made it the wind-surfing capital of the world. Winds there sometimes reach seven to nine on the Beaufort Scale, hard enough to give small craft gale warnings.

We think about that on our ferry over from Tangier even though we believe our coach driver and tour director from Insight Vacations have everything covered.

Coming by coach is the easiest way to visit Gibraltar. Our tour director guided the coach driver to his special place away from a long, long line of vehicles, we hopped out and were in Gibraltar in minutes.

But there is more than what you might call those geo-mechanical considerations. Getting on to Gibraltar today is more complicated than it need be because Spain feels it is not politically correct for the Union Jack to fly over this Jurassic era limestone monolith.

The Spanish government has slowed down the administrative protocols for people in Spain to get on to Gibraltar and there have been recent newspaper stories that it sometimes takes six hours to get over. This hurts many Spanish people including Gibraltar hospital nurses who now have to add the expense of a taxi to their daily commute.

Insiders feel that Spain is creating an issue to divert its population from its economic crisis. The issue, says Spain, is that when the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave Britain this peninsula, “this corner of a foreign field that is forever England,” it yielded Gibraltar and the surrounding towns to its old enemy but the treaty did not mention the waters around the rock.

No country is happy during this great recession but that may be especially true of Spain. The Treaty signed in 1713 clearly cedes Gibraltar to Britain.

On the Rock everyone speaks English, 85% Spanish. The town clock is called Little Ben; one of the streets is named Winston Churchill Avenue.

And of course, Gibraltar offers the famous fish and chips, the fried food the Brits love. We pass a sign that says “British Food at its best!” “God help us,” exclaims a hungry tourist. We follow Toni’s advice and find a place in the main square called Roy’s, where the fish is actually great.

The currency is the British pound although euros are acceptable. Countless financial companies work here in what is said to be mostly a “black economy” that may avoid taxation. As a result stuff is cheaper: cigarettes, cosmetics, Scotch, French Cognac — and an especial treat is that wine bottles in Spain are 750cc and on Gibraltar one liter.

After Lord Nelson’s fatal triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 against the French, his ship HMS Victory went into dry dock here for repair and his body was pickled in a barrel of cognac until he could be buried. His men drank it after his funeral but complained about the taste. The local newspaper, said to be the second oldest in the world, was the first to report that Lord Nelson had been shot by a sharpshooter high on a French rigging.

Defense has always been a concern. Munitions company Armstrong Newcastle designed four “superguns” to defend the British possessions of Malta and Gibraltar. The cannons weighed 100 tons each and took 23 men to load, firing a cannon ball eight miles. When one was fired in a test it blew out half the windows in the Naval Hospital!

The rock has been besieged 14 times and occupied three times — by the Moors, the Spaniards and the British. The Turkish pirate Barbarossa sacked the town in 1540. The Rock has a Hindu temple, a Moorish mosque, a Church of England and a Church of Scotland, four synagogues and several Catholic churches.

And, surely for an unrelated reason, it has the second oldest police barracks in the world after the Metropolitan in London.

Glass blowing is a local skill. A statue celebrates those who have defended the Territory. One of the Muslim mosques was a gift in 1997 from the King of Saudi Arabia. The lighthouse is a prominent landmark. The Barbary Apes now number about 250. They love to steal tourists’ ice creams.

Gibraltar’s history also includes the 1872 inquest into what Smithsonian magazine calls “one of the most durable mysteries in nautical history” — the strange case of the British brig Mary Celeste found adrift near the Azores in completely seaworthy condition but absent its 10-man crew.

Gibraltar’s past also embraces medical history. The misnamed Barbary Apes (they are actually tailless Macaque monkeys) were brought here from North Africa by soldiers as pets or for game hunting.

Now, a family of 250 apes lives here on the heights; there is a fine of 4,000 pounds if you feed them! People in nearby homes have to close all their windows when they leave their homes. It couldn’t have been difficult for Galen to trap them for dissection. For 1,200 years the medical world thought the anatomy was the same as humans. Why not? They have many of the traits of kids today except they don’t try to borrow their parents’ credit cards.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.