English Oasis in the Spanish Sun or British Blister on bottom of Spain?
By Grant Rayner
Yesterday (4th April) we took a day trip to Gibraltar, I have to admit I went in with low expectations, a place mainly famous for having a large rock with some monkeys on it. Perhaps this was why I thought we’d combine the eldest son’s burning need to see Insurgent (the 2nd instalment in the Divergent series) into the day trip, after all there wouldn’t be much to fill our time in Gibraltar, I thought, and Estepona lacks a cinema, nearby Marbella wasn’t advertising the movie in English at a convenient time that I could see.
So after a very reasonably priced though equally long bus ride from Estepona to La Linea (90 minutes by bus, 50 minutes if you drove yourself the more direct 55km route) we arrived into La Linea Bus Station and it was a short walk to the border, a very cursory Passport check and then the rather unusual walk across Gibraltar Airport’s runway (lucked the green man both ways, apparently you can wait 15 minutes if a flight is due.)
Gibraltar’s impressive edifice does it’s best to impress immediately, but honestly we weren’t immediately enamoured with the place, never a good start to walk in through what feels like the servants entrance via the industrial section. It was a big improvement when we walked through the historic tunnel entrance into old Gibraltar, the tunnel itself is just one of the reasons why this has been one of histories greatest fortresses, especially when further fortifications were added to by the various nations that have held it.
We came out of the foot tunnel and into an expansive square covered entirely in tables and chairs populated by tourists from all over Europe. The weather was lovely and the square a sheltered sun trap, from there we walked up the narrow pedestrian only main street which is one of the nicest British high streets I’ve encountered, the shopping looked like it would be brilliant especially for Ex-Pats living in Spain, the narrowness of the street, borrowed from the Spanish towns across the border, would obviously give much needed shade during the hottest days.
The language change over was a nasty gear change, we’d only been in Spain 2 and a half weeks, but saying Hola! and Gracias! had become automatic, but actually the waiting staff didn’t really care what language you used though several were certainly British with English their native tongue.
We went off and found the Cinema as we wanted to insure we had the tickets, (leaving it to later and finding it sold out would not have been a good outcome for family happiness) as soon as you leave the well presented main street Gibraltar reveals itself as a very utilitarian place, every now and then you find pieces of historical interest but there are a lot of ugly buildings as well.
The Leisure centre was inside an old fort, Julie actually walked straight past it’s subtle house door sized entrance, I nearly did the same thing the second time we went there, the leisure centre itself was great, very modern glass features in a historic building, the cafe had a restaurant in the old arched vaults, but it was predominantly an entertainment centre with 10pin bowling, cinema and ice rink as well as the air hockey and pool tables you’d expect, I’m sure it’s a life saver for families when the weather doesn’t deliver.
Once we’d had lunch and secured the cinema tickets (30 minutes lost while the cinema staff waited for the guy with the keys to the till and petty cash to turn up) we headed off in the direction of the Gondola to the ‘Top of the Rock’
Quick and Lazy, or Slow and Laborious?
We didn’t have much time so when we saw one of the many Taxi Tours of the Rock we decided to weigh up our options. The tout told us that the Gondola was 12 pound each and then the attractions at the top would cost another 10 pounds, for the same price we could be driven up to the top and from attraction to attraction entry to each included and be driven back again.
In honesty if we hadn’t been in a bit of a hurry we would likely have gotten on the Gondola and walked from site to site and paid for the ones we chose to see. But having done it, I think I’d recommend the taxi tour over the Gondola and walking option. Not least of all because when we saw the Gondola people were wedged in like sardines! But if you wanted some exercise, enjoy being pressed into a small box with your fellow tourists and most importantly want to take your time then the Gondola might be for you.
Our eldest has inherited my ‘fear’ of heights (in my opinion this isn’t a phobia but rather a rational fear of plummeting to your death due to a simple error or otherwise minor mishap) he also suffers from travel sickness so paradoxically he ended up in the front seat of the Taxi as it wound it’s way up increasingly narrow roads that soon looked purely intended for foot traffic with precipitous drops to one side and rocks and tree’s on the other, the driver, John, swerving around more energetic walkers and even making way for the odd descending vehicle all the while giving us info about the history unnervingly pointing and looking in the direction of ‘interest’ while his other hand more or less steered us along the track as it snaked up the steep incline.
On our first stop we could just make out, through the sea mist, the northern tip of Africa (Morocco) only 14km across the Straits that bear Gibraltar’s name. Also we saw the first of the Rocks famous Barbary ‘Apes’, (they’re actually technically a tailless species of monkey, macaques to be exact.) The monkeys were cute and as always the similarities with humans was fascinating, they do warn you not to even have food near them, they will snatch it, and if you resist they’ll bite.
(Note, there’s actually up to 4000 pound fines for feeding the monkeys, didn’t stop all the people we saw doing so though, including tour drivers.)
We then went to St Michaels caves, the lighting inside the cavernous interior is a little garish but the natural formations themselves are beautiful, turning inanimate matter into ‘living rock’ with formations like coral reefs and tree’s, amazing what magic water can weave when it dissolves and redeposits the minerals over millennia.
Where water dripped onto the artificially added concrete floors there were bumps which I assume are baby stalagmites starting to grow to meet the stalactites descending millimetre by millimetre from above.
The massive upper chamber of the seemingly bottomless cave was used as a hospital during time of war and is now used to house concerts, just one of the many features of this atypical landscape that leant it to being a fortress.
We then drove to the top of the rock with expansive views on both sides of the road provided by the vertical cliff face on one side and the extremely steep mountainside on the other. Fear of heights, (or more correctly fear of being accidentally dislodged from height by a clumsy/evil passerby) severely tested. Lot’s of Monkeys to watch including a baby one that Julie captured mid leap in a photo where he seems to defy gravity.
From here it was onto the Siege tunnels, carved deep into the rock giving access to excavated chambers with opportune windows in the rock face at which canons stood guard, from the commanding height it was clear why so many failed to take Gibraltar from it’s incumbent landlords.
Finally we returned back to the safety of Gibraltar town and the normalcy of a trip to the cinema. Our Divergent fan enjoyed the movie as did we all and when we emerged we had to remind ourselves that we’d now walk back into Spain and the language barrier would be re-erected.
On the way out we looked at the Rock with new eyes, spotting deathly dark eye holes that housed the equally black canons, we had certainly found Gibraltar a lot more welcoming than it’s adversaries did in the war torn past.
So off we walked across the Airport’s Runway as the rain came in (making us realise we’d timed our visit really well, a weeks rain was forecast from then on) grabbed a few hard to find (when in Spain) food items like Curry pastes and sauces, and then we were waved through ‘passport control’ without even needing to get said documents out.
Bring sufficient cash in both Euro’s and Pounds.
The bus station in La Linea and the Taxi Tours in Gibraltar only accepted cash so make sure you have enough of each currency for your days expenses. I was caught short and had to withdraw pounds from my credit card twice getting pinged foreign withdrawal charges twice, and even exchanging 20 Pounds for Euro’s in the shop by the Bus Station at a very unfavourable 1 to 1 ‘exchange rate’ to get our return tickets.
Get transport to La Linea,
Traffic queues to Gibraltar itself looked pretty bad and we were off season. It was a very easy walk across the border and into Gibraltar town.
I’m happy to recommend the Taxi Tours to the Top of the Rock, we got ours in town prices were 12 pounds for the tour and 10 pounds for entry to the caves and siege tunnels, they assured us this was the same price as Gondola and attractions (but we didn’t check) there were only two groups in our Taxi Van, 3 Germans and our family of 4, so we had no waiting around for large parties to reassemble, our English driver did almost leave without the Germans at one stop, but we kept international tensions low by letting him know.
It’s quite exposed.
Estepona was 7 to 8 degrees warmer every day when we looked and they’re only 50km apart, so don’t assume the weather will be the same as where you are in Spain even if you can see Gibraltar from your balcony or local beach as we can. Obviously you’ll want as little wind as possible if you’re going to stand on top of the Rock.
It’s British not Spanish,
Shops keep British hours rather than the afternoon closed period and evening opening hours of their Spanish neighbours. English is the first language. British Pounds are the currency. And all the British stores and labels seem to be available.
1 day is plenty,
No idea what you’d do there longer, but then we had the kids, perhaps the night life is amazing but to be frank I don’t see myself ever finding out, glad I went but no plans to return.
If you love Spain and all things Spanish then you may find Gibraltar an unneeded interruption to the Spanish experience. If you’re an english speaking expat living in Spain for extended periods, and especially if you’re British, then a return in spirit to Old Blighty and your mother tongue may seem like a little holiday from your holiday.
For me, I enjoyed the Rock, caves, tunnels and the monkeys, the main street and town square were also lovely in an English old town way, but if the town were whitewashed and the Spanish ran it I’d have enjoyed it at least as much.
Cost for the day
Bus = Euros 18.00 each way for 4
Tour Bus = 120.00 for all 4
Lunch = 40.00
Treats = 10.00
Cinema = 35.00
Total = 241 Euros
Was an expensive day…