Ask any British ship’s passenger to name their favourite cruising port of call, and the chances are that Gibraltar will be near, or more probably at, the top of the list, writes Robin Mead.
It’s not hard to work out why. The 1,475ft monolith – one of the two ancient Pillars of Hercules guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean (the other is clearly visible in Morocco, on the other side of the Straits of Gibraltar) – might be attached by a stringy strip of land to the Spanish province of Andalusia, but it is as British as warm bitter beer and fish and chips (both of which are freely available on “the Rock”).
I’ll admit it: I love Gibraltar. I love the way its familiar shape looms out of the mist, or the morning sun haze, as we sail into the welcoming cruise terminal. I love the familiar sight of British bobbies in the streets, and the signs demanding payment in pounds sterling or pointing the way to the pub. I especially love its proud history, and the way it is celebrated with pomp and parades on an almost daily basis (even if it does irritate the neighbours).
I’m not mad keen on the apes, however. They get up to all sorts of mischief in the so-called Apes’ Den, halfway up the Rock. Hats, tee-shirts, ice-creams, sandwiches, sweets, handbags, cameras, car aerials wing mirrors….they spend their time collecting all of these from unwary visitors and making off with them.
But having your photograph taken with this boisterous gang of acrobatic thieves is almost de rigeur in Gibraltar, as is a visit to the nearby St Michael’s Cave.
More correctly a system of caves, filled with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites (“Tites come down,” grinned an evil-looking guide to my young sons, thereby ensuring they’d remember the difference for ever), St Michael’s has seen service as a bomb-proof military hospital in its time. Today it makes the most of its awesome acoustics and beautiful backdrops by staging classical concerts and other entertainment events inside.
It may also hold the secret of how the Barbary apes – natives of North Africa rather than southern Europe – got to Gibraltar in the first place. A tunnel has been found which might just lead beneath the sea all the way to Morocco. The ever-practical Gibraltarians, mindful of the legend that when the apes leave Gibraltar the British will leave it too, have sealed it up.
But then there are countless tunnels, and caves, and man-made defensive fortifications, carved into the Rock. They were added to greatly after Red Beard the pirate called there for a spot of pillaging in 1540, and today constitute a maze which only an expert guide could find his way around.
Minibus tours of the Rock provide a “taster” of the uses to which the Rock has been put, as well as visiting the Apes’ Den and St Michael’s Cave. Other highlights include Gibraltar’s brand new beach (still in the process of being created when I was there in November), the only Trinity House lighthouse outside the UK (on Europa Point, the Rock’s spectacular southernmost promontory), and the desalination plant which provides Gibraltar with its water.
Look out, too, in this multi-cultural mini-state, for the brand new mosque, and the ancient synagogue – the latter a tourist high spot because, bizarrely, it has Gibraltar’s tallest tree growing on its roof.
But the place most visitors head for first – and many of the Rock’s 30,000 residents too, I suspect – is Main Street: a tax-free shopping paradise unequalled anywhere in the Mediterranean. For bargain-priced computers, photographic and electronic equipment, jewellery, lacework, silk and leather goods, this is the place to be.
Gibraltar’s finest coffee shop, Sacarellos, hides modestly just behind Main Street, while The Waterfront (its name gives away its location) is the place to lunch in style – and gloat over your shopping bargains – before returning to your ship.