Still feeling the effects of a crazy travel week riding camels in Morocco, sleeping in Bedouin tent villages in the Sahara Desert and hanging out in the chaotic sprawling urban jungle called the Medina of Marrakech, Micki and I were on the mend and looking for our next family adventure. We had just spent the previous few days enjoying the sights and sounds of beautiful Seville, and knew that sooner or later we had to head north to meet up with some old friends.
When we pulled up a map, it became clear that there was one last place we needed to check out before we left this part of Spain behind us. Only two hours south was an iconic landmark that I had heard about since childhood and never really thought I’d ever see in person.
Gibraltar, or more specifically, the Rock of Gibraltar, stands almost 1400 feet high and was once half the famed Pillars of Hercules. This gargantuan monolith marked the limit of the known world for thousands of years. It’s even one of the latest known Neanderthal habitations on the planet and so we considered it our duty to see it all for ourselves.
Of course, to get the kids interested and on board with the extra few hundred kilometers to our already lengthy drive up the coast, we had to sell it first. We told them that not only was it one big hunk of rock that we were going to get to drive up but if we checked it out, they would also be able to see the last few remaining wild monkeys in all of Europe there. I don’t have to tell you, if you want to get kids to co-operate, just say monkeys and you’ll have their guaranteed approval. With the kids raring to go we jumped into our rented car and left Seville on a new adventure.
Gibraltar sits in an enviable position at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea and is only nine miles away from Morocco in Africa. Only 10 days before we had passed Gibraltar while riding the bus down to Tarifa before jumping on a ferry to Tangier. We already knew that the Straits of Gibraltar that separate the two continents are some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and the traffic that flows through Gibraltar is nothing short of staggering.
Conquered by the early Phoenicians, then taken over by the Romans, historically, Spain has had a difficult time holding onto this area of the world. Around 700 AD, Gibraltar was again conquered by an invading force and was placed under Islamic rule for over 700 years before finally being recaptured again by Spain. In the 1700’s, Gibraltar was then taken over by the British and, though there have been many attempts of the Spanish to regain it’s land, Gibraltar has remained a British territory since then. What this means for Gibraltar is that it’s population and background is a giant hodgepodge of cultures and ethnicities.
This is even evident as you queue up to cross the border. Since the UK (and hence the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar) is outside of the Schengen Visa Area, entry into and out of the country can be a huge hassle. With car queue lines sometimes lasting for hours, a lot of people are reluctant to drive into the small area. As a result, it’s become quite common for people to park on the Spanish side and just walk in across the border.
Since we drove in from Seville that day, we arrived after the crowd had already passed through. To be honest, most people were queuing up to leave by the time we got there. After passing numerous rapidly emptying parking spots leading up to the border we decided to just drive in. There was a small lineup to enter, but we soon realized the short wait was because a plane was landing. Since the main road crossed the only airstrip in Gibraltar, traffic has to stop every time a plane lands. All of us found that immensely funny and joked about life shutting down every time a plane showed up.
After a quick series of questions by the border guard we were quickly waved through. We were a little disappointed that we didn’t get a stamp into our passport however we were excited that we got to drive into Gibraltar and weren’t stuck walking and taking the crowded buses.
Having never visited Gibraltar before, we didn’t know what to expect. That being said, we didn’t expect the plentiful rows of shops, narrow buildings or the hordes of people walking around everywhere. It had also been half a year since we had last been in an English language country. Forgetting that, we always started our conversations in our broken Spanish only to be replied in British English. Luckily, I think they’re used to it so we didn’t appear overly dense.
Knowing that the nature reserve on top of the rock closed earlier than most places in town, we decided to check it out first. Seeing that the majority of Gibraltar town is on the slopes of the mountain, the streets are a crazy warren of winding roads and hairpin switchbacks. There are plenty of signs telling you where to go, but it’s easy to get turned around if you’re paying more attention to the sites than the signboards. 😉
We eventually made our way around the side of the peninsula and quickly realized we had missed our turn as we drove into a long, dark tunnel. We emerged on the far side near the lighthouse and as I pulled the car over to turn around, Cole and Jordan spotted a huge playground with a hundred kids playfully running about.
After a few hours in the car without complaint, we decided to let them stretch their legs and burn off some energy. The playground is easily one of the best we’ve come across in our travels. They had tons of structures for smaller and even bigger kids and lots of room for parents to hang out.
It also had a little cafe restaurant with ice cream. Of course we couldn’t say no to that.
After a while, we decided to jump back in the car and start heading up to the park. Entering the town from the opposite direction, the entrance up became clear as we slowly zigzagged our way up to the park entrance. A few blocks later, we were waved to a stop in front of a little hut. I quickly walked up and purchased our entrance tickets into the Upper Park Nature Reserve. Since I didn’t have any Gibraltar pound notes on me (they also accept Euros at a slightly higher rate) I paid with my credit card. Besides for the park ticket stubs, that entry on my statement is sadly the only proof we have of ever entering Gibraltar.
For those of you that have never been there, there are a few small roads that crisscross the top of the rock however they’re almost all one way roads. Because of that, driving through the park is fairly linear and you don’t have a lot of options up there. The £10 entry fee per person (half price for kids 5 to 11 and free for 4 and under) and £2 vehicle fee allows unlimited access to St. Michael’s Cave, the Barbary Macaques area, the Great Siege Tunnels, the Moorish Castle and the pathway to the top of the rock.
The first stop for us was at St. Michael’s Cave. These enormous natural underground caverns were a sight to behold. We had walked through the Nerja Caves in Andalusia a few weeks before however right away there were lots of differences between the two. St. Michael’s is very wet while the one in Nerja is more or less dry. There are more little sidetracks at St. Michaels than in Nerja and though Nerja’s main cavern is much larger, St. Michael’s seems better lighted. Both have interesting aspects to them and both feature a concert style seating area and host musical concerts in the summer. As we walked out of the caves and back up the long road to our car we actually saw a group of musicians making their way into the caves from the back end. Unfortunately we learnt that it was a closed appearance.
Since the day was ridiculously hot and we were already late in getting there, we forewent the long climb to the top of the rock. I’m not sure who was happier, Micki who wanted nothing to do with it or me, the one that would have probably had to carry Jordan the majority of the way up and down. In either case, we continued our journey up and around the mountain in our car.
As we crested a bend, the kids went wild and screamed at us to close our windows. Hanging off the small stone wall that separates the road from one helluva long way down, were our first glimpses of the famed rock apes of Gibraltar. These Barbary Macaques are the last living monkeys in Europe and we heard that they can be quite the cheeky devils. Even the woman we got the rental car from warned us about driving into Gibraltar.
It wasn’t until I saw the macaque make a huge leap across the air and land on another cars mirror that I realized what she was referring to. I had heard that they love nothing better than stealing peoples food and whatever shiny object the person is holding but I never considered the damage they might do to the outside of a vehicle.
Sitting comfortably on a side mirror or lounging on the hood or roof, these monkeys are clearly used to people and slow moving cars. Looking through the windows it almost feels like they’re scoping out your belongings. That feeling really hit home after we had stopped a little farther down the road at the Apes Den and got to get up close to a family of them. The kids really loved watching two adolescents chasing each other as the mother slowly groomed their older sibling. We got to see them close up and they seemed almost as intrigued with us as we did with them.
As we made our way back to the car we had one sitting on our hood with an anxious look to his face. He was clearly waiting for us to open the door so he could bolt in and grab something. Micki had to get his attention as I grabbed Jordan and jumped into the car. The noise must have woken the masses since the next thing I knew there were two other adolescents climbing on the roof.
It just so happens that the car we rented had a huge glass roof and Jordan and I watched in awe as the two youths playfully wrestled back and forth just a few inches above our heads. Another one jumped on the back of the car and decided to use our radio antenna as a merry go round. Micki was amazed that it didn’t snap off. Supposedly that happens a lot so if you drive in, you have been warned.
After getting the monkeys to focus on me, Micki and Cole jumped inside and we slowly headed off. With three monkeys on the car, and us four safely inside it, this was the monkeys signal to jump back to the stone railing so they could wait for the next motorist to come their way. Everyone had enjoyed our monkey encounter tremendously and luckily the car was still intact.
Our next stop was the Great Siege Tunnels of Gibraltar. Begun by the English in the 1700’s, these man made tunnels run around the mountain in a downward spiral. Created to help bolster the defenses of the mountain, they were loaded with giant cannons pointing in different positions and formed an incredible defense to the besieging Spaniards over the centuries. The amount of work the early workers had endeavored in a relatively short amount of time is nothing short of amazing and the different viewpoints that the cannon holes give to the peninsula below is breathtaking.
As we left the tunnels the last place on our Gibraltar list was the Moorish Castle. I would love to tell you all about it, however as we drove up to it we were informed the park was closing so we never got the chance to check it out inside. By that time we were all a little tired anyway and decided to check out the town proper. After stopping here and there and grabbing a bite to eat, we decided to call our Gibraltar day a success and crossed through the gate back into Spain (unlike the entry, everyone was just waved through).
In short it was a great day and as we were making our way to a cute hotel opposite Gibraltar, just outside the Spanish city of La Línea de la Concepción, we stumbled on another great playground for the kids. This one featured a dozen structures built out of ropes and pulleys. The kids thoroughly enjoyed this playground too and when I asked Cole later that night what was the highlight of the day he said it was the playgrounds. When I asked him what about the monkeys, he immediately broke into a genuine fit of laughter and said “Oh yeah, the monkeys… definitely the monkeys.”
Getting To Gibraltar
By Air: Gibraltar has it’s own airport (GIB or Gibraltar International Airport) with daily flights from the UK and a few other countries. Most people fly into Seville or Malaga in Spain. Each city is around two hours from Gibraltar by bus or rental car.
By Sea: Gibraltar used to have direct ferries from Morocco and Spain however those appear to have stopped for the moment. Daily ferries run from Tangiers, Morocco to the nearby Spanish towns of Tarifa and Algeciras. There are hourly buses that run from Algeciras to La Linea daily.
By Road: Gibraltar is located in Southern Spain and there is only one border entrance by land. Most Spanish rental car companies technically allow vehicle entry into Gibraltar although most frown on it do to the macaques. Ask when renting just to be safe or leave it in one of the numerous parking lots near the border and just walk in. Vehicle lineups in summer can be extremely long and can last for two hours. Once you get into line it can be hard to change your mind so decide early what you want to do.
By Foot: If you’re arriving by bus, look for buses heading to La Línea de la Concepción (often just called La Linea) from almost any town in Spain. The La Linea bus station is just a few hundred meters from the border and is an easy walk in.
Getting Around Gibraltar
There are many buses that make the rounds in Gibraltar. If you decide to walk in or arrive via ferry, look for buses along Route #1 to get you up to the nature reserve. You can rent a car from any of the numerous car rental agencies in town as well as mopeds if you’re so inclined. If you are going to the top of the rock, there’s a cable car that goes from the town to the top and back down again. Many people walk down from the top while checking out the sights however it is a bit of a walk to the bottom so make sure you wear decent shoes.