One of our most memorable trips occurred in the Summer of 2014, as we jetted off to the British Territory of Gibraltar for some stunning views a very British, yet Mediterranean experience. Before heading off to see the famous Apes in the Clifftop Nature Reserve, we took in the sights in the City Centre…
Status: City, British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar
Travel: Monarch (Manchester – Gibraltar), Gibraltar Buses, Gibraltar Cable Car
Eating & Sleeping: Bristol Hotel, Rock Fish & Chips, Pizza Hut etc
Attractions: City of Gibraltar, British War Memorial, American War Memorial, City Walls, Gibraltar Castle, Cable Car, Nature Reserve, Botanic Gardens, Europa Point, Strait of Gibraltar, Governors House, Gibraltar Museum, City Hall, Parliament Building, Holy Trinity Cathedral, St Mary’s Cathedral etc
Leaving Gibraltar Airport after the 2.5 hour flight, this is the sight that greeted us. The enormous Rock of Gibraltar towers over the rest of the city, and is a major landmark in the area. At it’s base lies the main city of Gibraltar, whilst on top sits a large nature reserve, home to the famous Apes, and the terminus of the Cable Car from the city up to the cliff top. Flights regularly leave the Airport bound for the United Kingdom, to the London Airports as well as Manchester. Aside from the Airport the only other public transport in the territory are the Gibraltar Buses, of which there are a number of services that can take you anywhere in a few minutes, and for a very reasonable price. The territory also has a large International Ferry Terminal where ferries from around the world regularly dock on the way towards Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean such as Italy.
Gibraltar sits on the East side of a large bay in the Mediterranean Sea which stretches round past the town of La Linea directly over the border into Spain, to the larger city of Algeciras in the West. To the South lies the Strait of Gibraltar, and on the other side of that the mountains of Africa, specifically Morocco, are a major feature on the horizon, and on a clear day make for an incredible view.
From the Airport it was just a 25 minute walk into the heart of the ancient city, although to get there you first have to WALK over the Airport runway, which was certainly a new experience! In fact, the main road from the Spanish Border/Gibraltar Airport also crosses the Airport, so barriers come down to stop you crossing when a flight is incoming.
Moving into the City Centre, the first stop for many is the central square, called Casemates Square. It’s a large public area, around the perimeter of which are located a number of cafe’s, restaurants and souvenir shops.
The general area inhabited by the square dates back to around 1160 when Abd al-Mu’min arrived to create the 1st ever settlement here. The city has grown up around this area, which during the 14th century was home to a Galley House, remains of which can still be seen today. The square didn’t gain its current name until the 1770’s when, after it has become a British possession, a large set of Barracks was built at the North End, called “Grand Casemates” (completed in 1817). Just next to this part of the square is a large gate called “Grand Casemates Gates” which opened in 1885, replacing the previous Gate called Waterport Gate. It cuts through part of the extensive Town Walls, which has made Gibraltar a veritable fortress, based on foundations started by the Spanish and greatly improved by the British over the last few centuries.
At the South West edge of the square sits a statue of a member of the “Gibraltar Defence Force”, shown to be wearing summer battle dress, erected in 1998. The statue acts as a monument to celebrate all the local residents who were members of the “Gibraltar Volunteer Crops. The Gibraltar Defence Force and The Gibraltar Regiment”. There are a few different forces listed as they succeeded each other, with the Gibraltar Regiment being formed in 1958 out of the Defence Force. It is still active, and serves with the British Army.
Despite a large portion of its history being linked to nearby Spain, Gibraltar has very much embraced it’s British position, with the locals speaking English, and the local currency officially being the Gibraltar Pound, linked to British Stirling. Euro’s are still accepted everywhere, however officially the Gibraltar Pound is the territories currency.
As well as various Fish & Chip Shops, a truly British dish, there are other British icons located throughout the city, in the form of the iconic red Phone Boxes and Pillar post Boxes. Various examples of old version of the Phone Boxes are resident here in Gibraltar, including an old K2 shown above (and also to be found in the Botanic Gardens) 1 of the older versions designed in 1924.
Casemates Square leads Southwards directly onto “Main Street”, one long pedestrianised street that runs all the way through the city centre towards the Cable Car up to the Rock, and the Botanic Gardens. It contains most of the main shops, gift shops and restaurants in the city centre, as well as notable buildings including City Hall, the Parliament Building, Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Governors House.
The street is full of beautiful old buildings, and whilst the architecture has been influenced greatly by Spanish towns and cities, it still has a lovely Britishness about it, with the presence of British shops including WHSmiths and Marks & Spencers. Aside from Main Street there are a number of other roads leading up to the upper levels of the city, which rise up from the base of the Rock to a point where you walk straight up to some areas of it, to the various defensive installations.
Further up Main Street, you will come across another square, which is the administrative centre of the whole territory. At the East end of the square sits the former City Hall (1st picture), originally built as a private mansion in 1819 for Aaron Cardozo (1762 – 1834, British Businessman, who helped to supply the fleet of Admiral Horatio Nelson). After Aaron’s death the building became a Hotel, and then became a private residence once more. It became the property of the local authorities in 1922 when it was sold to the territory governing officials, who turned it into the new City Hall, to house Gibraltar City Council, created in 1921. The Council still operates, and is headed by a Mayor, whose office and official residence is located in the building.
City Hall sits looking directly across at the Parliament Building at the West end of the square, backing onto Main Street. The building was built in 1817, and was used as a Local Library, before the new Legislative Council for Gibraltar moved in in 1951. This was in turn replaced by the new “House of Assembly”, which eventually became the Parliament of Gibraltar in 2006.
Gibraltar is officially a British Overseas Territory, meaning the United Kingdom holds sovereignty over the whole territory. The Spanish King Charles II (1661 – 1700) had died with no son in 1700, creating a succession crisis for Spain. The heir stipulated in Charles II’s will was Philip of France, the French King Louis’s grandson. This was seen as a move that would secure more power for the French King, as the family would rule 2 large empires. To try and prevent it a joint English & Dutch force (prior to the act of Union in 1707 that created the Kingdom of Great Britain) took Gibraltar, assisting Charles of Austria (1685 – 1740), a pretender to the Spanish Throne who was intent on becoming the Spanish King. The motion eventually failed, and led to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This granted the new Kingdom of Great Britain sovereignty of Gibraltar in perpetuity, to remove Britain from the wars of succession in Spain. Britain has retained Gibraltar even since, despite various attempts by Spain to have sovereignty transferred back to them.
There are a number of charming squares in Gibraltar, particular in the city centre. Continuing along Main Street we encountered our 3rd, outside St Mary’s Cathedral, 1 of 2 Cathedrals in the City. This particular 1 serves the Roman Catholic population of the territory, whilst the other, Holy Trinity, is a Church of England (C of E) Church.
The Cathedral Tower can be seen from various places up Main Street and is 1 of the standout landmarks on the street. Due to the Moorish (Muslim) history of the town, followed by Spanish Rule, the Roman Catholic congregation emerged much earlier than the Christian Congregation, hence why this Cathedral was built around 550 years before the other.
The Spanish originally took Gibraltar from the Moors in the 15th century, and the main mosque in the city was knocked down and replaced by the present Roman Catholic building. The city has been besieged many times, and it was inevitable that this historic building would suffer some battle damage. In the 1780’s the building was badly damaged, and had to be rebuilt, complete with a brand new Clock Tower which was added in 1820. It’s overall a beautiful building, and both Cathedrals are open to the public to explore and take in the lovely decorations inside.
Outside the Cathedral in the square, there are a number of items of interest. 1st up is a statue commemorating the fine service given by the “Corps of Royal Engineers” here since the British took Gibraltar in 1704, as well as the formation of the “1st Body of Soldiers of the Corps” later in 1772. Atop the monument stands a finely crafted figuring of an English Soldier complete with gun.
Just behind him and to the right sits the Gibraltar Savings Bank, founded in 1882, which was also presumably the year the building itself was constructed as well. Its 1 of a number of fine buildings along Main Street, which includes the Post Office back towards Casemates Square, as shown in the 3rd picture. This stunning sandstone building was completed in 1858, built by Lieutenant General Sir James Fergusson (1787 – 1865) who was the Governor of Gibraltar between 1855 and 1859.
Continuing up Main Street you will eventually reach the rather striking “Governors House”, known as the Convent, a fantastic brick building dating back to 1531, when it was built for a group of Franciscan Friars. They lived here in the Convent until 1728 when the Governor for the Kingdom of Great Britain who represented the British Monarch here in the Territory took over the building for their personal use, and it remains the official residence of the Governor of Gibraltar to this day. The building itself was altered during the 18th/19th centuries, with Victorian architectural influences obvious in the design. The incumbent Governor is Sir James Dutton (Born 1954) a former Royal Marines Officer who assumed office in 2013.
Just to the left of the main building is one of the original sections of the Friary, now a Chapel for the British Armed Forces, Army, Navy and Air Force. It’s a tall, striking white building which adjoins the Covent directly.
Directly opposite the Convent/Chapel sits “6 Convent Place”, which is currently home to the office of the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, the head of Government independent of the Governor himself. The current Chief Minister is Fabian Picardo (Born 1972, head of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party since 2011).
Main Street finally terminates not far from the Gibraltar Cable Car, completed in 1966 by a Swiss Cable Car company. The Car runs up from the City Centre station, past a mid station where the Barbary Apes have their den, and finally up to an observation platform 1,352 ft above the City, on the 2nd highest peak of the Rock. The platform has the best views out across Gibraltar, Southern Spain and towards Morocco in Africa, as well as a cafe, gift shop and access to the Nature Reserve where you can get up close and personal with the Apes. We travelled up the Cable Car later in our trip, which you can read about in Part 2 of Gibraltar & The Med.
Adjacent to the Cable Car lies the “La Alameda Gardens”, also known as the Botanic Gardens. The Gardens were laid out in 1816 when the then Governor, George Don (1756 – 1832) decided that British Soldiers stationed here should have a pleasant place to relax during their tour. There are many different species of plants and trees, as well as a number of animals resident in the small Wildlife Conservation Park located in the Gardens. You can also visit the Eliott Memorial, a Bronze bust atop a plinth, dedicated to George Augustus Eliott (1717 – 1790, Scotsman who successfully defended Gibraltar during the Great Siege from 1779 – 1783). The bust was completed in 1858, replacing the earlier version from 1815 which was carved from a ship called the San Juan Nepomuceno, out of the Bow which was captured during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This version can now be found in the Governors House.
Thanks to Gibraltars position at the entrance to the Mediterranean, it is very important strategically and defensively. The territory has been besieged many times throughout history, and because of this it has built up an impressive array of defences. There are numerous old cannons mounted all over the city, including this 1 not far from the airport, which was created in 1782 by Lieutenant George Koehler (1758 – 1800) to fire downhill. It was in use during the Great Siege of 1779 – 1783, when a joint Spanish/French force tried to retake Gibraltar from the British, failing miserably. It’s quite interesting mechanically as the mount that holds the cannon aloft can recoil without blasting the rest of the assembly into the air due to the angle the Cannon is pointed at, and it is known as a “Depressing Carriage”.
There is also a network of tunnels, both inside the Great Rock, and through other areas of the territory, including “Landport Tunnel”, accessed by the Landport Gate, which, at the time of the British attack of 1704, was the only way into Gibraltar, making it the most heavily defended part of the city. The territory has expanded much over the years, making the Gate now redundant as a city entrance.
Originally the area of land between Casemates Square and Spain wasn’t built on, but Gibraltar has gradually expanded onto it, however the only access from the rest of the European Mainland is along this isthmus, on which the Airport was later built.
From the area around the Tunnel we got a great view of the “Moorish Castle”, built high on the side of the Rock, formed of a large complex including a tall square tower at it’s centre, called the “Tower of Homage”, which was largely rebuilt in the 14th century. Incredibly the Castle itself dates back to 711 AD, possibly making it the oldest building in the whole of Gibraltar. It saw regular use throughout history, and until 2010 it also contained the local Prison. The complex is now mainly a ruin, however you can get very close to it as you climb the Rock at the North end, and it is visible from most areas of Gibraltar. It’s a stunning site, and we would get much closer later on as we explored the Rock.
Earlier I mentioned Casemates Square, the central square in the city, and how Grand Casemates Gate leads into the square through the city walls. This is that gate, directly in front of which is the central bus terminus where the different routes appear to intersect. As I said the Gate was completed in 1817, and it is complemented on either side by different sections of the Bastion, the historic wall around the City. The Bastion is split into various parts, including the North Bastion, South Bastion and Montagu Bastion.
Outside part of the South Bastion you will find a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805, British Naval Officer), erected here in 2005 to designs by John Doubleday (Born 1947, British Sculptor). It commemorated 200 years since Nelson beat the French & Spanish Fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. It stands outside the Trafalgar Cemetery, which was also named in honour of the battle, although apparently only 2 fatalities from the battle itself are buried there, whilst the rest died in other naval conflicts.
Exploring the Bastions/City Walls, you will come across 2 notable War Memorials. The 1st is locally known as the “British War Memorial” created by Jose Piquet Catoli from neighbouring Spain in 1923. Gibraltar has been involved in various wars throughout history, most notably in World War II when the entire civilian population was evacuated to other allied countries or colonies. Gibraltar was never invaded by the Axis Powers, mainly due to the Spanish Dictator Franco’s decision not to allow the Germans to cut through Spain, but it was heavily bombed by the Italians. Many miles of tunnels were dug inside the great rock itself to protect the armed forces from attack, and included everything needed to sustain a garrison, including a fully working hospital.
It was also here in Gibraltar that “Operation Torch” was planned and executed, involving in the invasion of North Africa by the British/Americans to liberate the former French Territories of Morocco and Algeria from the Axis Powers. At the end of the War the local population slowly returned, and Gibraltar once again became a thriving community.
The 2nd major War Memorial you will see is the “American War Memorial”, designed by Paul Philippe Cret (1876 – 1945), and completed in 1933 as a new part of the main city wall, in the form of a large gate. The Americans were a great ally to the British during WWII and the 2 coordinated their efforts in and around Gibraltar, including the planning of Operation Torch.
Perhaps Gibraltars most famous defensive weapon is the “100 Tonne Gun” which lies towards the South End of the territory. Overall 12 of these Guns were made by a company called Armstrong Whitworth (Founded in 1847 in Newcastle, England) and 2 were brought to Gibraltar. Both Guns were in place by the end of 1883, however the barrel on the 2nd Gun cracked due to overuse during trials, leaving only this 1 for use.
The only other surviving Gun of this type left in the world is at Fort Rinella on the island of Malta, which also employed them as a defensive weapon. The Gibraltar Gun was powerful enough to hit the Spanish City of Algeciras on the other side of the bay, an incredible range.
The Gibraltar Gun is located at Magdala Battery, and is open to the public to visit. You can see one of the actual shells that the Gun would fire, and climb up into the reloading areas on either side of the Gun.
Gibraltar has always been an important Port, thanks to its strategic location at the entrance to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. Thousands of ships every year pass through the Strait of Gibraltar, bound for Italy, the Middle East and the rest of Africa/Europe. The British have been in control of the Strait for over 300 years, and keeping the area free from piracy and terrorism is very important to the world economy.
Its importance was reaffirmed in 1904 when Sir John Fisher (1841 – 1920, British Admiral from British Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) who stated that Gibraltar was 1 of the 5 keys that lock up the world, with the others being:
1) Dover – England
2) Alexandria – Egypt
3) Singapore – City State
4) Capetown – South Africa
At the time the statement was made, the United Kingdom was in possession of all 5 keys, of which all except Dover and Gibraltar are now part of independent sovereign nations.
Many of the harbour areas have been modernised with new apartments, restaurants and marina’s having been constructed. Gibraltar also has a number of working docks as well as a Naval Base. Aside from this, a lot of the harbour area is tourism based, although a lot of large tankers and container ships regularly visit the territory.
1 of the major landmarks down by the waterfront is the $200 Million yacht called the “Sunborn Gibraltar” permanently moored here as a hotel. It is 1 of the largest yachts in the world, and the most exclusive hotel in Gibraltar, which only opened in early 2014, just a few months before we arrived. You can just see it in the back of the 1st picture, and it cuts a rather striking pose amongst the other, much smaller boats.
You also get a great view of the Cable Car from the City, and you can see how steeply it rises up the side of the Rock, to it’s summit.
The architecture brought by the British, particularly during Victorian times, can be found in various places around the City, but most noticeable in the old Police Office, built by a former Governor called Sir William Codrington (1804 – 1884, Governor between 1859 – 1865) in 1864. Its an absolutely stunning building, and I think it fits in really well with the rest of the much older buildings in the city.
Gibraltar is an absolutely stunning city, with some incredible views out to sea, historic landmarks and various museums. It is has been a joy to explore the city itself, but there is so much more to see in the territory as a whole.
Watch this space for my next post, as we explore the absolutely incredible Rock of Gibraltar and the Nature Reserve after a trip on the Cable Car, meet the Apes, and get some truly stunning views out across Gibraltar itself, along with Spain and Morocco across the Strait…