Having the only apes living wildly in Europe, with the possible exception of the British themselves (the Germans have been known to call the British “island apes”, you see), the 30,000 Gibraltarians living on Britain’s last European colony have a special relationship with the 250 Barbary Macaque monkeys living upon their famous Rock of Gibraltar. Legend has it that the “apes” warned the British garrison of an eminent Franco-Spanish attack in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession – the peninsula later being ceded to Britain by Spain in perpetuity in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht. And a popular superstition is also the belief that should the monkeys ever leave the colony, the British will, too.
Having on the one hand the appearance of a perfectly British city, replete with Guinness pubs, colonial style houses and fish and chips restaurants on every street corner, the steep steps, hot Saharan winds and Gibraltar’s many Indian, Senegalese and Moroccan residents also give the place the touch of being a modern version of that old Hollywood classic, Casablanca. After all, the Straight of Gibraltar is a very narrow barrier between the European and African continents (one “Pillar of Hercules” being here, the other in Morocco) and many a hopeful African immigrant sees Gibraltar as the gateway to Europe. Whereas the ancients may have believed that the Pillars of Hercules marked the end of the known world, many modern refugees see the Rock of Gibraltar as marking the start of a new one.
And what a wonderful curiosity this little world of Gibraltar is. A mere two and one half hour bus drive from Malaga in Spain, and also accessible by sea, and by air from London and Madrid, the six and one half square kilometer (roughly 3 square mile) UK oversees territory has become a popular tourist attraction for many vacationers visiting southern Spain. Due to its special status with Great Britain, Gibraltar also enjoys its own currency, the Gibraltar Pound, and shoppers come here for the good “duty free” deals – there is no sales tax here. In fact, tourism has now become the most important economic factor for the colony and is currently booming.
Of course there has also been no lack of tension between the two European Union members Britain and Spain concerning the Gibraltar territory and, for Spain, at least, “the issue” remains open to this very day. The Spanish, of course, believe that Gibraltar rightfully belongs to them. Franco closed the border in 1969 and the peninsula remained cut off from the mainland for 16 years. But the Gibraltarians have voted overwhelmingly on two recent occasions to stay British and it looks as though ham and cheese sandwiches will remain more popular than tapas here, at least for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it is of some consolation for the Spanish that the cars here drive on the right side of the street (or the wrong side, if you ask the British).
Interesting things to see here are, among other things, the 1,400 foot high Rock of Gibraltar itself. Filled with a huge system of tunnels, most of them operated by the military and closed to the public, public attractions like the St. Michael cave and even a small underground concert hall, The Rock of Gibraltar is not only the territory’s trademark, it is also home to the Barbary Macaques mentioned above. The beautiful Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque and Gibraltar’s famous lighthouse are also well worth a visit. And streets like Queens Way, Canon Land or Bomb House Street offer visitors a wide variety of shopping and eating opportunities. And even the Gibraltar Airport itself is of interest, due not only to its proximity to the center of the city (space is at a premium here and with over 11,000 inhabitants per square mile, Gibraltar is one of the most densely populated places in the world) but also because the runway intersects Gibraltar’s main street, Winston Churchill Avenue, and therefore requires the operation of movable barricades which close when aircraft land and depart.
The territory’s long history is full of many famous anecdotes, the evacuation of the civilian population during World War II, for instance, or the 15,000 British soldiers who remained here “tunnelled in” to stop a possible Wehrmacht attack. But perhaps one of the most memorable ones is the important role Gibraltar played during the famous Battle of Trafalgar and how the body of Britain’s illustrious Lord Nelson was “salted”, placed in a barrel and shipped back to England for a somewhat more ceremonial and respectful welcome there.
Oh yes, and just one more fun fact: The superstition about the British leaving the colony should the monkeys ever leave first actually led to a minor crises during World War II. Alarmed by a sudden drop in their numbers, Winston Churchill had an additional batch shipped over from Morocco.