48 Hours in Gibraltar

Lands, seas and cultures converge to spectacular effect in this multi-dimensional place in the sun, at the gateway to the Mediterranean. Right now, the spotlight is on Gibraltar because it is one of the very few destinations that UK travellers can visit with no coronavirus-related restrictions in either direction. And access is getting easier with Wizz Air launching new flights from Luton in competition with British Airways from Heathrow and easyJet from Gatwick and Manchester.

Touch down

I paid £91 outbound from Gatwick to Gibraltar on easyJet and £34 to return from Gibraltar to Heathrow on British Airways. Over Christmas and New Year, fares are high in response to strong demand: flying from Gatwick on New Year’s Day, returning on Sunday 3 January, easyJet has a fare of £245 return; from Heathrow on the same dates, British Airways is priced at £422 return.

But by mid-January, fares fall dramatically; Wizz Air is asking just £28 return from Luton to Gibraltar on 15 January, coming back on 18 January.

The arrival at Gibraltar is one of the most spectacular anywhere in the world. The plane touches down on a runway partly built on reclaimed land, squeezed between Spain and the Rock. The eastern end is in the Mediterranean, while the western end extends into the Bay of Gibraltar, with the Atlantic beyond.

Once outside the airport terminal you have a choice: turn right and step into Spain, or left for Gibraltar – and across the runway you have just landed upon along Winston Churchill Avenue, the main road connecting the territory with the rest of Europe.

Taxis, and buses 5 and 10, run into the city.

Get your bearings

Main attraction: Main Street in Gibraltar 

Gibraltar is exactly halfway between London and the tropics, almost at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. The territory is shaped like an arrowhead pointing due south to Morocco – across the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the busiest seaways in the world. It is dominated by one of the world’s great natural icons: The Rock, which soars almost 1,400 feet from the sea.

Check in

Within easy walking distance of the airport is the Holiday Inn Express, which has all the essentials – power showers, fast wifi and breakfast – included in the reasonable room rates. I paid £95 per night; as always, book direct online for the best deal.

If you prefer to stay on the water, the five-star Sunborn is moored at Ocean Village marina. The vessel has an infinity pool on the top deck, along with the Barbary Restaurant – and an unrivalled view of The Rock.

The Rock Hotel was created in 1932 to provide a palace with a view for the many royals, politicians and celebrities who found Gibraltar was on the way to practically everywhere. It boasts the best celebrity guest list in the south: Sir Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn and Sean Connery all stayed here, though not at the same time, while John Lennon and Yoko Ono exchanged vows here on 20 March 1969. You need not be fabulously rich and famous to stay at The Rock Hotel, with good deals available as part of a package.

Other options include the centrally located Eliott Hotel, the Caleta Hotel on the east side and the traditional Bristol Hotel.

Take a ride

The best way to get to know Gibraltar is undoubtedly on two wheels. If the terrain looks daunting, don’t fret: help is at hand in the shape of top-of-the-range electrically assisted bicycles from EBike Gibraltar. You can rent one by the hour, or better still sign up for a guided tour that includes the eastern beaches, the southernmost point and the Upper Rock.

If you prefer to let someone else do the driving, a taxi guide can give you access to all areas.

First fort: the Moorish castle

Window shopping

Shopping in Gibraltar is a joy, partly because there’s no VAT, making many purchases one-sixth cheaper than at home. Along Main Street you’ll find plenty of designer shops (John Galliano, the Dior designer, was born here), but there is more to the territory’s retail offering than familiar brands. Moroccan-run grocery stores sell mountains of fresh produce, while at the entrance to the walled city there’s a busy market.

Gibraltar’s first distillery, the Spirit of the Rock, has been set up at 8 George’s Lane – using a still named Athena and featuring in its unique recipe campion, a flower thought to be extinct but rediscovered in 1992 by a local botanist.

The territory is one of very few places outside the UK where the currency is sterling, which helps to avoid exchange-rate shock. (While the notes are entirely interchangeable with Bank of England cash while in Gibraltar, they’re best spent in the territory – unless you want to bring one back as a souvenir.)

Lunch on the run

Giovanni Batista Sacarello arrived in Gibraltar from northern Italy in 1817, as many have done, to seek a new life at the gateway to the Mediterranean. His descendants have created a coffee shop in a former warehouse, with daily specials in decorative surroundings.

If you don’t eat meat, the Kasbah is the only exclusively vegan restaurant in Gibraltar – set in a convivial cavern. The signature burger comprises black beans and quinoa, while the restaurant’s falafels are known as “kasballs”.

Cultural afternoon

In ancient times the inhabitants of the Rock dwelt in natural caves. They provided an excellent living location for people – though not quite people like you and me. Skulls found in Gibraltar indicate that Neanderthal man – and woman – thrived here.

In Gorham’s Cave, on the east side of the rock, archaeologists have found evidence that has helped modern humanity understand how Neanderthals lived tens of thousands of years ago. The location, which may have been the last refuge of the entire species, is now on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Since civilisation began in the Mediterranean, the Rock of Gibraltar has witnessed the ebbs and flows of peoples and ideas: the Phoenicians, the Greeks and Romans and the Moors of North Africa, who named the Rock “Jebel Tariq” – Tariq’s Mountain – and left a rich layer of history that’s highly visible today.

Start at the Moorish castle, the oldest structure in the territory. It was built by the Moors in 1333 after they recaptured Gibraltar from the Spanish.

The Moors began the fortifications, building mighty walls, which wrap around the city centre.

Heavy lifting: Gibraltar’s cable car

Four centuries later, under British control, Gibraltar’s defence went underground. The territory has been besieged 14 times, most recently in 1779 with the Great Siege involving 14,000 Spanish troops.

To defend the rock, army engineers dug tunnels to provide gun emplacements, and after nearly four years Spain abandoned the siege.

During the Second World War, the British created an underground city: a three-dimensional maze with 30 miles of tunnels.

An aperitif

At the Rock Hotel, the signature cocktail looks like a Tequila Sunrise – but is actually a Gin on the Rock, and well worth sipping as the sun sets over the Bay of Gibraltar.

The tapas habit has caught on in Gibraltar – but with a twist. At the Little Bay Indian Tapas Bar at Ocean Village, you can nibble on prawns marinated in yoghurt and carom seeds, and stir-fried cottage cheese tossed in onions, capsicum and coriander. Wash it down with a Masala Mule – a vodka-based cocktail with essential spices.

Dining with the locals

The Rendezvous Chargrill at Queensway Quay has a wood-and-charcoal oven known as Big Bertha – and specialises in “longboards” brimming with grilled meat or fish. There is also a Mediterranean option, with jamon iberico and home-made chutney, and a vegetarian board. All made for sharing.

Go to church

Gibraltar’s diversity is reflected in the many places of worship. Maltese and Genoese Catholics gather at the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned. Protestants convene at the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

Gibraltar’s Jewish community has been here for centuries, as symbolised by the Flemish Synagogue.

Suspend disbelief: the Windsor Bridge

In the year 2000, a Hindu temple was opened in the territory.

And members of the Islamic faith share a mosque with a view at Europa Point, in sight of North Africa.

Take a view

Step aboard the cable car, which runs every 10 minutes or so throughout the day to the Upper Rock Reserve. Since 1966, the Swiss-built conveyance has been hoisting visitors from sea level to the top of the rock – where the air is rare, and so are the views, which include seemingly half of the Spanish region of Andalucia, the southernmost tip of Europe, North Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Out to brunch

The cable-car upper station is shared with the Mons Calpe Suite, with 360-degree views and a range of weekend brunch dishes including poached egg on avocado.

Take a hike

Tempting prospect: Sandy Bay on the east side of Gibraltar

The “Thrill Seekers Trail” is one of the world’s greatest urban hikes, which combines ancient paths and centuries-old military tracks embellished with 21st-century structures that provide high-altitude thrills and vertical views. At the top, there’s a glass-bottomed viewing platform, the Skywalk, and lower down the Windsor Suspension Bridge – strung out above a 50-metre gorge between two military batteries, and particularly thrilling on a windy day.

A walk in the park

Two centuries ago, the-then governor, George Don, decided the residents needed more fresh air and open space. He designated the Alameda as Gibraltar’s Botanic Gardens. Later an Italian landscape genius, Giuseppe Codali, was commissioned to create an exquisite escape.

Part of the Alameda is now given over to the Animal Wildlife and Conservation Park, caring for rescued birds and mammals.

Icing on the cake

So much for the land: before you leave, make time to enjoy the water. On the eastern side of The Rock, you can sample Stand Up Paddleboarding at Sandy Bay, while to the west Dolphin Adventure does what it says on the boat: cetaceans know the Bay of Gibraltar is a rich feeding ground, and in between meals they seem to enjoy the attention of us sightseers.

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