That was Spain. This is Gibraltar.
DRIVE ACROSS THE BORDER FROM SPAIN TO GIBRALTAR and in a matter of minutes you’re at the foot of the world’s most famous rock. Up close, it takes a minute or two to visually scale and take in its sheer height and mass. And you are far from Spain.
After a mid-morning, 2-hour drive from the Spanish coastal town of Cadiz, I was having a pub lunch of fish, chips and a pint of beer in the shade of palm trees and the Rock. The streets of Gibraltar are named Trafalgar, Queensway, Prince Edwards and such, so, for the next few hours I could kick out of translation mode and relax a bit.
JUST A LITTLE OVER 2½ SQUARE MILES OF THE EARTH is all this British territory for three centuries can claim within its coastal borders that hold the iconic Mediterranean watchtower. If you could take all the surface area of the Rock—up, down and sideways—and flatten it out, like snapping a cloth off a table, I bet the tiny territory would be three times the land size. This is a big rock you’re looking at and a lot of the territory slants skyward.
UNLESS YOU SAIL INTO GIBRALTAR, YOU ARRIVE VIA THE AIRPORT / Well, actually, via the runway. You see, the runway slices across the narrowest portion of land running north and south that connects Spain to the rock. The runway crosses that land stretching east and west, built up from the floor of the Mediterranean bay like a long concrete pier. You have to drive across the runway to get to Gibraltar proper. With no planes queueing to land, traffic lights turn green, gates lift and cars and trucks charge across the runway while the coast is clear. Wild ride.
Once you pull into the streets of Gibraltar the search for parking begins. It’s not impossible, but parking can be scant where precious space is shared by streams of tourists and 30,000 residents. I found a public parking building without too many trips back and forth and around the blocks.
THERE ARE TWO POPULAR WAYS TO GET TO THE TOP OF THE ROCK / Plenty of guides offer minivan tours up the steep, winding and narrow roads or you can take the cable car. Perhaps you can walk to the top, given the time and energy, but I wouldn’t put walking in the popular column. I chose the cable car for ease, speed and the view above along the way. My kind of mountain climbing.
THE VIEW IS EVERYTHING YOU EXPECT—MAGNIFICENT / The Mediterranean lies below the sheer faces of the rock, where cargo ships look like bathtub toys and streets and buildings that hug the base of the rock look like a scaled model of a seaside resort.
NORTH AFRICA appears out and beyond the sea, as a somewhat hazy view of coastline. Even knowing that Africa is close on the map, it is quite thrilling being able to gaze from one continent to another. “You mean that is Africa?” you hear from one visitor after another.
Ascending high places like the top of Gibraltar is inherently gratifying. The earth grows quieter, the sky comes closer, you transcend the chaos of life below, and the planet you see becomes, if only briefly, perfect, peaceful and powerful.
AT THE LOOKOUT, YOU MEET UP WITH THE MONKEYS, Barbary macaques, as they are known. Some call them Barbary apes, but they are monkeys and the only natural population of monkeys on the European continent. The tourists are much more interested in the monkeys than the monkeys are in them. You are cautioned to keep hands off and food out of reach, even though some monkeys look like they would pull up for a cuddle given the chance. On the top of Gibraltar, it is oddly conflicting to be lured by both stunning hundred-mile views from the top of the world and the mug of a monkey four feet away. I imagine an equal number of photos are taken of each.
A RETURN RIDE ON THE CABLE CAR DOUBLES THE MAGNIFICENT VIEWS AND BRINGS YOU BACK TO EARTH BELOW / A short walk through the busy streets to the parking lot resets my perspective. My car was where I left it and the route out of Gibraltar is just as weird as the entry. All clear, lights green, gates up, Spain.
In a matter of minutes, you are far from Gibraltar.