When I first arrived in Spain back in June, I wanted to go exploring – Seville, Granada (the Alhambra) – there were very few cities in Andalusia through which I didn’t want to wander.
But it was summer. And Europe was in the midst of this awful heatwave.
So we planned all of our explorations based on the Weather Underground temperature maps. We did a lot by the coast. Cadiz, Marbella, Malaga, and my personal favorite so far, Gibraltar.
I had long heard of Gibraltar, but all I knew was that it was a rock. If you asked me what it was known for, who owned it, or anything else about it, I wouldn’t have had anything to tell you. It could have been Biblical, for all I knew. Maybe where Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac?
But now I know. Gibraltar is one side of the Pillars of Hercules, the spot that marks the exit from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. For ancient mariners, sailing through the Mediterranean, these two rocks would have signified the end of the known world, and the point of no return. Once you sailed past them, you were off into uncharted territory. If you did somehow make it back, they would have been a heartening sight – a welcome party of these two strong familiar friends ushering you into known waters.
For thousands of years people sailed past it without ever giving thought to using it as a military base. Gibraltar itself is a giant rock (426 meters) on a promontory that has a little sandy road leading out to it. Now it’s an airport – a famous airport because the planes literally land on the road. Traffic stops when a plane lands, and then you drive right across the runway. Pretty much insane.
It was finally the Moors, in the early 700’s, that saw the usefulness of Gibraltar as a military base, from which they could conquer Spain. It’s Arabic name is Jabal Ṭāriq, which means “Tariq’s Rock” named after the General who first invaded. Tariq built a castle and fortifications, and since then it has been a strategic stronghold, though for much of its history it was undermanned and barely provisioned, suffering pirate raids because of it.. The English were able to easily capture it in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession (when Europe wasn’t pleased with the Spanish heir and fought a war over it) and since that time it’s been British. England used it as a base of a different sort – a base for trading. Ships came and went, and free trade meant goods flowed easily from Africa and Asia back up to England.
It technically still belongs to England, and people who live there are British citizens. And they mostly all look very British as well, though I believe some Spanish people commute for jobs. Getting there messes with your head. You can see the rock from the freeway for miles, this strong fortress in the distance. Then you finally drive up to it, and wait for the border crossing. One side is obviously Spanish. There’s a Mercadona supermarket. All the signs are in Spanish. There are Spanish people everywhere. Then, you go through the border crossing (they check passports, but don’t stamp them) and you’re suddenly in this little English seaside town. The streets all have British names (ie Queensway), there are British monuments, English is everywhere, the architecture is terraced homes like those in Brighton or any seaside village. And the shops accept British Pounds.
And oh, the Shops! Oh my God, the shops!!!
Living in Spain, I’ve realized how much of a consumer I am. And I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. In California we lived in a 600 square foot house, so I’m not talking about giant amounts of consumption. Just giant compared to Spain where shops close every day for 3 hours during siesta, and frankly, the stores are crap. Horrible hours (besides the 3 hour closing from 2-5 each day, everything is also closed on Sundays. Everything. Ikea. Grocery stores. You want anything on Sunday? Yeah, you’re out of luck). No stock (You want 2×4’s? You come to a hardware store, right? Wrong. Out of wood. Completely. Till next Monday). Bad customer service (would a simple hello kill you?). All around bad shopping experience.
But, less than 90 minutes from me is this shopping haven. They have Marks and Spencers! They have an enormous Morrison’s grocery store where I can buy good milk and cream and British toiletries! They have a little high street with British bookshops. There are wonderful coffee shops with familiar-tasting coffees rather than this dark-roast muck they serve in Spain. The whole thing just makes me want to cry, it’s so lovely and homey.
There are other things to do besides shopping. I promise. I’m not that much of a consumer that I would go to such a wonderful place and only go shopping. There are marvelous caves throughout the rock that had been hiding spots during the battles, and when pirates would regularly terrorize Gibraltar. Some of them have pools and lakes inside, which are stunning. There is an old Moorish castle, and a very famous mosque. And an Anglican cathedral built in a Moorish style, which makes my “let’s all hold hands and be friends” inner hippie so happy.
So really, it’s like a little piece of England, with Spanish weather. And some fascinating history thrown in. What more can you ask of from a holiday destination?
More information on Gibraltar: