At the end of 2019, without imagining what awaited us, we organized a reconnaissance trip to Gibraltar, Algeciras and Tarifa.
Gibraltar, despite being a territory of only 7 km2, has a strategic geographical position, which allows it to control the traffic of the Mediterranean. For this reason, this small territory has always been disputed by various peoples throughout history. In 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht, Spain granted this territory to the United Kingdom and it is still a British Overseas Territory today.
The Strait of Gibraltar connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates the continents of Europe and Africa by a distance of 13 km. Gibraltar, known as “The Rock”, is one of the Pillars of Hercules, being part of a legend that dates back to Greek Mythology. Hercules, in his 12 labors, had to create a space to pass this maritime strait and thus joined the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. On the African side, we have the other pillar, in Ceuta, at Jebel Musa. Geological history, however, tells us that this strait was opened up about 5 million years ago, as a result of the splitting of two Teutonic plates, the Eurasian Plate and the African Plate.
Gibraltar receives many tourists daily to visit the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, with the monkey population being one of the main tourist attractions.
How to get to Gibraltar
It is possible to enter Gibraltar by land, air and sea. We stayed in Algeciras, so we came by van to La Linea de La Concepcion, a city that borders Gibraltar. We left the van in a paid parking lot right next to the border. If you want to drive your car into Gibraltar, note that driving is on the right side of the road.
There are currently no restrictions on the entry of Gibraltar, whether you have the vaccine against covid19 or not. It is not necessary to submit negative tests, nor is quarantine required.
After Brexit, Spain, the European Union and the United Kingdom have been in negotiations over the territory of Gibraltar, which wants to retain British sovereignty but wants to remain in the Schengen area. Thus, it will not be necessary to present a passport, only the citizen's card.
There is a well-known expression in Gibraltar, which goes as follows: “British we are, British we stay, but Spanish we speak all day.” Yanito is a local, unofficial, but well-known dialect among the inhabitants of Gibraltar, that mixes English, Spanish and Italian words.
When entering Gibraltar, the first thing you have to do is cross the airport runway. We literally have to stop and let pass some plane that is landing or taking off. The Gibraltar air base was built during WWII.
If you walk along Main Street, you will find a wide range of retail stores, where you can buy products without paying VAT, as it is a free zone.
The local currency is pound, but euros and credit cards are also accepted.
Natural Upper Rock Reserve
To visit the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, there are several options: book an organized tour, hire a taxi, take the cable car or go on foot. The entry of non-resident vehicles into the reserve is not allowed.
There are several entrances to the reserve, the closest being through the Moorish Castle. We chose to take the cable car, whose station is located next to Jardins da Alameda (Alameda Gardens), at the southern end of Main Street. There is also a car park there.
To enter the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, it is necessary to buy a ticket which can be purchased at the cable car station. However, if you pre-purchase online, you can save time in queues and are entitled to a free shuttle from the border.
The views from the upper cable car station, at 412m above sea level, are simply spectacular! From the three terraces, you can take fantastic picture, with different views of 2 continents and 3 countries. In this station, you can also find a coffee shop, a restaurant and a souvenir shop.
This area of Gibraltar was officially designated a reserve in 1993, in an effort to protect Gibraltar's biodiversity and natural habitats. Here, there are numerous attractions for visitors, which we will talk about later. We can also find many traces of the English garrison that was present in this area for several centuries.
The Monkeys of Gibraltar are the only monkeys in Europe to live freely. Normally, these monkeys are found in North Africa, but their presence in Gibraltar dates back to the early days of the English presence there. They were probably brought from Africa and found a suitable habitat in Gibraltar limestone rocks. It is said that, on the day the apes disappear, the British return the territory back to Spain. Another legend tells that the monkeys came from Morocco, through a tunnel that connected the Saint Michael's Grotto to the moroccan territory.
These monkeys live in a semi-wild state and too much interaction with people is harmful. We can take pictures, but we must keep our distance and pay attention to their behavior, which can be aggressive. A golden rule is never to eat near them. I saw several people being attacked by the monkeys to steal their food. When I opened my backpack to take out a map, a monkey appeared out of nowhere and stole a packet of cookies! You have to be very careful with backpacks and, in a situation like this, you shouldn't resist if you don't want to get bitten. Some people feed the monkeys in order to get a good photo, but this is forbidden. Do not make sudden movements and do not come between a mother monkey and her child.
There are several trails in the Upper Rock Natural Reserve that, in addition to the magnificent views, allow us to go to places outside the usual circuits of organized tours. A network of four themed trails was created, which intersect with each other at nodes located at the main attractions:
An application was also created with information about the trails and tourist attractions that can be downloaded to your smartphone.
We chose to take the cable car up to the upper station, and we made part of the Monkey Trail and the Thrill Seeker. We passed the Skywalk, Saint Michael's Grotto, Mediterranean Steps and Windsor Bridge. We end up at the cable car's central station, passing by Guarida dos Macacos (Ape's Den), where we take the cable car back.
The Skywalk is a platform and walkway made of glass, with magnificent 360° views of the Mediterranean, Africa, Spain and Gibraltar. Despite supporting the weight of 5 elephants and 340 people, only 50 people are allowed at a time.
Skywalk was opened on March 21, 2018, by Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, who played the character of Luke Skywalker.
2. Saint Michael Grotto
The beauty of this cave is exceptional, with its stalactites, stalagmites, columns and curtains.
For many years, it was believed that this cave had no bottom. For this reason, the legend arose that the monkeys had come through a tunnel that connected the cave to Africa.
During the World War II, the cave was prepared to function as a hospital, which never happened. Since the 1960s, it has been used as an auditorium for theater, shows and concerts, with a capacity for 600 people.
While the upper part of the grotto has been known for about 2.000 years, the lower part of the Saint Michael's Grotto was discovered accidentally during WW II in 1942, and includes several chambers that were closed about 20.000 years ago. It is possible to organize tours to this part of the cave. The inland lake is undoubtedly the highlight of this visit, which lasts about 3 to 4 hours and includes some climbing and ropes.
3. Mediterranean Steps
The Mediterranean Steps is a nature trail in the upper part of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and, without a doubt, the most spectacular. Much of the trail is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gorham’s Cave Complex.
The route runs along the southern end of the Rock, in a zigzag of steps carved into the steep cliffs, passing by some military batteries, as well as two caves known as Goat’s Hair Twin Caves.
The path was originally built by the British military, with the aim of allowing access to different posts on the southern tip of Gibraltar. In 2007, this trail was restored.
The spectacular views of the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea make this route mandatory, although it is not accessible to people with reduced mobility.
4. Windsor Bridge
This is another of the tourist attractions in Gibraltar that the most adventurous will enjoy. If you are looking to feel adrenaline sensations, cross this 71 m long suspension bridge.
Other places of historical interest to visit in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, are the Great Siege Tunnels, the Moorish Castle and Jew’s Gate Cemetery.
7. Gorham’s Cave Complex
This area, located in the east of Gibraltar from the sea to the top of the Rock, has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016. Here, a large complex of caves at sea level contains important archaeological evidence of the occupation by Neanderthal Man. Archaeological excavations have proved that Gibraltar was the last refuge of Neanderthal Man, about 32.000 years ago. In this place, extraordinary discoveries were made about the life of this first human lineage, now extinct, and that lived with modern man, bringing important contributions to the study of human evolution. A female skull was discovered, before the famous discovery in Germany's Neander Valley, which gave this species its name. If the discovery had been published, we would be talking about the Woman of Gibraltar rather than the Neanderthal Man.
In 2017, an observation platform was opened for this cave complex, located on Europa Advance Road. It is possible to book visits to the caves with the National Museum of Gibraltar.
Visits by boat are another alternative to explore these caves, in addition to allowing the observation of several species of birds and dolphins.
8. Europa Point
Europa Point is the southernmost point of Gibraltar and the Iberian Peninsula. On clear days, it is possible to see the African continent through the Strait of Gibraltar.
At Europa Point, we suggest you to visit the Harding Military Battery, which has been restored; the Ibrahim-Al-Ibrahim Mosque, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Europe, patron saint of Gibraltar; a cistern known as Nun’s Well, and the Trinity Lighthouse, which dates from 1841 and rises 49 m above sea level.
Gibraltar, being a place of passage for birds in their migration between Europe and Africa, is an excellent place for birdwatching. The birds take advantage of the vegetation-covered area of the nature reserve, to stop to rest and feed for a while, before continuing their migration across the sea and the desert.
Because it is such an important place for migratory birds, an important bird ringing station has been established in Gibraltar, which allows the collection of data on possible changes in migratory patterns, and on the causes of the decline of some species, that have occurred in the last years.
Gibraltar is the only place in Europe where the Moorish partridge resides, and it is not known if it is a native species or if it was introduced by man. It can be observed in areas less disturbed by human presence.