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Touring Tunnels and Tussling with Monkeys in Gibraltar

Posted on April 5, 2007 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Southern Spain and Morocco

gibraltar ape

The little country of Gibraltar was quite a bit different than we expected. We imagined it to be a wealthy little British community, all quaint with red phone boxes and changing of the guard at a palace. The expectation of affluence came from what we'd read about how expensive it is to live there or even get a hotel due to lack of space.

But Gibraltar turned out to be larger than we thought, not quaint, not wealthy, and generally not that impressive. Everything looked rather rundown and like it hadn't had any real attention since the 1970s. It did look kind of British, but the less attractive side of Britain - the High Street with its standard shops and pubs. It was still a unique and interesting experience, though - not least because of the walk across an airport runway and the monkeys everywhere.

We drove our wonderful little rental car from Algeciras to Gibraltar, then parked in the city of La Linea, the last city in Spain before Gibraltar. After driving in circles for a bit we found a parking garage that worked quite well. Then it was about a 15-minute walk to the border in the cold wind. Why oh why couldn't the weather cooperate? But as usual we had fun anyway.

gibraltar border crossing watch out for airplanes
The border crossing - look both ways for airplanes before you cross the road! The way into Gibraltar crosses an active airport runway, although it looks like there's only a flight or two each day. We had to show our passports at the border but sadly got no stamp.

runway
A view down the runway and out to sea.

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The two ends of the runway, as seen from the Rock.

gibraltar airport
Gibraltar Airport. We popped in on our way out of the city, and it was like a little train station except with no crowds.

Some city scenes: main street, gibraltar side street, gibraltar

marks & spencer, gibraltar
Marks & Spencer, just like back home. We didn't investigate to see if it had the same good food.

gibraltar mosque
Gibraltar's mosque. It looks so sad after the glories of Cordoba! But the cathedrals of Gibraltar aren't all that fancy, either. This is the Anglican cathedral, which is pretty but humble compared to most:

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And this is the Catholic Cathedral: catholic cathedral catholic cathedral interior

It didn't take us too long to walk through most of the city and we were thinking we were about ready to head out when we spied a driving tour up to the top of the Rock. We were already debating about going up there, as I didn't like the looks of the cable car and neither of us really cared about the sights anyway.

cable car But the driving tour actually sounded like a good option and after some debate and good persuasion from the tour salesman, we decided to go for it. (On the right is the cable car station, with me and tour guide salesman on the lower right.)

The tour drives you up on top of the Rock and stops at all the major sights: siege tunnels, a cave, good views and of course monkeys. It was on the expensive side and none of the sights were spectacular, but the tour guide was very good and in the end we were glad we did it. Before too long, a nice German family had also been recruited and we were on our way.

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Here's our tour van, with monkeys climbing on it whenever we come to a stop.

view across the straits
View across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain. In Roman times this was known as the Pillars of Hercules and it was the end of the known world, or so the signs say.

gibraltar ape
A monkey hanging out on a vertigo-inducing cliff.

Our first main sight was St. Michael's Cave, a natural cave full of stalactites that is now used as a concert hall. It was different!

st michael's cave, gibraltar
I think I'd be worried to attend a concert here - looks to me like those stalactites could come crashing down in the vibration of the music!

cornetto thief Outside the caves, we waited for the rest of the group by a little gift shop and cafe. There were a couple monkeys hanging around and looking into the shop.

Then, for just a moment, someone in the shop opened the lid of a large freezer of ice cream treats. Quick as a flash, a monkey ran into the store, jumped up on the side, grabbed what he could and ran back out.

He dropped a Cornetto (a Drumstick-type cone) in his haste, which I returned to the freezer. But he had held onto his other one, and sat up on the awning outside the shop, expertly peeling it and eating it just like a human would. Cheeky monkey!

From there our driver took us up to the top of the Rock, where we got out for some scary views down to the ocean and the opportunity to be sat on by a baby monkey. Our tour guide seems to have an arrangement with them, and they know that if they climb up on his arm and then jump to a tourist's shoulders, they'll get a treat. Here our German bus-mates try it out:

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Despite the fact they're sitting on your head, you are instructed not to touch or pet them or they could bite. Interesting. I had no interest in having a monkey on my back (ha) but David tried it out and had a good time while I snapped some photos.

The good time ended, however, when the monkey got tired of just sitting on David's back and decided to unzip his photo backpack and look for treasures. Now, I had seen the monkey in action with the ice cream and I knew that David had his PDA/sat-nav device in there along with other valuables, so I immediately attempted to shoo the monkey away.

He completely ignored me and continued unzipping, so I had no choice but to break the golden rule of no touching and gently pushed him on his back. And he did jump down - but not before grabbing onto my arm with both hands and biting down hard. Fortunately I was wearing a thin sweatshirt so the bite wasn't bad enough to draw blood, but he did scrape off the skin and left a bruise that throbbed for the rest of the day. I had red teeth marks in my arm for well over a week, and I did worry that people might think David had bitten me!

I would still do it all over again, though, because I just know that little furry menace would have run off with everything in David's bag! But after he scampered off I did casually ask our tour guide if the monkeys up here might have rabies. He said no, definitely not, but that he would get me some antiseptic spray at the next stop. Based on the research David did later (he was very concerned, which was so nice) this was a good thing since although rabies doesn't seem to be an issue, monkey bites from Gibraltar have been known to get infected.

After that little adventure, our final sightseeing stop was the Great Siege Tunnels. The Great Siege (1779-83) was when the French and Spanish tried to get Gibraltar from the British and failed. There are extensive networks of tunnels inside the Rock built to withstand this siege and only a mile or two are open to visitors. The rest are still used by the military and their dimensions and uses are unknown.

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It was from outside the tunnels that we had the nice views of the runway seen earlier in this post. After that it was a short ride back down into the city, with some more history and culture info from our driver. We learned that lots of rich foreigners have bought up the houses up on the Rock, depriving the native Gibraltarians (of whom our driver is one) of affordable property. David and I both had the same thought: why would foreigners choose to live here? It's not that bad, but it's no Monaco! But then we got our answer: having property in Gibraltar acts as a tax shelter, and the people rarely even visit their houses here.

At the end of the tour we bid Auf Wiedersehen to our tour buddies and headed back across the border to our car. We then spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a couple other stops along the coast which were much more beautiful, but that will have to wait until the next post...

There are a few more assorted photos of Gibraltar here on Flickr.