GIBRALTAR'S PROFILE STILL A SIGHT TO BEHOLD

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GIBRALTAR - Driving down the AP-7, the toll version of the highway
that follows Spain's Costa del Sol, we saw it shrouded in haze about 20
miles out, but there could be no doubt: This was Gibraltar, and it is
one big rock.

It's not only size that makes the impression. Even in the hilly
topography of Andalusia, the rock bursts so abruptly upward from the
bottom of Europe that it is easy to see why the ancients called it one
of the Pillars of Hercules, placed there to mark the edge of the known
world.

To say that Gibraltar is a 21st-century anachronism understates the
case: It is Britain in Spain by virtue of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht
that helped end the War of Spanish Succession and divided Spain's
empire. Britain's empire has since followed suit, but Gibraltar has
remained, mostly because the populace is practically monolithic in its
desire to stay tied to England. Rob Crossan, a Lonely Planet podcaster,
describes it intriguingly as a "very, very hot 1960s England."

Our traveling party had thought we were coming to experience that
oddity, to visit someplace unique in a world of similarities. But the
attraction turned out to be the rock itself: its views, its caves, its
network of tunnels hewn in defense of the Crown.

The obvious imperative of such a vertical place is to get to the
top, so after lunch, we headed for the cable car station. Queued up
outside was a gaggle of guides, taking turns pitching cable car
customers that they had a better way to see the rock. Not only do they
charge slightly less than the tram, but they ferry you from summit, to
cave, to tunnels, and back. We chose the tram, a crowded, six-minute
ride up the mass of limestone, which is crossed by a few roadways and
dotted with homes but is largely covered by scrub greenery.

In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. Not only was the
walking arduous in the hot Mediterranean sun, steeply up and down at
times, but we had to wait for the cable car to arrive for the ride
down, and then hooligans cut in front of us and we had to wait even
longer.

While on the tram, the operator offered his standard advisory about
the Barbary apes that rule the rock. Just as we stepped off, one of
them made his point for him by stealing a white plastic sack from the
man in front of me.

The apes are part of Gibraltarian history. They are not apes but
Barbary macaques, monkeys whose DNA has been traced to Algeria and
Morocco. Whether they arrived with the Arabs more than a millennium ago
or were imported much later by the British, their population by 1943
had so dwindled that Winston Churchill ordered a cohort from Morocco to
ensure their survival. Folklore has it that when the macaques leave, so
will the British.

I couldn't escape an impression of these primates as supersized
vermin, no matter how cute. Said to be the last free-ranging primates
in Europe, they seem particularly out of place in the habitat of the
summit, a paved-over, typically touristy overlook, with pay-for-peek
binoculars, snack bar, and tacky gift shop.

Whatever the company, we had come for the view, which takes in the
confluence of two continents and two great seas. The waters on both
sides of Gibraltar are impressively active: to the south pass ships
bound from Libya to Lebanon, from Istanbul to Israel. To the west,
tankers, cruise liners, and ferries to Ceuta (a part of Spain in
Africa), Tangier in Morocco, and other points ply the inlet formed by
the rock and La Linea de la Concepcion and Algeciras on the Spanish
side.

After we took our photos, we took our leave, unsure if we were
walking in the best direction, but comforted that it was all downhill
from there. First stop was the Cave of St. Michael, a limestone cavern
that would have seemed even more impressive had we not, just a day
earlier, seen the more extensive caves at Nerja, about three hours east
on the Costa del Sol. Still, seeing the varied colors and quirky
formations and learning that the British prepared it as an emergency
hospital during World War II made it worthwhile.

The next stop was a tunnel dug at the time of the American
Revolution, during which the French and Spanish laid siege to the rock
for 3 1/2 years. It would be an impressive structure, in length and
circumference, even had it not been dug largely by hand. Alcoves along
the route were originally dug to ventilate the space for the diggers,
and then used as cannon emplacements; today, some have mannequins in
scenes from the era to tell its history.

Two more reasons to enter: At the end, you get a view from the
eastern tip that you cannot get otherwise, and breezes tempered by the
cool rock are most welcome after the hike.

After a quick jaunt out to Europa Point, the southern tip of
Gibraltar (though not of Europe; that's in Tarifa, Spain, farther
west), we stumbled upon Casemates Square, which is lined with pubs,
fish-and-chip shops, and a Burger King, and filled with strollers,
tipplers, and groups of young footballers kicking it around.

After a brief respite, I walked the length of Main Street, a
pedestrian mall whose only points of interest were the pedestrians:
Mixed in with the T-shirted touring crowds were substantial numbers of
residents wearing either burqas or other Muslim garb or the yarmulkes
and tzitzit of observant Jews, who found refuge in Gibraltar from the
1700s. According to Dominique Searle, editor of the Gibraltar
Chronicle, the territory's oldest newspaper, Gibraltar was the only
part of mainland Europe where Jews were free during World War II.

The shops, meanwhile, were notable only in how unremarkable they
are. The collection of jewelers, low-end electronics emporiums, drug
and liquor stores, and leather and T-shirt shops summoned a sense of
Times Square, albeit a Times Square situated among impossibly narrow
streets evocative of old Europe.

Most of the people we encountered in our brief stay were
tremendously warm, talkative, and helpful. As we drove back toward the
border and another queue to exit, we agreed that we were quite happy to
have come, even if, or perhaps because, we hadn't found quite what we
expected.

 

IF YOU GO

Drive, don't fly: An agreement between the Spanish and British
governments in September will ease access and make Gibraltar's airport
into a Spanish destination as well as a British one. But for now, it is
inconvenient to fly from the United States. If you're seeing Gibraltar
as part of an Andalusian tour, Malaga, Seville, or even Granada are
better destinations. Depending on the time of day you arrive, plan on
some sort of delay at the border. Even with customs agents barely
glancing at passports offered from car windows, our wait on a midweek
morning was more than an hour.

If you stay overnight: Gibraltar, home to only 28,000 residents, has
fewer than a dozen places to stay, although you can sleep in La Linea
de la Concepcion, the Spanish border town. Many of Gibraltar's workers
live there and cross the border daily on foot or bicycle, both much
quicker than by car.

The season: Spring is best. Rain is probable from late October into
February. The Upper Rock is best avoided at the height of summer.

Currency: Gibraltar pound, but euros are widely accepted.

Information: gibraltar.gov.uk/hol/index.asp.