Rock of ages – Gibraltar

Holly Miller

Olympic fever may have made Spain the hot destination this summer, but after fans lifted their victory toasts of sangria, many headed toward the Costa del Sol, crossed the dusty isthmus to Gibraltar, and enjoyed a spot of tea and a change of pace.

Gibraltar has welcomed guests from the Spanish mainland since England and Spain resolved a centuries-old spat seven years ago. The barrier tumbled down, the border opened up, and the tourists trooped in to see Britain’s smallest and pluckiest royal outpost. It proved to be a jolly good show; so good that the Rock currently welcomes more than 4 million guests a year. That number will swell this year as travelers stream onto the Iberian Peninsula for Expo ’92 in Seville (April 20-Oct. 12), and the 500th anniversary celebration of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.

What visitors experience on a side trip to tiny “Gib” is veddy British indeed. Here, residents read London tabloids in pubs named Trafalgar Tavern and the Angry Friar, cheer the cricket scores on the BBC, and wash down their fish and chips with pints of stout. Old-timers trade memories of the Queen’s last visit in 1954, get misty-eyed over the motherland they’ve never seen, and credit Winston Churchill with protecting their Rock during World War II-not with arms but with apes.

“A legend says that if the Barbary apes ever desert Gibraltar, the British will follow,” explains a historian-inresidence at the Pig and Whistle Bar. “Churchill knew that Hitler wanted to invade Gib, so when Sir Winston heard that only seven apes were left on the Rock, he imported seven more from Morocco.” Churchill also decreed that the number of monkeys should never fall below 24 and appointed an army officer to count noses. The rest is history: The apes returned, the British stayed, and the Germans never came.

Today’s famous ape population has expanded to 87, and each animal has a proper English name. Led by “William,” members of the pack are tame one minute, testy the next. They pose for photos, walk off with purses and bite the hands that feed them. They hitch rides on tour buses bound for the upper Rock and beg sugary treats en route. Diabetes is a serious concern, and Rock residents keep careful track of their furry friends. The economy as well as the legend are at stake; Gib’s past may have been defined in military terms, but her future hinges on tourism.

Rock residents are a study in contrasts. Fiercely loyal to Britain, they have Latin temperaments and speak Spanish with an occasional “right-o” for emphasis. Most of them have never made the two-and-a-half-hour flight to London, but neither do they do business in Spain, just a mile away. Home is on the Rock-the famous symbol of immovable strength.

No place is the Spanish-British contrast more obvious than at the border where representatives from both countries conduct separate security checks of the bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Spanish guards, darkly handsome and obviously comfortable in the blistering heat, direct the glut of cars with leisurely waves of their hands. The British guards, all spit and polish in their bobby hats and dress blues, board each bus and study each passport before issuing curt permission to pass.

Visitors hoping to see the Rock in a few hours have two options: a gulpinducing cable-car ride that swings 1,800 feet up Gib’s spectacular old face or a 90-minute van tour resembling a roller-coaster from hell.

“It’s not very often that we lose anyone,” quips the van driver, a sitdown comic capable of launching a nonstop salvo of Rock jokes and lore. Statistics are his forte: The limestone mass is more than 200 million years old (“a real rock of ages, eh, mate?”), and her internal tunnel system could protect the Rock’s 30,000 residents for six months during a war (“well, maybe not a nuclear war”).

Bus and cable-car tours provide plenty of time for shopping since guides schedule snack-and-souvenir breaks near St. Michael’s cave and at the apes’ den. Visitors are wise to save their British pounds, Gibraltar notes and American dollars for bustling Main Street, where bargains include Wedgewood china and cashmere sweaters. Gib shopkeepers are accommodating; they know that foreigners are on their Rock for only a few hours, and thus they cheerfully accept a variety of currency.

For all of its two-country charm, Gib probably will never rival either Britain or Spain as a tourist destination. However, as a one-day respite, it’s worth a peek. Looming majestically out of the tepid Mediterranean, it is a sturdy reminder of the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. The soldiers may be gone, but tradition is intact. Gib offers visitors a taste of something different-literally and figuratively. After all, where else can a bloke enjoy steak and kidney pie prepared by a chef named Pedro?

COPYRIGHT 1992 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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