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(Denis Doyle / The New York Times)

Gibraltar's high profile still a sight to behold

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Prager
Globe Staff / January 14, 2007

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 Línea de la Concepción 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.

Contact Michael Prager at prager@globe.com.

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