Visit to Gibraltar offers
by Toledo Blade
What do Barbary apes and World War II tunnels have in common?
Both are main attractions on Gibraltar, a British commonwealth often referred to as “the rock” that is 3 ½ miles wide and 3 miles long. Visitors arrive here on shore excursions from cruise ships , drive to the big rock from Spain, or take a ferry boat from Africa.
The apes and the network of tunnels are a pleasant balance to visitors who want to be entertained and also learn something about the place where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet and its military importance through history.
The apes entertain visitors with antics and nonstop searching for food. I left my purse on the bus because there were cough drops in it. The word is that the apes prefer M&Ms, but I didn’t want to take a chance. Tour guides warn that the apes are harmless but adept at getting into purses and pockets in the hunt for a snack.
In contrast, the tunnels, emotionally and physically, take visitors back to World War II and to the 6,000 military personnel who lived underground. The engineering feat that was accomplished in 1940 was opened for public viewing in 2005.
Because of Gibraltar’s narrow roads, small buses carrying 22 passengers are used for tours to the tunnels, which are referred to in travel brochures as the fortress. The apes are eager greeters when the buses stop. Their keen sense of smell directs them to the tourists with goodies in their pockets or purse. One jumped onto our bus and rode quite a distance clinging to the rear-view mirror. Others were waiting by the bus door when it opened.
The family unit of a mother, father, and baby drew a lot of camera attention, but I preferred the senior ape that sat on the wall overlooking the city, 1,200 feet below. It was as if he were surveying the situation with an experienced eye, while the young ones scampered about.
Today the ape population is believed to be 200 — thanks in part to Winston Churchill. The British prime minister was so disappointed when he visited Gibraltar and learned that there were only five surviving monkeys that he ordered 25 more to be brought from Africa.
Churchill is reported to have said, “As long as the apes remain on the rock, the rock will remain a British possession.” The monkeys are not dependent on tourist handouts or foraging for survival. They are fed fruits and vegetables twice a day by the city government and usually more than they need to discourage them from roaming into the city. Their keen sense of smell aids them in picking the passenger who has a snack for them.
Visitors don red protective helmets for the 45-minute walk with a guide through the underground garrison. It is an easy walk and not as frightening as it would seem to be underground.
A Barbary ape perched on a cliff.
Zoom | Photo Reprints
Working with diamond air drills, the miners carved passageways 12 feet high and wide enough for army military vehicles to pass through. Miners from Wales and Yorkshire, England were enlisted to do the work. Guides explain that the expanse of tunnels included space for a hospital, army headquarters, a power station, kitchens, and mess halls, as well as ample room for the troops, some of whom lived in tents. The underground chambers, generally are from 150 to 200 feet long, and from them, other passageways shoot from the main tourist walking way in all directions.
The 67-year-old tunnels are used today for military exercises. One British army unit took over a large space for a disco. Temperatures in the tunnels stay between 60 and 80 degrees.
The 32 miles of tunnels were deemed necessary by England in 1940 because Gibraltar, which is the guardian of the Mediterranean, was surrounded by threats. On one side, Morocco, eight miles across the sea, was friendly to Hitler, and Spain, which shares a border with Gibraltar, was indebted to Hitler because he had supported the Spanish Civil War. Because of possible attack, thousands of Gibraltar residents were evacuated to Jamaica, Madeira, and London. As it turned out, they may have been safer staying at home.
The World War II tunnels were not the first ones that were carved in the rock’s interior as a safeguard against the enemy. Early conquerors had the same idea, but their tunnels were only eight feet high and seven feet wide.
Beginning with the Moors in 711 the history of Gibraltar unravels on the bus ride to the fortress. The Moors’ conquest of the rock explains the name. The Moorish army came from North Africa to claim the area and built the Moorish temple that is seen from the bus. It was named for the Moorish leader Gibel Tarig, which translated to Gibraltar. It has been a British possession since 1704 when it was taken from Spain.
It is delightfully British with sterling as the currency and Bobbies as police. The one exception is that driving is on the right side and not the left side of the road. The town of Gibraltar with a population of 30,000 is built beneath the rock and is a maze of tall buildings that are a combination of apartment housing and commercial stores and offices. Gibraltar’s size limits individual houses. Almost everyone lives in an apartment, and most of the extensive construction is apartment buildings.
According to Daphne, the driver-guide on my bus, people could buy a nice house in Spain for less money than they spend for an apartment in Gibraltar. A three-bedroom apartment in Gibraltar is 180,000 pounds, or about $369,100. Despite the high cost of living, the rock is preferred, she believes, because of a moderate temperature, a quiet environment, and a low crime rate. The only jail has but 38 cells.
Daphne has no plans to leave the rock, and she understands why young British families are beginning to move here. Does she ever feel isolated?
“See those mountains over there? That’s Africa. I can be there on a ferry in 45 minutes. And look the other way, that’s Spain just across the border. How could I be bored?”
If you go:
Gibraltar, United Kingdom, is located near the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. It shares a border with Spain on the north.
It is a popular stop for Mediterranean cruise ships. By air, according to AAA, the usual routing would be from Detroit, to London, to Gibraltar.
The Upper Rock Nature Reserve affords views of North Africa and where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet.
St. Michael’s Cave is a natural grotto where visitors can view a cross-section of stalagmite that shows the history of its growth. The cave serves as an amphitheater for concerts.
The upper part of the rock can be reached by car, but the road is very narrow and winding.
Tours in small busses with informative guides take visitors to the World War II Tunnels, St. Michael’s Cave, and dolphin watches.
Because Gibraltar is a duty and tax-free British colony, it is considered a shopping mecca for diamonds and loose gemstones.