This week, along with two friends who were over from the UK, I hiked Gibraltar Rock via the Mediterranean Steps. It was a stunning, steep and sweaty climb up a narrow, rocky and winding footpath which hugs the south eastern side of this 1,398 feet high limestone British territory, previously known as one of the Pillars of Hercules.
I left The Beast on the Spanish side and walked, with my friends, through border control onto British soil. And there commenced our day of unanticipated, remarkable moments. The first frisson of excitement came as we realised that the road and walkway into the town was actually the runway for Gibraltar airport – basically it was a level crossing, but for aeroplanes and not trains.
We were the last to cross before the barriers came down and, nipping at our heels, followed a dustman vigorously sweeping the path behind us, no doubt to ensure that no errant discarded cigarette butts or other debris could cause issue to the planes about to taxi down the runway.
Two minutes later the ground shook and the air reverberated with the roar of a Monarch aeroplane taking off, transporting the very creme de la creme of Brits abroad back to the motherland.
And then we were thrust into the hustle and bustle of Gibraltar’s Main Street, a place which surely can appeal only to those with a penchant for grimy and grotty looking pubs and the chips-with-everything brigade or those who can’t survive a holiday abroad without something from Marks and Spencers (handy though, I suppose, if you’ve forgotten to pack your knickers).
Why on earth would anyone come here for a holiday, I wondered, as we made our way through the throng of tax free shoppers. It felt as if we were on the set of Phoenix Nights and I half expected a Peter Kay ‘Is this the way to Amarillo’ flashmob to spring up on us at any moment.
Amongst the melee though, if you looked closely, there were little, precious gems of quintessential British cultural icons all along the way: an original red telephone box; an extremely rare Queen Victoria Royal Mail pillar box which, post-walk research revealed, dated back to circa 1874 when all pillar boxes were painted red to stop people walking into them; a Game of Thrones-esque cannon that could fire at a steeply downward facing angle, invented by the British military and a huge strategic success against the Spanish and French during the Siege of Gibraltar in 1782.
And then, turning a corner on the far side of town as we began to climb up to the National Park, we chanced upon Trafalgar Cemetery – where those who died from wounds post the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 were buried. All except Nelson himself, that is, who was pickled in brandy aboard HMS Victory by a sharp thinking surgeon before undergoing a two month journey back to England for a suitably fitting state funeral and burial at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Somewhat underwhelmed by Gibraltar thus far, we started to climb and leave the town behind us – along residential roads lined with high rise apartments, a crumbling, rusting and tumbledown casino, a quietly chic looking Art Deco hotel that must have been something to behold in its heyday and, just like across the border in Spain, roads bearing startlingly fast drivers, particularly considering the narrowness of the streets.
Finally we arrived at the entrance to the National Park and a steady incline up to Jews Gate and the start of the Mediterranean steps. It cost an exorbitant 50p per person to enter the National Park, I can hand-on-heart say it’s exceedingly good value for money.
And there we stepped into a different world – one where we replaced the waddling protagonists from the high street with a sanctuary of solitude and silence, save for our puffing breath and the mis-identification of many an indigenous plant and flower by me. “Oh is that the Gibraltan narcissi?” I pondered out loud, looking at a pretty pale purple flower. “No, I think it’s bindweed”, my friend answered.
The Mediterranean steps were originally constructed by the British Military as part of the fortification of the Rock. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to build the steps in the searing heat with the inhospitable terrain but I hope they took some small solace in the breathtaking views across the Straits to Morocco, we certainly did.
Half way up we passed pre-historic caves which were once at sea level, it took a while to get our heads round that one. We explored countless look out bunkers from World War II and marvelled at how the unfathomably heavy machinery, still in place and perfectly preserved had been hoisted up there, and we even spotted a peregrine falcon swooping below us.
It’s at this juncture that I could become a total history bore – many of the stories from the Rock are such stuff that Hollywood blockbusters are made of. But in an attempt to keep you interested (spoiler alert: there’s a cute picture of a monkey-eating-a-magnum to come), I’ve boiled down my potted knowledge to the following fascinating facts.
The Rock is famous for the Great Siege Tunnels – a series of passages and tunnels that were excavated in circa 1780 and formed the basis for what turned into an underground fortress in World War II, housing guns, hangars, ammunition stores, barracks, kitchens and hospitals. To put this into context; Gibraltar is 2.6 square miles yet the tunnels are a whopping 34 miles long. During WWII, this stronghold accommodated 16,000 men along with all the supplies, ammunition and equipment needed to withstand a prolonged siege – some of the soldiers often would go without seeing broad daylight for over two months.
Fifty two years after the Second World War ended in 1997, it was discovered that we had a highly classified plan called Operation Tracer to secretly seal six men into a specially drilled out tunnel with radio equipment to report enemy movements, should the Germans have captured the Rock.
The operation was so covert that only a select few in Whitehall knew about it. A six-man team underwent rigorous psychological and aptitude tests for being entombed alive in an underground bunker (although heaven only knows how you test for that?). Provisions for a seven year sojourn in the “Stay Behind Bunker” were amassed.
The team waited, top secret and under cover, in Gibraltar for two and half years. Thankfully, despite being completely surrounded by occupied territory, Gibraltar remained under British power and, after the war ended, the cave was closed off, still top secret, and the team were disbanded to resume civilian life.
Rumours of the Stay Behind Cave apparently swirled around for decades in Gibraltar, until discovery of the chambers in 1997 by the Gibraltar Caving Group. The authenticity of the site was confirmed by the last surviving member of the Tracer team who died in 2010 – imagine keeping that a secret for fifty two years?! Clearly they chose its potential inhabitants well.
Finally – when World War II broke out, the majority of the civilian population, some 22,000 people, were evacuated to Morocco, the UK, Jamaica and Madeira so that the military could fortify Gibraltar. Many lived in camps in awful conditions and were passed from pillar to post, the last of the evacuees weren’t able to return until 1951 – an astonishing six years after the war had ended.
The civilians were evacuated so that 30,000 British soldiers, sailors, and airmen could move to the Rock to defend the vital shipping routes to the Mediterranean and so that six carefully selected men could be sealed alive in a Stay Behind Bunker should Gibraltar have fallen to the Nazis.
So, all in all, we owe quite a bit to Gibraltar and its people.
During the last ascent of the walk, we came across the Macaque Barbery Apes which infamously reign over the top of the Rock. They’re not actually apes at all, they are tail-less monkeys, and the only population of wild monkeys in Europe.
Despite a £500 fine for feeding the monkeys and signs everywhere saying that they are not to be fed, we encountered monkeys eating Digestive biscuits and remnants of a Magnum ice cream….*rolls eyes*. No wonder they were a bit mental.
I wasn’t a big fan of the monkey – and neither was Tiggy as, unbeknownst to her, they were the reason she’d been foisted on a kind friend for the day back in Tarifa. We all felt that the odds of one feisty Jack Russell Terrier vs two hundred and thirty monkeys may not be in our favour.
Finally we came across the medieval steps which we both tentatively and hurriedly descended as they were patrolled by some rather possessive looking monkeys who ‘may become aggressive if cornered on the steps’.
We meandered back to the national park entrance via the large chimneys of the now-defunct military kitchens – and braced ourselves to face the sights, smells and sounds and the onslaught of the High Street once more.
I don’t feel my description has done justice to how stunning the walk was – the amazing views made the glute-toning, challenging steps all worth while and it felt special to be able to cherish the magic of the Rock far from the madding crowds who ascend it via cable car, take a selfie with a monkey, scoff an ice cream, turn around and go straight back down again.
Thirteen miles, 99 floors and 30,214 steps later we crossed the border once more to our cars (this time we had a near miss with a military plane landing on the runway). And with a big hug and very fond farewell I parted with my friends who returned back to the splendour of their 5* hotel (with the luxury of a bath!) and The Beast and I wound our way back through the spectacular views of Spanish National Park to Tarifa.
Driving back I thought about my first, instinctive impression of Gibraltar – were one to judge it by its cover – a tacky kind of Blackpool with guaranteed sunshine and marauding monkeys instead of donkeys – but as Tolkien said, ‘all that is gold does not glitter’ and to uphold that impression would be a great dis-service to both the Rock itself, the history it holds, as well the Gibraltarians and their extraordinary lives.
Plus, trust me, once you’ve climbed those steps for an hour and a half, navigated and negotiated with hangry monkeys and walked back down again, a plate of double-fried egg, sausage, chips and beans with lashings of HP sauce for £5.99 and all polished off with a pint of lager top might not seem quite such a bad idea after all…
It takes a long time to grow old friends and this was the most perfect of adventures with the oldest of friends. Our lives are a tapestry made up of occasions such as these, special moments to be stitched into memories.
Tolkien continued his beautiful poem with ‘not all those who wander are lost’. I love wandering – and our Gibraltar expedition proved that it doesn’t matter where you wander, on cliff tops, on beaches, in cities, in mountains, down rivers or canals – there’s always something interesting out there to learn and discover, wherever you are – all you have to do is go and look for it.
Chapeau, Gibraltar, chapeau!
Love Sophie, Tiggy and The Beast X
All That is Gold Does Not Glitter – J.R.R.Tolkien
- All that is gold does not glitter,
- Not all those who wander are lost;
- The old that is strong does not wither,
- Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
- From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
- A light from the shadows shall spring;
- Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
- The crownless again shall be king.