My Take On Gibraltar…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by islands, archipelagos and peninsulas. Having been born in mid-continent, a thousand miles from the sea, to parents who were disinclined to travel any farther than the nearest cigarette dispenser, lonely outcrops of lands encircled by thrashing seas seemed just as mysterious and (un)real to me as the junglescapes of the Planet of the Apes.

Strange things happen on islands that nobody can explain, while, at the same time, they explain everything. Who erected those giant stone statues on the Easter Islands? And had Darwin not stopped by the Galapagos and set his beady eyes on a bunch of finches, he’d probably never have come up with the concept of evolution.

When humans settle on islands, things become even more interesting. Their identities are rapidly re-shaped by island life. I’ve perpetually been left confounded, for example, by the firmly held belief of the British, that they are, in fact, not European.

According to Brit gospel, those Europeans inhabiting “The Continent” are a species afflicted either by a lamentable sense of humour deficiency, or by highly questionable timekeeping skills. And sometimes, both. Said Continentals, who try to compensate for their languages’ inherent lack of precision by means of florid gesticulations, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the British island breed, whose forefathers sprouted from spores that fell from the moral backbone of the heavens onto these mist-shrouded isles.

Applying the island rationale, when you ask a Brit whether Sardinians or Majorcans weren’t European either, or whether Japanese people ought to be considered exclusively Japanese and not Asian as well, you will earn yourself but a blank stare. With a dash of benevolent contempt, if you’re lucky.

Britons are, quite simply, more unique than anyone else. Incidentally, British citizens of Indian or Chinese heritage can both be British and Asian, but those pallid specimens descended from, let’s say, Norman conquerors and Danish seafarers, may be English and British, but definitely NOT European. Such is the mind-warping power of islands.

I’ve an interminable list of insular destinations I desperately want to visit, including Tristan da Cunha, Svalbard, Kamchatka, the Maldives, the Falklands, the Faroe Islands, Christmas Island… I could go on… but seeing that most of these are way beyond my paltry travel budget, I have to take what I can when the opportunity presents itself.

So, a few weeks ago, when the AndalucΓ­a trip came about, I was delighted – delighted, I tell you! – to discover on Google Maps that Algeciras, the town where Maria and I were going to be staying, was slap bang right next to Gibraltar.

And a "rock" it is. It even has its own weather! And what weather... what more proof do you need that Gibraltar is, in fact, British!?

Taken from the car as we were crossing the border. “The Rock” even has its own weather! And just look at that grumbling cloud casting doom and gloom over British territory while the rest of Spain is bathed in resplendent sunshine… what more proof does anyone need that Gibraltar is, in fact, part of the UK!?

Gibraltar, a lump of limestone fused onto the southern tip of Spain, a mere 2.3 square miles with 30,000 people squashed onto it. Gibraltar has been under British administration since 1704, which pisses off the Spanish no end. In the last referendum, held in 2002, 98% of Gibraltarians were adamant that they wanted to remain part of the UK rather than cede to geographic realities. The diplomatic skirmishes between the two nations feature prominently in the news here in Spain, and in the UK as well, of course.

View of the town half-way up the rock on our way to visit the monkeys

View of the town half-way up the rock on our way to visit the famous resident monkeys

"May I help you...?

“May I help you…?

"Got some nuts?"

“Got some nuts?”

You can even take one home!

You can even take one home!

I never realised that Gibraltar had caves... St Michael's cave, 300m above sea level, is like a giant cathedrals inside The Rock.

I never realised that Gibraltar’s innards were, in fact, a warren of caves. There’s 150 of them, apparently. St Michael’s cave, 300m above sea level, is like Mother Nature’s giant cathedral.

I half expected the Elven King to step down from that...

I half expected the Elven King to step down from that…

Overhead shot

Overhead shot. Best not cough. Those things could pierce your head…

We passed by some change-of-the-guards malarkey. Lots of stiff marching and intelligible shouting, as usual.

Back in town, we passed by some changing-of-the-guards malarkey. Stiff marching, peering out sternly from underneath slightly-too-big hats, and lots of unintelligible shouting. British tax money well spent.

Gibraltar House

Gibraltar lighthouse. That's Africa in the background.

Gibraltar lighthouse, with the African coast in the background.

So, is Gibraltar more like the UK or more like Spain?

Predictably, it’s neither fish nor fowl. It sports, of course, plenty of “authentic” pubs on every street, with the requisite British food items on the menu, from toad-in-the hole and beef wellington to chicken tikka massala. Listening to people’s accents, there were plenty of ‘real’ Brits milling through the streets and rummaging behind shops’ counters, but there was also a weird kind of indigenous English being flung about.

There are enough British High Street shops to have made me feel, for a fleeing moment, like I was back in the UK, and I got a bit homesick. I stepped into an M&S, and I may have had a minor orgasm somewhere between the chocolate Easter eggs and the hot cross buns. I also spotted a WH Smith and several UK clothing chains, such as Monsoon. But, to my abject disappointment, there was no Boots! I even asked about it in the Tourist Information office. Shaking of heads all round. But there were, I was told, “plenty other chemists”. I’m sorry, but a British town without a Boots is just inconceivable.

I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed by our trip, and I would certainly not label Gibraltar as “fake” or “boring”. It is what it is: Its own microcosm, a confluence of several worlds and a colourful history that has given rise to a way of life that is, well, quintessentially insular.

Gibraltar glows in hazy sunset. Viewed from Algeciras beach.

Gibraltar glows in a hazy sunset. Viewed from Algeciras beach.

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72 thoughts on “My Take On Gibraltar…

  1. nancytex2013

    The monkeys are a trip! Why did I not know about the monkeys or the caves? So awesome.

    Question: so the official language is English, then? With the proximity to Spain though, I wonder what the ‘practical’ language is?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Yes, the official language is English. In effect, though, the island is bilingual. In practice, this will mean that all of the Spanish origin people will speak both languages, but only about 10% of the “ethnic” Brits living there speak Spanish. That’s my guess.

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      1. TheLastWord

        Naturally!

        The Brits’ inherent belief in the power of English would mean they don’t have to learn that foreign stuff… Though they have taken a lot of words from everywhere, they use them in the way *they* want to and not the way the natives speak it.

        George Mikes’ “How to be an alien” did have a few truths in it.

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  2. gina4star

    Haha, this is so true, we are most definitely not European! πŸ˜› Gibraltar is a truly fascinating place to visit. It’s sooort of like being at home… in Spain. Sort of. Your shot of the cloud covered rock is amazing, couldn’t be more British if it tried! Oooh and the barbary apes are sooo cheeky and so cute! Glad you could get your fix, Gibraltar always makes for an interesting trip! πŸ™‚ x

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Gringa, but not European…? πŸ˜‰
      The first pic is the only one I did not take myself, but someone sitting by the car window facing the rock. It looked very surreal on the day, and the picture captured it quite well, I think.

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  3. con jamΓ³n spain

    Brilliant post – wonder if Brit on the Rock blog has read it?

    Have you been to the Isle of Wight? As ‘charming’ as it is, you won’t have an orgasm of any kind – unless you get off on being teleported back to the 70s, 80s…maybe 90s.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Brit on the Rock??? Is that an actual blog???? Must look for it πŸ™‚

      I never got to visit places like Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Wight, etc. I regret that now 😦

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  4. June

    Thank you for knowing that Britain is an island and does not include that bit in north-east Ireland! I’m fascinated by how many people don’t know that! To clarify, though, Gibraltar is not in the UK (which is made up of the island of Britain and that bit in north-east Ireland), but is instead a “British overseas territory”. Growing up I never thought of myself as European either. Not that I would have denied being from Europe, but it just wasn’t part of my identity. I think that changed with the opening up of the EU. I definitely think of myself as European theses days. And no Boots?! Really?!

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  5. June

    PS: I had to clarify for someone recently that Ireland (the whole island, not just the North) wasn’t part of Britain.
    Them: So what countries are in Britain?
    Me: England, Scotland and Wales.
    Them: So, just England and Scotland?
    Me: And Wales.
    Them: But Wales is not a country – it’s just a region in England.
    Me: Can I please be there who you tell the Welsh?!

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      1. Anna

        In others’ defense, it IS complicated. You have UK, Great Britain, England. Sovereign state vs island vs country. In some international sports competitions the whole of the UK is represented by one team; in others Scotland and England will play each other. So these arent so bad. And in most foreign countries ‘England’ is used in vernacular as a shorthand for the ‘UK’.

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  6. suej

    Love the idea that the cloud confirmed the ownership of the rock! And well done Gibraltar for having no Boots (who swallowed up many a small pharmacy chain over the years)…..

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  7. Expat Eye

    Wow, that cloud! Great photo πŸ˜‰ I’m Irish and I’m European. The Brits are just odd πŸ˜‰ Although I do think of ‘The Continent’ as something far more glamorous and exotic than Ireland will ever be – with the exception of my current part of the world, of course πŸ˜‰ Gibraltar looked like a fun time – I have a monkey like that but I think I got it in Memphis. Not sure why Memphis had monkeys – I don’t think they do in reality. Must put down the wine… πŸ™‚
    P.S. I miss Boots!

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  8. pollyheath

    The first photo is amazing (and definitely earns team UK a point). I had no idea there were monkeys there, though. Ugh.

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  9. Heyjude

    Great take on the Rock – love the 1st image and the cave where the Elfin King lives. I thought Gibraltar was a little scruffy when I visited – best thing about it was being able to buy ciggies duty free (I smoked then). But more than that are the comments which have made me grin. Do I consider myself European? Probably not, really, Europe is across the Channel. Just as Scandinavia is across the North Sea. I am Yorkshire first and English second. Oh, and no-one has mentioned the British Isles πŸ˜€
    Jude xx

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Interesting… so, you would regard Scandinavians as not being European…?

      Ta for throwing the British Isles into the mix. At least that includes the Irish, too, as far as I’m aware πŸ˜‰

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      1. Heyjude

        I think this is different for the generation who were born after Britain joined the EU in 1973. For those of us born before then, Europe and Scandinavia were ‘foreign’ places.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        But it’s the same for German and French people, the surrounding countries are ‘foreign’ places. It’s all Europe, though, including the UK, Ireland, Russia and Iceland. Shared culture, shared history, shared geography/tectonic plate. Even Greenland, which is not technically Europe coz it’s on the North American plate, is still somewhat European because of the Scandinavian influence.

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      3. Heyjude

        Maybe I’m not explaining this very well. For Europeans who live on the mainland it has always been easy to cross borders and find yourself in a different culture / language. Brits have to cross water and if you lived in the north of England, as I did, that’s a long journey + you drive on the right which makes it more alien πŸ˜‰

        I have lived in Europe (Switzerland) and Scandinavia (Norway) and travelled a lot in Europe and I have lived in South Africa too so I guess I’m pretty mixed up. Or as ‘Expat Eye’ said – Brits are odd O_o

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  10. camparigirl

    I get your point (about its own microcosm) but, frankly, other than being able to buy knickers at the local M&S, I couldn’t see the point of going to Gibraltar at all. Not even to experience a monkey jump on my head.

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  11. TheLastWord

    Lovely photos! That cloud over the rock is spectacular as is the overhead shot of the caves. Definitely those caves are right out Tolkien. I did not realise the rock was hollow…

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  12. bevchen

    But of course we Brits are superior beings πŸ˜‰ I’ve actually tried discussing the whole “not Europeans” thing with Jan, and the only thing I can come up with is that Britain seems further away from the continent than most other islands – sure, we’re pretty close to France, but only in the south. The north of Britain is surrounded by miles and miles of water. Also, Britain is a separate country, while Sardinians are technically Italian, so obviously they’re European, Majorcans are Spanish… and the Japanese are clearly Asians because they LOOK like Asians to us. I have no explanation for Iceland though πŸ˜‰ (Not necessarily my opinion, but my best attempt at an explanation of my fellow Brits).

    As for Gibralter… the caves look amazing!

    By the way, since you mention the Falklands, my dad fought in the Falklands War.

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  13. ladyofthecakes Post author

    I think you’d come across plenty of Sardinians who’d argue that they are not actually Italian… As for Asians ‘looking Asian’, well, the English look European fair and square. Because they are πŸ˜‰ And as you know, the Germans don’t feel that they’ve any more or less in common with the French than they have with the Brits. All European, all different to some degree, but with many shared cultural values, and, certainly, ancestry. It’s all very well looking at other countries from the outside and judging them to be “different” and hence “not us”, but every country does the same from its point of view. I’ve had conversations with Chinese and Japanese people, who deem, for example, Italy and Spain to be the same. Many Europeans think the same about China and Japan though the cultural differences between these are actually huge, i.e. much greater than those between Brits and Czech people, for instance.

    I realise your views differ from the mainstream, because you’ve experienced different places from the inside rather than just as a tourist.

    I love this thread πŸ™‚ Thanks for always chipping in so faithfully!

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  14. Jenna

    A Sardinian friend of mine (the self-proclaimed King) talks about seceding all the time – it’s an interesting concept; a place that (to an outsider) is one thing, but it thinks of itself as something totally different.

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  15. Jenna

    I just meant that it’s hard to wrap your head around – Sardinian friend is culturally, ethnically, and linguistically the same as my friend from Lazio, but he thinks of himself as a totally separate.

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  16. Anna

    “Said Continentals, who try to compensate for their languages’ inherent lack of precision by means of florid gesticulations, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the British island breed, whose forefathers sprouted from spores that fell from the moral backbone of the heavens onto these mist-shrouded isles.” — might be my favorite blog sentence of the year. I guess I dont understand island mentality, but I can related to the sentiment of general national exceptionalism, as both of my homelands have it in spades.

    Is there ‘authentic Gibraltan’ cuisine or even twist of flavors or a dish?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      “National exceptionalism” – that must have been written about by academics…. something to investigate for me.

      Talking of which, I didn’t have time for a thorough investigation of Gibralta’s indigenous dishes… I so want to go back there!

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      1. Anna

        basically google american exceptionalism and city upon a hill. you’ll have reading material for months. many countries have a similar national philosophy, incl russia, france and china, for example.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Japan goes in for that big time as well, I think. I read a while back that they’ve even got ‘serious’ academics arguing that they are biologically different from mainland Asians… and other humans in general πŸ˜‰

        Everybody does this to a certain extent. It’s the basis of all patriotism, I presume.

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      3. Anna

        I am guessing Germany might be rather restrained in this, esp in the last decades? πŸ™‚ And the Canadians are just too nice!

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  17. joannesisco

    Brilliant post – I got more than a few laughs! You’re the second person today I’ve heard take a stab at the quirkiness of the British πŸ™‚
    Now I want to go to Gibraltar even more. I particularly liked the micro weather system, nor did I know there were all those caves!!
    Now to plot a scheme to squeeze in more travelling …. πŸ™‚

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Thanks Joanne. It was fun to write, though I was concerned over whether I’d gone off on too much of a tangent πŸ˜‰

      Fingers crossed you make it down there some day!

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  18. Pingback: A list of good reads | OneChicklette

  19. linnetmoss

    This one is a stunner both verbally and in pictures. I love that the Rock has its own weather! Another cool thing about islands is that they generate miniaturized animals, like the pygmy elephants and hippos that used to roam the islands in the Mediterranean, until the mean humans killed them off.

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