Review: Gibraltar

This is a travel blog now.

Just joking, I still hate travel bloggers. And there’s nowhere more ‘wanderlust’ than the glorious sights and sounds of the overseas British territory of Gibraltar.

Again, I’m joking. But I did actually go to Gibraltar this week and I have some thoughts about it. So I’m just going to leave them here if that’s ok with you.

Why Gibraltar?

Good question! Every single person I’ve told about my holiday has asked why on Earth I’d go to Gibraltar. The answer is a bit complicated, but basically boils down to this: I wanted to go somewhere abroad, it’s an easy country to visit, and it’s always kinda fascinated me.

This is a postcard I bought in 2010, and I always found it really interesting. You can see pretty much all of Gibraltar there (it’s only 2.6 square miles big). And you’ll notice that it’s dominated by a MASSIVE GREAT BIG ROCK. Just the idea of there being a settlement living under the shadow of this nightmarish geographic landscape is really cool, in my opinion.

And in person it’s even more amazing. Here’s the view from outside the hotel I was staying in:

Wherever you are in Gibraltar, the Rock looms over you. Ever-present, ominous, quasi-Lovecraftian in nature. Like imagine if Brighton just had a huge mountain in the middle of it, and everything had to be built around it. It feels like some rule has been broken. It’s distinctly unnatural, and genuinely spooky at times.

But yeah, that’s probably reading too much into what is basically just a big rock. It’s just very impressive.

It’s also COVERED IN ADORABLE MONKEYS.

Well, I say ‘adorable.’ They’re still wild animals, they’re just used to being around humans. So they’re not friendly in any sense. They mostly just ignore you, unless you have food – in which case they turn into the most vicious claw and tooth machines ever known. So yeah.

There’s even more mysteries to be found within the rock itself. Like these gnarly caves:

Or these old war tunnels:

There’s apparently more miles of road within the Rock of Gibraltar than outside/around it – which is pretty nuts. A lot of it is still secreted away, and used for various military purposes. So that’s fun too!

So that’s the Geography of Gibraltar. What of its history? Turns out it’s ALSO REALLY INTERESTING.

Gibraltar was first permanently settled upon around 711 AD by the Moorish, led by Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad. They named the place after him too: ‘Jebel’ being Arabic for ‘mount’ and ‘Tariq’ being the dude’s name. Thus Jebel Tariq (Tariq’s Mount), becoming Gibraltar over the years.

HOW INTERESTING IS THAT.

Oh, and Gibraltar stayed under Muslim rule for about SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS. The legacy of these centuries can still be seen today with things like a pretty battered Moorish castle on the Rock, a beautiful mosque to the south, and – of course – the monkeys, brought over from North Africa.

Then like French and Spain and the Netherlands for some reason and the British fought over it for a few hundred years. And since 1713 it’s been under British control.

I spoke to a few Gibraltans, and they’re a very proud people. They’re proud to be British but not in the flag-waving ‘well EDL’ sense that we associate with that phrase. Gibraltar is a unique part of the world, with a dense history. The people there understand how unusual their situation is and couldn’t be happier to be living in a little part of Britain out in the big wide world.

It’s hard to capture exactly what I’m trying to say here, but my overriding sense was that the people aren’t just a bunch of nationalist ex-pats who have a weird thing for British colonisation – which I think is the assumption most people have. They’re mostly pretty cool.

So let’s quickly talk about the whole British thing. Sigh.

In Gibraltar I went to Morrisons, Marks &  Spencer, Costa Coffee, Debenhams, and a WH Smith. How horrific I hear you cry, going all that way just to go to the same shops we have here. Remember, Gibraltar is a British territory. It’s not actually Spain. Of course it’s going to have the same shops as us. Likewise with the red letter boxes and British policemen. What do you expect them to do differently?

If it helps, don’t think of it as abroad at all. Just think of it as another part of the UK that takes a while to get to, and has much much nicer weather. Because that’s basically what it is.

BUT HOW WAS THE FOOD RICHARD

Meh. The default cuisine seems to be ‘fish and chips’ – partly as a result of the whole ‘British heritage’ thing, and partly because it’s a coastal region so fish is like all they’ve got. I had some VERY NICE seafood though – like these skewers.

Or this very tasty paella:

I also had this weird thing, which is a fillet steak stuffed with king prawns:

The brininess of the prawns kinda ruined the steak for me, but I had to try it. Holidays are all about new experiences after all, right?

But yeah, don’t go there for the food. Go there for stuff like this:

This is Catalan Bay – a small village on the eastern side of the rock. There’s a few bars/restaurants along the seafront and a big hotel (where I stayed), but apart from that it’s super quiet and mostly residential.

When I first arrived I thought I’d screwed up. I was on the wrong side of the Rock to the rest of town. That meant I couldn’t easily just walk in and check things out. But this turned out to be a good thing. The main town area is really busy, loud, and touristy. On the other hand, this quiet little bay was pretty much perfect for just chilling out. And buses ran every 15 minutes into town (a 15 minute journey itself), with a day rider ticket costing £2.50.

I’d recommend doing the same if you visit. Staying in town looks like it might just be a bit too aggro.

So in conclusion

Gibraltar is a really interesting place. It’s got a rich history, fascinating geography, and a unique blend of a tropical climate with British culture. It might not be for everyone, but it’s for more people than I think would expect to like it. And I’m glad I went.


Why Gibraltar?

I want to return to this question. I didn’t just go to Gibraltar because I wanted to look at a big rock and some monkeys. It was also a personal challenge to myself. I’ve never been away on holiday on my own before, and I wanted to see if I could do it, or if my anxiety would win. Because being alone on holiday is involves a whole load of things that trigger my anxiety:

  • Travelling alone
  • Eating alone
  • Being alone in public
  • Navigating unfamiliar places
  • Logistical organisation (booking flights, hotels, etc)

And I find it really hard to relax in general. The GAD-7 questionnaire for anxiety (which I have to do every week at the moment) asks if you’re having trouble relaxing as part of the scoring. And honestly, I find it difficult to relax most of the time! Like, I can’t just go and sit down and chill – I have to be occupied. (I’m no good at just ‘going to sit in the sun’ for example, which makes summer difficult). On this holiday, I wanted to see if I could actually do it: relaxing, in an atmosphere that is extremely conducive to relaxing.

That’s why I picked Gibraltar. Having a familiar language, and a shared currency means visiting it was super easy. The usual things I worry about on holiday (the language is a big one!) were eliminated. I could just get a taxi from the airport, explain where I wanted to go, and pay using the same notes and coins I already had in my wallet. The place is small enough that you can’t really get lost, and there wasn’t too much worry of being ‘late’ for anything. (There was just one point where I got anxious because I couldn’t find a coach I needed to get). Basically, I set myself an easy target.

I even managed to relax! I spent half a day just sitting in one of the restaurants by the sea, drinking beers, eating seafood, and reading in the sun. And I felt kinda… content? Like I didn’t need anything else in that moment. And that’s weird for me. I wish I could feel like that more often.

So I succeeded. I proved to myself that my anxiety doesn’t have to stop me from doing things. And I learnt that I am capable of feeling relaxed (in the right circumstances). Of course, now I’m back in London I’m immediately feeling stressed and worried again. But at least I know it’s possible.

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