Gibraltar, September 2001

The rock of Gibraltar was known to the Romans as Mons Calpe, which was one of the pillars of Hercules standing at the entrance to the Mediterranean. Over the years it was important strategically. It was part of the Moorish empire until 1462, when Spain finally got her hands on it. Then in 1704, British and Dutch troops took the rock as part of the Spanish was of succession. The Treaty of Utrecht gave sovereignty of the rock to Britain and it's been British ever since. It is a now British Dependant Territory with its own government which looks after most matters other than foreign affairs, internal security and defence.

The Rock of Gibraltar

The Spanish are still very keen to get their hands back on it. They closed the border in 1969 and it was re-opened only in 1985 as a condition of Spain's entry into the EU. These days some 3000 Spaniards work in Gibraltar and it's a popular day trip, but there are still a number of restrictions. Spanish airlines are not allowed to fly there, the only flights are from the UK. The people of Gibraltar are a very multi-cultural bunch, with people of Maltese, Italian, Jewish and Indian descent. The last referendum held in Gibraltar resulted in a 99% vote to remain links with Britain, so it is exceedingly unlikely that things will change.

The currency of Gibraltar is the pound sterling. They do have their own notes and coins, and though UK coins are accepted there, the reverse is not true. I got money out of a cash machine using my Nationwide credit card and was only charged the cash advance fee. No other charges were applied.

We flew on a Friday from Luton airport on one of Monarch's scheduled flights. Apart from having to get up at ten past five, a time that I thought only existed once in each day, it was OK. When we arrived at Gibraltar, the luggage seemed to take forever, and it was cloudy. However, it was about 25°C, which was a lot better than the UK.

Caleta hotel and beachWe had 4 nights booked at the Caleta Hotel in Catalan Bay. The main town is on the west side of the rock. On the east side are three sandy bays, Catalan Bay being the one in the middle. The hotel was 4* and quite comfortable. We had a balcony with what is euphemistically called a "Rock View", but it did mean that the sun was still on it after it had disappeared around the pool. The room didn't have any tea or coffee making facilities though it did have a bath as well as a shower.

Gibraltar is tax free, so the alcoholic drinks in the bar was quite cheap. A pint of beer was £1.80 and the wine was also reasonable. Soft drinks were a bit pricey though. A can of Fanta in the pool side bar was £1.50. Sandwiches were served in the bar, as was afternoon tea with cakes, scones and cream. There was an Italian restaurant called Nunos, but we never actually ate there. Our package also included breakfast which was OK, though exactly the same every day. It was buffet style, so you could fill up and skip lunch if you wanted to.

Down in Catalan bay were a couple of bars, which also did food, and a couple of other restaurants. We mostly ate there and the food was reasonably priced, as were the drinks. There was also a small shop, which sold soft drinks for a lot less than the hotel. The beach was sandy, and the water looked very clear. The actual seafront looked a bit scruffy, but it got quite lively there on a Friday and Saturday night. Monday nights was much quieter with all but one bar shut. It shut on a Tuesday.

On the second day it was raining, which was not what we ordered. By about midday, it was easing up so we decided to go into town and have a look around. Unfortunately, there had been a rock slide, so the road was closed in one direction. This meant that the taxi had to got the long way around. Since the whole place is only about three miles long, this isn't much of a problem, but it did mean having to wait a long time for a cab.

Catalan BayThe guidebooks say that the shops shut at 12.00pm on a Saturday, but we found most of them were open until 2pm, some later. The only closed shops were the Jewish ones. Gibraltar has quite a sizeable Jewish community. The main street is very narrow and is pedestrianised in most places. I found the place reminiscent of Tottenham Court Road. There were loads of small shops, some selling electrical goods and some selling leather goods at reasonable prices. There were also a number of pubs which were just like those in the UK selling familiar brands. Probably the biggest shop there though is Marks and Spencers.

On the Sunday, I'd booked to go diving with Dive Charters Gibraltar. I got a cab over there which was no problem as the road had been re-opened the previous afternoon. I'd taken most of my kit with me, but not a suit. I had asked them whether the drysuit would be overkill, and they said it would and that they had suits for hire. However, they didn't have much of a selection. I ended up with what looked like two halves of two different suits. The top just about did up at a squeeze as long as I didn't want to move too much. There was no way the zip would do up the neck though, so I couldn't really put the hood on at all. The bottoms did fit, though they had a hole in each knee and a large one in the crotch. I'd also forgotten to bring my A-clamp adaptor and they only had two DIN tanks, so I had to use their regs. They were alright. They were Mares and I think they were about a mid-range model.

I'd booked two dives and they had 7 of us booked in. I was to dive in a three and the rest were finishing off their AOW course. However, we were then told that we'd have to do both dives from the same tank as they didn't have time to come back in and refill them. The boat was completely open with no shade, though as it was overcast, it wasn't a problem that day and it had no racks or anything. The kit just sat in the bottom.

The plan was to dive the Excellent, a wreck just outside the harbour. It was in 30m, so we had a 20 minute bottom time. Neither of my two buddies had a computer with them, so we were constrained by the tables. It was quite choppy because there was a westerly wind, so getting into the kit was a struggle, particularly with my movement constricted by the suit. As I hit the water, the cold took my breath away as 19° water rushed in around my neck and the holes in the suit. But we went down the shot and found the wreck at the bottom.

The wreck itself was a freighter and it's lying upside down, so it's not as interesting as it could be. There are a couple of places on the wreck where it has broken open and you can have a look around. The hull itself is covered in sea fans, like those you get in Cornwall, though there were more of them and they were more brightly coloured. There was also a shoal of sardines, a couple of scorpion fish and a shoal of fish I didn't recognise which had a snout similar to a butterfly fish. I must admit I was a bit distracted as every time I kicked my legs, a jet of cold water shot up my groin from the hole in the wetsuit. My mask also decided to leak profusely, so it wasn't the most enjoyable of dives. Our actual depth was only 25m, though we didn't go around all of the wreck, so it may well be deeper in other places.

When we got back to the surface, we found out that the others hadn't gone on because it was too rough for them. The second dive was cancelled, which at least got me out of having to decide whether I wanted to get back in again. I did have about 100 bar left, despite the fact that my breathing was way above normal because of the cold, which I guess would have been enough for a shallow dive.

The whole experience cost me £25. It was a shame, because with my own drysuit on, I would have enjoyed it. It would have been OK with a wetsuit that fitted, but the temperatures there at the end of September are no warmer than Britain on a warm August day, so I don't think I would have been too hot.

Monkey and cannonOn Monday the sun finally came out and we booked ourselves on a Rock Tour with Bland travel for the afternoon. It was very interesting and the driver certainly knew what he was talking about. First we went out to Europa point, where there's a lighthouse and a rather impressive mosque. In the distance you could see the coast of north Africa only 14 miles away. The nearest point is Ceuta, which is actually a Spanish enclave in Morocco, which makes their objections to Gibraltar look rather hypocritical.

Next stop was St Michael's Grotto. This is a large cave which was used in World War II as an underground hospital. It's got extensive stalactites and stalagmites and the rock formations are really quite impressive. The largest chamber is now used as a concert venue and there's a small theatre in there.

Then we went up to the Great Siege tunnels. These were built in 1782 and were amazingly constructed by soldiers using little more than hammers, wooden blocks and black powder explosives. At the time, Gibraltar was under attack by the French and Spanish. The British tunnelled into the rock and placed a number of cannon inside the rock face. They were then able to fire down on the opposing ships and keep them at bay.

Then we visited the Moorish castle, which was old but not particularly interesting. There were quite a few macaque monkeys, known as Barbary apes, around. They're semi-wild, and tradition says that if they leave, then the British will leave Gibraltar. Fortunately they're fairing rather well with numbers in the 200s, though they're quite rare in their native north Africa.

On the way back to the hotel, we went through the newest part of town. This is all built on reclaimed land and there are quite a few apartment blocks. I looked in a property paper at the prices, they're not cheap.

Tuesday was a lovely day with the sun out all day. Our flight didn't take off until 8.40pm, so we had most of the day there. It was an enjoyable short break. The prices was about £350 each for the flights and 4 days B&B at the hotel. It was a shame the weather wasn't as good as it could have been on the first couple of days, but these things happen.