31 May 2021
We often wondered why there are so many cars on the very few roads of Gibraltar when everything is no more than a half hour walk away from anywhere else and the locals travel free on the buses! Except for a fortnightly outing to the supermarket in our friend Chris’ car (we used it more frequently than she would normally use it!) we could see no reason why so many residents would hop in their cars.
There is so much to see if you go at a slower pace and you get a great deal of exercise along the way. Our extended stay in Gibraltar meant we had so many more opportunities to take to its paths.
With encouragement from former Olympic coach Rene, Stefan had upped his cycle around the Rock to a daily, epic climb to O’Hara’s Battery at its highest point. Sometimes they even did it twice! And whilst they did I took a slower pace to explore parts of the Rock we hadn’t been to before with some rather excellent company.
First, however, I needed to tackle one of Gibraltar’s most famous challenges and one which I had run out of excuses for not doing. Under the gentle persuasion of Dörte and Jens I decided it was time to put vertigo aside and just do it.
The end of March was the perfect time of year to climb the Steps, not too hot yet with the morning sun beating down on the Eastern face of the Rock and with all the Spring flowers at their best. Everything was so lush and green.
At Goat’s Hair Twin caves we had our fit sit down for some water and to stare out at the Mediterranean, a view that our Neanderthal cousins would have enjoyed when they sheltered here, just with fewer tankers anchored in the way!
The floral displays continued as we followed the path with Dörte blending in perfectly with the bright yellow of the blossom.
Climbing higher and higher the views got better and better and our legs got wearier and wearier
until we reached the final challenge, a zigzag staircase to make the last climb up to O’Hara’s Battery. Whilst Jens seemed to skip to the top like a mountain goat, Dörte and I took several breaks to “look at the scenery” and let our lungs recover. Thank you Dörte and Jens for helping me overcome my fear and making sure I didn’t miss this special treat!
Literally on my return from the Med Steps I found SV Momentum had arrived in the marina. This meant another willing hiking buddy in Babs and, better still, one who still had to discover some of the attractions of the Upper Rock.
So one afternoon I turned tour guide to take Babs on a walking tour up to the top of the Rock. St Michael’s Caves had only just reopened and we were the only people exploring them. After so much rain the stalactites had taken on a bright green algae which made them look more like broccoli than calcified rock.
On any given day monkey encounters come thick and fast on the Upper Rock but I was to have my closest yet when we visited the Sky Walk. Whilst Babs posed for this snap on the glass platform I found myself a human climbing frame to an adult monkey who deftly opened my backpack and took out my jacket. Having taken it out she jumped down with it, gave it a good looking over, decided it wasn’t quite her size and left me to pick it up and return it to its rightful place.
Along to the other end of the Rock we found the flags flying at half mast for Prince Philip and stood at the spot where he and the Queen had stood to look out over Gibraltar in 1954. Their view would have been very different without all the high rise estates which came after on the reclaimed land. Babs was more excited about the view of the British Airways jet taking off on the runway!
We decided to climb just a bit further to visit somewhere that I hadn’t been before, the Great Siege Tunnels from which Gibraltar was defended from Spain in the late 18th century.
Cut largely by hand with some assistance from gunpowder, the tunnels run the length of the northern end of the Rock
giving perfect views of the Spanish lines across what it now the runway and was then a kind of no man’s land on the isthmus. They also gave us a great view down to Gibraltar’s very overcrowded cemetery.
Deep in the tunnels we found St George’s Hall, the largest of the tunnels’ galleries from which the Rock could be protected from attacks from the land and from the sea.
The tunnels continued yet further, this time constructed more recently in preparation for housing a garrison of 16,000 during WWII and, via the Holyland Tunnel, giving access to defending the Mediterranean side of the Rock. Unlike the 18th century tunnels the majority of the modern tunnels, constructed in a great hurry, have not stood the test of time and are inaccessible.
Another day Babs and I took a more leisurely stroll around the town to take in Gibraltar’s burgeoning collection of street art. If you are ever in Gib you can find this self guided walk here.
We started at Paul Bush’s imaginatively titled Mural in the tunnel that leads from the Alameda Gardens
through Old Soldier’s View by Eleanor Taylor Dobbs in the old archway at Prince Edward’s Gate
and into the narrow streets of the town where dotted around we found more examples of Juup & Ronnie Alecio’s homages to the figures of Gibraltar artist Gustavo Bacarisas to add to the familiar ones on Castle Steps.
At Chatham Counterguard Geraldine Martinez Make a Wish made comment on the pollution of the modern world and along Line Wall A Boat called Hope accompanied by quotes from local children on their interpretation of freedom and safety through the lens of boats at sea.
Just before she sailed away a couple of weeks ahead of us Babs and I had one last hike up the Rock aiming to tackle Charles V Wall a 16th century staircase built as part of Gibraltar’s defences but we were thwarted by the presence of too many monkeys blocking the steps so we moved on.
I wasn’t too disappointed when the Windsor Suspension Bridge was closed due to high winds and we made do with the view of the bridge instead of from it!
We walked back through streets of the South District that I hadn’t discovered before
tiled with reminders of Gibraltar’s less crowded slopes.
Sailing friends aside, by far my favourite walking buddy in Gibraltar has been Chris, who I first met when I was volunteering for her at the Alameda Gardens in 2016. Apart from a couple of months when she visited her daughter in the UK to welcome her new grandson, we walked together at least twice a week. I loved hanging out with Chris. Not only are we matched for pace but whilst underway she told the best tales of Gibraltar over her 20+ years here. She first came in the late 1970s when the border with Spain was still shut and the only route in was via ferry from Morocco. Occasionally we diverted from our usual march out to the lighthouse at Europa Point to discover places that were new to one or both of us.
It was a very different Gibraltar in those days and on a walk around to Sandy Bay on the Eastern side of the Rock Chris pointed out the tiny beach where she and her friends lived in tents
beneath the now disused catchments that provided water for the Rock’s residents.
Brightly coloured Caleta was a welcome pit stop for a coffee and trip to the loo!
Chris had long talked about a mysterious area up the Rock known to locals as The Jungle. Chris hadn’t been up there since the early days of her time here and had yet to visit the dark and reportedly haunted tunnels and buildings of the Northern Defences. Intrigued to see it and more sceptical about spectres than her, I cajoled her into exploring this apparently off limits area just before I finally left.
Armed with head torches we climbed through a gap in the fence near Castle Steps. Alone apart from a friendly dog walker and some Spanish workmen getting the area ready for officially opening up to visitors
we instantly found ourselves in an abandoned world full of crumbling military installations, stairs and tunnels.
Dating back to Moorish times these defences have protected Gibraltar from invasion by changing enemies over a thousand years
But most of its infrastructure dates back to the late 18th century when the batteries were built to be bomb proof and named to prove it.
Putting aside any idea of ghosts we entered a tunnel that took us further than a kilometre through galleries and chambers and passed yet more darker tunnels heading deeper into the Rock. It was a real treat to see this area of Gibraltar before it takes its place on the tourist trail.
Thank you to all my walking buddies for ensuring that I got out to stretch my legs and my lungs and for helping me discover more of Gibraltar’s hidden corners but extra especially to Chris for really bringing the place alive with your stories and for being such wonderful company on our walks. You truly are an Icon of the Rock!