Today’s a special day here in Gibraltar, it’s the 10th September which means it’s National Day 2015. It’s a day when shops, schools and offices close and the population of the Rock heads outside attired in the national colours of red & white to celebrate their national pride. There are political rallies reaffirming the people’s right to self determination, concerts, firework displays and a not insignificant amount of alcohol imbibed.
This was the scene in Casemates Square last National Day, it was hot, incredibly busy but really good natured. As you wander along Main Street during the day you see all sorts of sights with musicians, performers and fancy dress costumes. Oh, and there are usually a few bemused tourists made conspicuous by the fact they didn’t get the red and white memo!
So on such an auspicious day I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned about Gibraltar since I arrived a few years back. Here we go:
1. It’s small but perfectly formed
Considering how much the people of Gibraltar achieve on the world stage, (being represented at the United Nations on the matter of relations with Spain, having a football team in UEFA, and being home to a Miss World winner – Kaiane Aldorino in 2009 to name but three) it’s comparatively tiny. If you were to walk or run around the Rock, you would cover a distance of approximately 10 kilometres.
2. It’s a long way up
The Rock of Gibraltar is 426 metres high, which makes it taller than the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building or the Shard.
3. You can enjoy four seasons in one day (well kind of)
Due to the geography of Gibraltar, proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Iberian peninsular and it’s height, there are several micro climates around the Rock. It can humid on Main Street, blowing a gale at the airport, be misty in South District and sunny and hot at Catalan Bay all on the same day! Oh and I may sound like I have gone soft living in these southern climes, but it really does get cold, wet and windy in winter. Homes here don’t have central heating, we rely on electrical heating, which isn’t great – our lounge fell below 10 degrees Celsius last winter a few times brrrrr!
4. There’s great religious diversity here
The largest religious community in Gibraltar is Roman Catholic, but several other Christian denominations are represented, there’s the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity for Anglicans as well as the King’s Chapel, St Andrew’s Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, and several smaller evangelical churches. There’s also a large Jewish community with four active Synagogues here. In addition, there are two Mosques including the beautiful Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque pictured above situated at Europa Point. Tucked away behind Main Street you can find a Hindu Temple. There is also a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses a short walk from the Cruise Terminal.
5. The entire civilian population was evacuated during World War 2
Even today Gibraltar is home to Army, Navy and RAF bases, back in World War 2 it was seen as a strategic military strong hold. Tunnels were dug deep into the Rock and some servicemen were even on standby to be bricked up into secret tunnels in the event that Gibraltar was captured, in order to spy on the invading force. During the war Gibraltar residents were forcibly moved from their homeland, put into ships and sent to destinations like Casablanca, blitz bombed London, Madeira and Jamaica. For some it would be ten years before they were able to return home. This year is the 75th Anniversary of the Evacuation and on Monday this week there was an extra bank holiday, known as Evacuation Memorial Day, to commemorate it.
6. If you turn up at the beach without the right kit, locals know you’re an amateur
There’s a particular type of beach culture here, no matter how early you turn up in the morning, there will be clusters of deck chairs and sun parasols there already. There are clearly spots where families regularly set up camp, and they guard their turf by marking it out early. Also, if you tip up to the beach with just a bag, a book and a towel, you will stand out a mile – you need to know what to bring. Deck chairs are a must, as is a parasol. But woe betide you if you just stick it in the sand and leave it like that. You’ll soon learn that the local winds whipping round the Rock will have your umbrella blowing halfway down the beach and spearing an unsuspecting sunbather before your bottom’s been heaved out of your folding chair! A screw in mechanism on the pointy end of the post is desirable but a couple of lengths of washing line tied to the top and anchored into the beach with sandbags or tent pegs are de rigeur. Special hooks on the stem of the parasol are common place allowing beach-goers to hang valuables and clothing out of the sand. Picnic tables, cool boxes and umbrella awnings are also useful.
7. Gibraltarians love to chat
Where ever you are in Gibraltar you will see people chatting, in clusters on Main Street, at the tills in Morrisons, even in the middle of the road. Scooter riders will drive in pairs chatting or alongside a car chatting through an open window to the driver at speed. Traffic will stop dead in the road while one driver stops to chat to a pedestrian or someone coming the other way. It’s quite something to behold, although at times rather frustrating, when you have to wait for the conversation to finish before you can complete your journey. You can choose the shortest queue in Morrisons and still be the last one out as the person in front strikes up a conversation with the cashier. I can only assume it’s because many people have spent most of their lives here and therefore know practically everyone! One overwhelmingly positive side effect of all this chatting means that on arrival here, you’ll never be lonely. If you are at the bus stop, in the aforementioned queue in Morrisons or sitting on a bench in the Alameda Gardens, there’s a very good chance someone will come and speak to you. This openness is part of what endeared the people of Gibraltar to me, meaning you soon get to know people.
8. Gibraltar’s a hotspot for twitchers
Due to it’s position at the very south of Europe and it’s proximity to the continent of Africa, many migrating birds pass through the skies above Gibraltar on their migration routes north and south. Kites, eagles, kestrels and vultures can be seen passing overhead, and of course there’s also the locally resident Barbary Partridges too.
9. The apes don’t just stay at the top of the Rock
Most visitors to Gibraltar make the trip to the summit of the Rock in order to encounter our hairy neighbours, the Barbary Macaques. However, at times (especially when they spot a cruise ship coming into port) they make their way down into town. They also take unsuspecting visitors by surprise by coming in through open hotel windows at the Caleta and Rock Hotels. I was once mugged by an ape who assumed the plastic bag I was carrying contained food. It was grabbed out of my hand while I waited to cross the road and ripped open. The balls of wool inside were jettisoned in disgust once they’d been spotted to be inedible.
10. Although it’s stirling, you can’t spend Gibraltar cash in the UK
The currency here is stirling, there’s no exchange rate – it’s worth exactly the same as notes and coins minted by the Bank of England. British notes and coins are readily excepted in retail outlets here in addition to the locally produced money. However, if you try to spend Gibraltar cash in the UK you won’t get very far with your transaction. You can’t even use it on a flight leaving from Gibraltar airport rendering you thirsty, hungry and unable to purchase duty free! So, if you come to visit, you need to spend it all before you leave OR keep it safe until your return.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this round up of facts about the place I call home. Have a great Gibraltar National Day wherever you are in the world!