JAMES JOYCE once listed British beatitudes as "beer, business, bibles, bulldogs, battleships and bishops." Gibraltarians boosts many British Virtues but would like to have seen more. They are conservatives, traditional, tolerant, generous, and good humored. And they love ceremony.
When Prince Charles and his new bride visited briefly en route to their honeymoon cruise, the Rock was drenched in a kind of collective euphoria. Starting at 9 in the morning people sat in deck chairs all along Main Street waiting for the 5 p.m. visit, which lasted about an hour. Hundreds of small craft then escorted the royal yacht Britannia out of Gibraltar Bay.
Gibraltar is unique. It is British to the core; any Gibraltarian will tell you so in no uncertain terms. Yet it is as Mediterranean as a warm evening stroll, and Rock residents feel most relaxed when speaking their odd dialect of Andalusian Spanish, intermingled with English words and phrases, like "El phone esta engaged." "Gib's" dual character is intriguing, and sometimes maddening.
On Dec. 15, 1982, the "Garlic Wall" came tumbling down. That's what Gibraltarians called the border with Spain, sealed for more than 13 years by the late General Franco. For now, only citizens of the two countries can cross, but eventually all tourists will be allowed in. Until then, foreign visitors still come from Spain via Tangier, Morocco, or use clandestine passenger yacht service from the Costa del Sol. Frequent direct flights link Gibraltar with England.
Spain has claimed "the Rock" for centuries, ever since it was ceded to Britain in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht, ending the War of Spanish Succession and just one of those dusty obstacles to generations of history students. Gibraltar's 2 1/4 square miles, most of it uninhabitable, make it the smallest of Britain's 13 remaining colonies--like the Falklands, another colonial crumb for which nations are prepared to fight.
Gib seems a Victorian backwater, still clinging to the values and virtues of the Empire, a curious anachronism in a post-colonial world, where the "colonized" feel more English than the English. For William Pitt it was the "most inestimable jewel in the British Crown" and red-blooded Englishmen from Queen Anne to Churchill and Thatcher have kept a special place in their hearts for Gib.
For Spaniards, the Rock symbolized other things: arrogance, foreign occupation and contraband trade, an unholy alliance between soldier and merchant. Gib still seems an affront to national honor and conjures up painful memories of Spain's decline and helplessness. Spaniards demand sovereignty but Gibraltarians, all 20,000 of them, will hear none of that.
Located on a narrow peninsula off Spain's southwest Mediterranean coast, Gibraltar lies at the crossroads of two continents, two seas and two cultures, facing a vortex of currents, winds and tides. From Europa Point lighthouse, Morocco is just a few miles across the Strait and on clear days Tangier, facing the Atlantic, peeks out flirtatiously 32 miles away.
The Rock's famous and dramatic silhouette owes to a geological cataclysm in some distant era that sent huge chunks of the north and east fac,ades crashing into the sea. This left the sheer 1,398-foot-high cliff that gives Gib its distinctive shape; one of the world's best known natural landmarks, as strong and safe as, well, the Rock of Gibraltar.
Stone Age peoples found refuge here 40,000 years ago and discovery of the "Gibraltar Woman" in 1848 actually pre-dated the unearthing of her more notorious Neanderthal cousin in Germany. Ancients called the Rock "Mons Calpe" and believed it to be one of the "Pillars of Hercules," which marked the limits of the known world. Somewhere to the west, the sun was supposed to plunge into the sea. Standing on the "Top of the Rock" today, you can still watch those fiery sunsets explode among swirls of clouds and vapors rising off the Mediterranean (cable cars leave from below the Rock Hotel).
In A.D. 711, a North African invader named Tarik used the Rock to launch seven centuries of Moorish rule in Spain (the Arabic, "gebel tarik," Tarik's mountain, gave us the name) until Spaniards regained Gib in 1462. The Moorish Tower of Homage remains as the best example of those times.
Later, as every English schoolboy is supposed to know, Gibraltar was taken fairly in battle by Admiral Rooke, who used some 15,000 cannon balls in the attack (many of which still turn up on construction sites). Since then Gib has held out against countless sieges, and a sense of history and uniqueness is instilled in every resident. The "Gibraltar Chronicle," after all, was the first to report Nelson's victory off nearby Trafalgar, and the paper still runs articles like "Loading and Firing a Siege Cannon." Gibraltar, gateway to the Mediterranean, became a keystone of Imperial strategy when Britannia ruled the waves and was a home port for the royal navy. Eisenhower and the Allies used the Rock as their springboard for invading North Africa, with limestone chips forming the runway for RAF fighters.
Gates and ramparts still celebrate its cherished role in British military history, though the Rock hasn't seen a battle in 200 years. Once designed and fortified to repulse enemy assaults, Gibraltar now seeks to attract tourists with its unique sights and ambiance. There are "Truly British Fish and Chips," tearooms with lace doilies and pictures of the queen and gin-and-tonic urbanity at the Royal Yacht Club. The place reeks with history--old cannon balls and skulls, mossy gravestones in Trafalgar Cemetery and British pageantry like the Changing of the Guard and Ceremony of the Keys.
At the latter event, which symbolizes British possession of the fortress, a special escort and infantry band marching in perfect time sweep down Main Street like floodwaters. After trumpet flurries, firing guns and snappy salutes, his excellency the governor is handed the keys with the words "The fortress is secure and all's well," and returns them to his dining table where they normally rest.
Signs read "Betting Office," "Barclay's Bank," "No Prams Please," and streets are called Parliament Lane and Irish Town. Red telephone boxes and helmeted bobbies proliferate and the aroma of fish and chips hangs like fog along Main Street. The average Gibraltarian will call Britain "home" though he may never have been there. He eats roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, drinks pints of lager and scotch whiskey, smokes English tobacco and plays darts with relish and cricket with reverence.
But despite all the pro-British ballyhoo, Gibraltarians are temperamentally Latins, with ethnic roots in Genoa, Menorca, Malta, Portugal and Spain. They call Main Street--a throbbing artery of shops and pubs like "The Angry Friar"--by its Spanish name, La Calle Real. Here they take their evening stroll, stopping to greet a friend or relative about every two yards. They say it takes 4 1/2 minutes for a piece of news to travel the Rock, from Europa Point to North Front. The people are gregarious and open, full of innocent smiles and happy faces, engaged in animated chatter about nothing in particular. A true Gibraltarian is a foreigner both in England and Spain, only at ease when on that hunk of limestone he calls home.
Most residents, affectionately called Rock Scorpions by some, crowd together on the terraced west slope, where false-faced Victorian buildings seem to scamper up the hillside. Old houses are slapped together and fussed up with tiled fac,ades and florid iron balconies, which often result in grotesque stylistic disparities when side by side with more modern neighbors. And the whole place could stand a few coats of paint. But there is something oddly charming about it, too.
When walking around the cramped town, you may find it amazing that Gibraltarians did not go mad with claustrophobia years ago. But after a while, meandering awkwardly through narrow streets with one foot in the gutter seems normal. At times it appears there are more cars than inhabitants. Long before the sovereignty issue is settled, Gibraltar could come to a grinding, tooting halt.
With this in mind, only pedestrian traffic will be allowed to cross the infamous Garlic Wall for the time being. Visitors can see the black, wire mesh Gibraltarian gates, for years thrown open every morning while the green Spanish ones remained shut. Here many Rock residents would come to stand, wave and shout to their Spanish relatives, watching from across 100 yards of "no man's land" on the other side.
But Gibraltarians were always defiant. In 1965, when the Spanish brought famous bullfighter, El Cordobes, to the border town of La Linea and forbade their neighbors to attend, Gibraltar responded by organizing a cricket match for the same day and hour.
After years of fortress mentality, Gibraltarian pride now resembles a kind of endearing xenophobia. They have their own national dress, revised slightly each year but always based on Gib's eclectic historical roots. The Rock's 460 flower and plant varieties, a guide will tell you, include one unique in Europe, the Gibraltar Candytuft. The same can be said of the famous Rock apes, who lead lives as pampered celebrities, and of an odd bird called the Barbary partridge, whose cousin resides across the Strait in Morocco.
The remarkable Rock apes are the only simians roaming wild in Europe, and they have become Gib's beloved mascots. It's said that if the apes ever disappear the British too must leave, so when the ape count fell low during World War II, Churchill hastily ordered a team of ape-nappers to Morocco to replenish the supply (they now number about 40). Today the apes are under the direct care of the Army and each new birth is recorded as part of regiment strength. Sgt. Alfred Holmes is probably the world's only "NCO in charge of apes."
The Upper Rock, where many apes live, is sprinkled with thorn bushes and shrouded in cool mists, especially when a stiff "levanter" wind whips in from the east and becomes a moist cloud as it rises up the cliff. The whole spiney backbone is traversed by military roads and dotted with Union Jacks and obsolete artillery. Here are the Upper Galleries, impressive tunnels and rooms drilled into solid stone during the Great Siege, a four-year battle against combined French-Spanish forces. Heavy cannon were mounted in the embrasures, from which royal artillerymen could unleash a lethal rain on attackers below. In all, about 30 miles of military tunnels honeycomb the Rock.
Other attractions for sightseers include Trafalgar Cemetery, the Gibraltar Historical Museum and St. Michael's Cave, an enchanting palace of stalactites with an 800-seat theater for special performances and events, like the Miss Gibraltar contest. The cave was once thought to be bottomless, linked to a submarine passage to Africa through which the Rock Apes arrived.
It's all so romantic there's no wonder that Gib has become Europe's "little Reno" of sorts, where couples interested in a fast, no-frills wedding get married without any residence requirement. Over the years, celebrities like Sean Connery, John Lennon and Sarah Churchill fled here from pestering journalists and fans to tie the knot.
With its stunning topography, unique sights and oddly charming residents, this evocative outpost of former imperial greatness is somehow special. Though cosmopolitan, it has the unmistakable flavor of a small colonial town. It is like a little bit of England marooned in the Mediterranean, with the sun thrown in as a bonus.