Gibraltar, A Curious Contradiction
If we were to speak of a place totally isolated from the trappings of today’s daily global meltdowns, yet still liberated from the shackles of the 20th century by all of today’s technological conveniences; a place where the ‘credit crunch’ was nothing more than a source of cereal-based humour, you would consider it unique at least. A place so rich in culture, flora, fauna; steeped in such a history, it has seen its snores both defend and concede countless invasions across the annals of time. A place that stood as the last bastion for Neanderthal Man before Homo Sapiens (you and I) ruled our earthly roost. A place so demographically diverse that even genealogists struggle with the melting pot of this small society’s varied and numerous cultural sundry. What if we were to say that this place was a land of only 6.5 square kilometres and housed only 30,000 inhabitants? And that this has-it-all location is in fact a British overseas territory?
Although, to describe Gibraltar as ‘British’, doesn’t really paint the picture. Where it does tout fish and chip shops, red telephone boxes, double decker buses (which used to drive on the left until this was quickly abandoned alter mass confusion at the border) and bobbies on the beat as part of a finely tuned tourist package, this small Iberian isthmus also boasts picturesque fishing village beaches, amazing natural and man-made caves and tunnels, wildlife as diverse as funnel-web spiders, Griffon vultures and even wild, Barbary Apes (the only place in Europe which can claim them as an indigenous species).
This all takes place on an imposing chunk of Jurassic limestone formed around 200 million years ago overlooking both Europe and Africa, that stands over 400 metres tall. We have affectionately come to know this megalith as ‘The Rock’, but it also harks back to names such as Mons Calpe, Jebel Tariq and of course, it is one of the Pillars of Hercules that looms large over the Straits of Gibraltar. One cannot help but notice that this is a land filled with both subtle and obvious contradictions across a range of all geographical, sociological and cultural divides.
Shrewd, global investment bankers walk shoulder to shoulder with Moroccans, Spaniards and Jews, all soaking up this vibrant and involving atmosphere, while cruise ship passengers and day-visitors are enticed by the duty free concessions available on a large range of produce, alcohol, tobacco and electronic goods. Even on the approach to The Rock from the Andalucian sunshine, it remains (ironically) the only part of the Iberian peninsula to wear a near permanent cap of cloud, cynically reminding people of its ties with Britain. As the warm eastern (or levanter) wind sweeps across the Mediterranean, the moisture it collects then crashes into the broadside of the Rock, which is subsequently pushed over the summit and cools to form a sometimes insignificant, sometimes utterly soul-destroying, individual microclimate of the levanter cloud, lonely in a sea of Spanish blue skies.
Does this then sound like the sort of place where you would find one of the most important fiscal hubs in Europe? In fact, Gibraltar was the first European jurisdiction to be recognised as an offshore banking paradise, and it has since attracted many wealthy investors looking to speculate in a beneficial location. It has single-handedly developed an unrivalled location for offshore gaming businesses, targeting regions on I scale that maintain a tactical advantage owing to favourable trading conditions set out by the Gibraltarian government. The once flourishing merchant businesses centred along Main Street now make up a small part of the economy, as banking, gaming and tourism have taken over as the major players, employers, and inland revenue for the peninsula.
When it became clear that Gibraltar had a considerable size issue that could perhaps hamper its overwhelming growth, the answer was simple – build more land. Since then, The Rock has grown outwards as more and more land is reclaimed from the sea, resulting in acres more office space and leisure facilities including shopping centres, car parks, sparkling marinas, bars, restaurants and a large casino, all typically overlooking the shimmering waters of the Bay or Med. These more recent developments have caught the eye of the rich and beautiful as investors move their money onto The Rock to claim their slice of this financial safe haven. Buying property in a stable economy with an opulent lifestyle both plugged in and switched on is proving pretty tough to ignore in the current economic climate, and the local climate here is very inviting.
It is small wonder then, that Gibraltar is a place full of these curious contradictions when permanent residents include people from Britain, Andalucía, Genoa, Malta. Morocco, India and beyond. Side by side one will find cathedrals, catholic, Church of England and Anglican churches, mosques, synagogues, Jehovah’s witnesses, a Hindu temple and even a Church of the Latter Day Saints all squeezed t in this small hub of southern Europe.
The locals have even developed a unique and curious dialect (known as Llanito) which is an impressively high speed blend of Andalucían Castellano and colloquial English that is almost ‘sung’ to the listener. While it is enough to confound even the most experienced linguist, it is testament to the undeniable levels of hospitality and acceptance shown by the Gibraltarian people towards their long-stay guests that the language is integrated such a way. Equally, both euros and sterling are accepted unequivocally along with other broadly recognised currencies, such is the familiarity with outsiders to the land. The place even has two national anthems.
The Rock is an attractive proposition whatever your preference. There are nightlife options that, quite literally, span the territory, while also spanning the spectrum of personal taste. Many of the bars and restaurants stay open late and feature regular live entertainment through the week: bands. DJs. live sport, karaoke, you name it. But alongside these trendy hotspots one will still find peace and quiet in discreet, understated watering holes, restaurants and dedicated social clubs for those that prefer a little less pace.
There is a choice of two marinas which are in stark contrast. One is decidedly loud and lively including a staple Irish bar, a chic nightclub and a 24-hour casino and sports bar, while the other is a peaceful and refined affair with beautiful, resting yachts that kiss the bar-lined boardwalks. All depending on your mood, the two sides of the coin are available to all and yep, you’ve guessed it, you can walk from one to the other.
Of course, let us not forget the cuisine. Taking inspiration globally, you are not left for wanting when considering your dining options in Gibraltar, which boasts everything from fine dining, pub grub, tapas, Indian, Chinese and Thai, open air meat and fish grills, steakhouses, to of course, all the staple franchises such as McDonalds, KFC, Burger King and Pizza(s) Hut and Express.
You are also constantly reminded of Gibraltar’s naval history with significant masonry that has simply changed purpose over the years, and Casemates Square probably stands as the most famous example of this switch in utility. The armoured ramparts, which are now restaurants, pubs, bars and shops, were once part of a large scale munitions and supplies storage facility, and the square itself played host to regular military ceremonies (some of which are lovingly recreated to this day) and even, gruesomely, the odd public execution. More recent developments to this unique and once very necessary infrastructure include the King’s Bastion development.
This a large and impressively fortified structure that originally served as a significant gun mount supporting the westerly defences. Today, it houses a two screen cinema showing the latest blockbusters, a multi-lane, state-of-the-art bowling alley, an arcadia, pool hall, restaurant, nightclub, and even Gibraltar’s very own ice rink! This is seriously not what you expect when you enter the foreboding arches, with their memories engrained into the stonework; if walls could talk…
This is just another demonstration of one clear consistency in all of these quirks and contradictions: where Gibraltar does not stand idly by dwelling on the past at the expense of the future, it is keen to weave respectful memories into all that it develops.
With all of this in mind, the most significant contradiction of them all is the fact that Gibraltar has virtually no natural resources other than the sea itself, no real source of fresh water and no agricultural land. Although, this has not been enough to dissuade dozens of ancient civilisations including the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Romans and Moors, from wanting to keep Gibraltar under their respective control. Its position on the Straits at the mouth of the Atlantic has given it a strategic advantage to all that have dominated its shores. Indeed, despite the irrefutably lavish options for all who live, work and visit The Rock today, until very recently, one would have known it as more of a military outpost; a ‘garrison town’ if you will, under the watch of the wary British army, protecting their shared claim with the Gibraltarians themselves from the envious eyes of the Spanish (many of whom still believe Gibraltar to be rightfully theirs).
The Gibraltarian people are a proud and passionate race, and while they have a clear and distinct identity of their own, they are also proud to be known as British Gibraltarian, voting almost unanimously to remain a part of Britain in two referendums. Gibraltar and its social infrastructure set an example to the rest of the world as to how a simple and successful format of tolerance and acceptance can, despite our potentially contradicting views and opinions, enable us all to live, work and relax in harmony. Its burgeoning financial and social success, against all odds one could argue given its relatively diminutive size and lack of natural resources, clearly demonstrates the fruits to be borne from this stance.
Gibraltar, filled with curious contradictions, has embraced a practical balance that really can please all of the people, all of the time.