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Gibraltar: Britain’s place in the sun

Gibraltar is a historical anomaly and it seems that the rocky outcrop, which juts out of the bottom of Spain, might be about to make history again.

The 2.6 miles strip of land, and it famous limestone rock, were given to the UK ‘in perpetuity’ under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

Its1969 constitution states that there can be no transfer of sovereignty to Spain against the wishes of locals.

And in in recent years, in two successive referendums, its 30,000 inhabitants have strongly rejected any attempt by Spain to claim ownership.

But that could be all about to change as the Spanish government has demanded that the future sovereignty of Gibraltar should be part of the Brexit divorce settlement.

This has led to some of the more excitable members of the Tory Party, led by Michael Howard (remember him, creepy bloke), to suggest we could go to war to protect Gibraltar, just as we did over the Falklands.

Naturally the Sun newspaper has backed this bellicose madness, while at the same time promoting cheap holidays to…yes, Spain.

So what is this place like, this British Overseas Territory that excites so much passion?

We spent last weekend there, visiting a friend I last saw on the features desk of the Edinburgh Evening News.

I was determined to catch up with Lorna after sixteen years, but our route round the EU meant we were exploring northern Spain rather than down south. We just didn’t have the time to drive there and back.

So leaving the van securely in our Madrid campsite, we caught a Renfe train down to Algeciras, a bus to La Linea, then walked on to the rock.

The first think you notice on entering Gibraltar is passport control.

We have lost count of the borders we have crossed since September last year. Sometimes we have been in three countries in one day. And not once have we had to show our passport.

But no-one gets into Gibraltar without a passport check, as it is outside the EU’s Schengen passport-free travel area.

Sometimes the Spanish authorities will deliberately slow the process down, so creating queues of traffic and people desperate to get to work.

It is estimated that more than a third of the population of La Linea, the Spanish town next door to Gibraltar, work on the rock and cross the border every day.

The Spanish government say the stringent checks are to stop tobacco smuggling.

Gibraltarians say it is because the Spanish government are being passive aggressive.

Whatever the truth, it did seem strange to have to go through passport control in the EU.

Not as strange as what happened next. We had scarcely set foot on Sir Winston Churchill Road when a level crossing barrier went down in front of us. Not for a train, but a plane.

We watched, open mouthed, as an EasyJet flight bound for the UK took off from the road.

Apparently Gibraltar is one of the world’s trickiest airports to land on, or take off from, and I can see why Lorna prefers flying from Malaga.

Gibraltar is like stepping back in time to the 1970s, but with sunshine. Litres of gin sell for around six quid, the shops close on a Sunday, and there are working red phone boxes everywhere.

We did a fabulous taxi tour of the rock, stopping to gawk at the famous Barbary apes, who were too busy eating crisps or grooming each other, to care about the human apes.

We explored the stunning caves, where Lorna has watched live opera, and some of the 33 miles of tunnels that transformed the rock into a fortress during World War 2.

And we stood on a spot where the view took in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Africa and Europe. It really felt like we were on top of the world.

We didn’t quite feel as exhilarated the next morning.

Gibraltarians like to party, and it seemed churlish not to join in.

We staggered across the border late on Sunday night after a long, long lunch on the marina, followed by the Scotland v Slovenia World Cup qualifying match live in the biggest sports bar I have ever experienced (Scotland won apparently).

I presume I showed the Spanish border guard my passport on the way home because I woke in my Spanish hotel and not a jail, but with the hangover from hell.

It was worth it. Gibraltar may be an anomaly, but the world is full of those.

It is a great place to spend a few hours, or 16 years as Lorna and her husband have done, and not just for the cheap gin or VAT free shopping.

There is a palpable feeling of history on the rock, from its Moorish roots to its 21st century industry of online gambling. And there is strong community spirit, nurtured I would imagine by its unusual status.

It is as familiar as a British seaside town, with its fish and chips and pints of bitter.

And as strange as only an inhabited limestone rock, with a Marks & Spencer and Debenhams store, straddling the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, can be.

The custody battle between Spain and UK, like all such fights, is likely to be drawn out and emotional. But there will be no need for gunboats.

And I bet Gibraltar will stay just as it is today – steadfastly Gibraltarian and Britain’s Place in the Sun.

  • Find out more about visiting “Britain’s Place in the Sun” here
  • A profile of Gibraltar here
  • Thomas Mogford writes crime novels set in Gibraltar, here he ponders on the rock’s appeal to writers
  • In Madrid we stayed at Camping Osuna, a great site close to the metro which takes you to the heart of Spain’s capital
  • In La Linea we stayed in Othels Campo de Gibraltar, the hotel closest to the border and much cheaper than a hotel on the rock itself
  • Intrepid travellers Julie and Jason Buckley have just spent a few days in Gibraltar, read about their time here

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