Snack-Stealing Apes on New Year’s Eve in Gibraltar

To be just over 2.5 square miles (6.7 km²) in size, Gibraltar is an especially well-known piece of land. Towering over the Mediterranean at the southern tip of Europe, the Rock of Gibraltar helps, of course, but Gibraltar’s geographic location is its real claim to fame.

During World War II, the British Royal Navy used Gibraltar to control entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea. At only eight miles (13 km) wide, the Strait of Gibraltar was a naval “choke point,” and it’s one over which England and Spain argue ownership to this day.

As significant as all that is, it wasn’t really that big a deal to me. I wanted to climb to the top of the rock and see the apes. I like a checklist, you know.

We’d traveled by Eurail from Madrid to La Línea de la Concepción, a small town in the southern Spanish province of Cádiz. The city’s name is based on the línea, or the line separating Spain from Gibraltar, and also from the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which is a tribute to Spain’s strong Catholic population. Quite honestly, we saw little evidence of either.

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The port of La Línea, Spain, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar at sunset

The Eurail doesn’t go to La Línea, so we took a bus from our final stop in Tarifa, a southern Spanish town known for its terrific windsurfing and watersports, to the eastern isthmus of the Bay of Gibraltar.

La Línea is very reminiscent of many small cruise ports around the world. There are international restaurants, palm trees, and a very global population of visitors.

But then the sun comes up, and there’s the Rock of Gibraltar. The actual Rock of Gibraltar.

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It’s literally ancient. One of the pillars of Hercules. The geographic point that, in ancient times, marked the limits of the known world. And it’s right outside your hotel room window.

It has its own Moorish castle. It was, inexplicably enough, the logo of the Prudential Insurance Company of America. And it is home to about 300 very amusing, greedy, territorial Barbary macaques. But we’re not there yet.

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To get to Gibraltar from Spain, the easiest way is to walk. There’s a painted line of demarcation between the two countries, then there’s the runway for the Gibraltar airport. You wait for air traffic control to tell you no plane is approaching, then you walk from one country to the next.

As soon as you’re out of Spain and into the British territory, they make it as British as possible with a bright red London-style telephone booth. Just in case you need to phone “home.”

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Always one for a good theme, they keep things going by naming the entry promenade Winston Churchill Avenue. Just because they can.

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At the aforementioned 2.5 square miles, Gibraltar is obviously easy to explore on foot. Our first stop was to the local dive shop, who advised against a New Year’s Eve dive. The cold weather plus an influx of cruise ships and their resulting sheen of surface oil made it seem less than enticing, although diving the Strait of Gibraltar is still high on our list.

You can walk up the side of the Rock of Gibraltar, which takes anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 hours depending on your pace, or you can take a tramway that provides a beautiful view of the Strait. We opted for the latter, and the views were spectacular.

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View of Gibraltar, La Línea, and the Strait of Gibraltar with Tarifa, Spain, in the distance from the tram on the way up to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar

One of the first things you see as you disembark from the tram at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar are illustrated signs instructing you about interacting with the Barbary Apes. At first, you think the drawings are cute. You take a photo, thinking, “Who in the world has trouble with these?”

Then you meet them.

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Your first encounter is at a distance, probably while you’re taking in the breathtaking vistas. You take a few photos. The apes keep their distance. Then you turn your back. 

You’re probably just looking for the Spanish coastline. You’re picturing centuries of history unfold on the horizon before your eyes. Then, all of a sudden, there’s an ape on your shoulder. He’s unzipping your backpack, looking for snacks. He’s grabbing your hair, outraged that your wife didn’t let you bring snacks, because she’d read all about him. Then you’re practicing your best Dodgeball moves, dipping, dodging, ducking, diving your way back to the safety of the gift shop, because these apes know no fear.

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Mike, immediately pre-Barbary ape attack. He was a gentle giant during the melee.

This is probably the point at which most visitors to the Rock of Gibraltar feel they’ve seen what they came to see.

While we took a pass on the ascent, we thoroughly enjoyed walking down the monolithic promontory. (You don’t read the details of the visitor’s brochure not to use them, friends.) It’s beautiful geography, and there are sights to see on the road back into town. You pass the relics of the Moorish castle as well as the British fort, which is “probably the most fought over and most densely fortified place in Europe, and probably, therefore, in the world,” as British Field Marshal Sir John Chapple said.

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After a week in Spain, the Britishness of Gibraltar is somewhat endearing. So much so that you’re definitely craving a pint of beer after you’ve upped the Rock and down.

The tiny town/territory/country of Gibraltar is a lot of fun to explore, particularly with a pint in mind. We were on a mission to find a pint of Gibraltarian beer, as there is, of course, such a thing. However, after having been well trained by our friend Matt Lewis of Chattanooga’s Honest Pint, we were somewhat disappointed to purchase a “pint” of Bushy’s Gibraltar Craft Brewed Barbary Beer and have it come up a wee bit short.

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At that point, however, we were happy to blame any number of things on the Barbary apes. Including the missing sips of beer.

After all, tomorrow was a New Year, and a new continent. We would be crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco and Africa!