I can’t resist popping into the British colony of Gibraltar when in Southern Spain. Gibraltar is hardly signposted in Spain, as if Spain wishes the British colony didn’t exist. (You follow signs to La Linea, the last Spanish town.)
Quirky Gibraltar is happily English. Just 30,000 people live along a three-mile lip of land under that famous Prudential Rock, but the people of Gib have an impressive national pride. In a 2002 referendum they voted 99 percent to stay with Britain. If you ask locals what they think of their current governor, now in his third term, they say, “He deals effectively with Spain.”
The colony is part British, part not-Spanish, part Gibraltarian. They have the big three-pronged English plugs, their own currency (the pound sterling — but a Gibraltar version, like Scotland) and their own web domain (gi). Their Anglican church is proudly “headquarters of the Anglican Church in Europe” (not very centrally located for the business of administering that vast parish).
The people have that annoying British correctness — I got chewed out by the woman at the tourist board for not giving them advance notice of my visit. They’ve decided to change the name of what for a thousand years has been known as “the Moorish Castle” to the “Medieval Castle.” (I told them, “Not in my guidebook.”)
An American submarine was in port during my visit, so the colony’s pubs were busy with Yankees on a quest for cold beer. Gibraltar’s economy, once dominated by the military, is now based mostly on tourism. (And that includes quickie weddings — only 48 hours notice is required and it’s legally British. Sean Connery got married here. And, of course Beatle fans remember from “The Ballad of John and Yoko” that they too got “married in Gibraltar near Spain.”)
While the British military presence is now dwarfed by the presence of British sun-seekers, the colony is encrusted with military souvenirs — thick, thick ramparts, war memorials, 30 miles of tunnels drilled into its rock and big rusted iron rings every 20 yards along the military roads that switchback to the top of the rock, designed to enable limeys to hoist up the giant cannons that once helped the Brits seal off the Mediterranean when they wanted.
As we drove high above the port, my taxi driver pointed down to a tiny breakwater and said, “That’s where they pickled Admiral Nelson after the Battle of Trafalgar.” (While he won, he died too. His body was preserved in a barrel of spirits for the trip back to London.)
Gibraltar’s dominant tour company is called Blands. I remember 10 years ago all the buses said “Bland Tours.” Mr. Bland — who speaks perfect English, so there’s no excuse — finally realized that his name just wasn’t ideal from a marketing point of view. But sometimes ego trumps greed. He added an “s.” Now his buses read: Blands Tours.
The Gibraltar business sense is quirky. The hotels are twice as expensive as those across the border in Spain (and not as comfortable). For a decade, I’ve said, “English food is no longer as bad as its reputation.” Now I’ll add: “…except in Gibraltar.”
And the businesses pad their bottom line by gouging anyone who comes in and spends euros. I imagine well over 200,000,000 people spend euros. Only 30,000 spend Gibraltar pounds. And Gib business people say, “Sure, we take euros.” They don’t tell you that it comes with about a 20 percent loss in the exchange rate.
Nevertheless, tourism is booming. Midday, the pedestrian-friendly main street (which locals call “Main Street”) is a virtual human traffic jam. And twice as many planes are landing in the colony every day. While it’s still only four planes, it is more important than ever now that when you walk across the military airstrip that marks the border between Spain and what’s left of the British Empire, you look left, right and up.