Gibraltar’s interest is essentially its novelty: the genuine appeal of the strange, looming physical presence of its rock, and the dubious one of its preservation as one of Britain’s last remaining colonies. For most of its history it has existed in a limbo between two worlds without being fully part of either. It’s a curious place to visit, not least to witness the bizarre process of its opening to mass tourism from the Costa del Sol. Ironically, this threatens both to destroy Gibraltar’s highly individual hybrid society and at the same time to make it much more British, after the fashion of the expat communities and huge resorts of the Costa. In recent years, the economic boom Gibraltar enjoyed throughout the 1980s, following the reopening of the border with Spain, has started to wane, and the future of the colony – whether its population agrees to it or not – is almost certain to involve closer ties with Spain.

The town has a necessarily simple layout, as it’s shoehorned into the narrow stretch of land on the peninsula’s western edge in the shadow of the towering Rock. Main Street (La Calle Real) runs for most of the town’s length, a couple of blocks back from the port. On and around Main Street are most of the shops, together with many of the British-style pubs and hotels.

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British sovereignty in Gibraltar

Sovereignty of the Rock (a land area smaller than the city of Algeciras across the water) will doubtless eventually return to Spain, but at present a stalemate exists regarding the colony’s future. For Britain, it’s a question of divesting itself of the colony without incurring the wrath of Gibraltar’s citizens who are implacably opposed to any further involvement with Spain. For Spain, there are unsettling parallels with the presidios (Spanish enclaves) on the Moroccan coast at Ceuta and Melilla – both at present part of Andalucía. Nonetheless, the British presence is in practice waning and the British Foreign Office clearly wants to steer Gibraltar towards a new, harmonious relationship with Spain. To this end, they are running down the significance of the military base, and now only a token force of under a hundred British troops remains – most of these working in a top-secret high-tech bunker buried deep inside the Rock from where the Royal Navy monitors sea traffic through the Strait (accounting for a quarter of the world’s movement of all shipping).

In 1967, just before Franco closed the border in the hope of forcing a quick agreement, the colony voted on the return to Spanish control of the Rock – rejecting it by 12,138 votes to 44. Most people would probably sympathize with that vote – against a Spain that was then still a dictatorship – but more than forty years have gone by, Spanish democracy is now secure, and the arguments are becoming increasingly tenuous. May 1996 saw a change in the trend of internal politics, with the defeat of the colony’s pugnaciously anti-Spanish Labour government (following two previous landslide victories) and the election of a new Social Democratic administration led by Peter Caruana. Caruana won further victories in 2000, 2004 and 2007.

The ruling PSOE socialist Spanish administration elected in 2004 has repeated the claims over Gibraltar voiced by all its predecessors, and the political stalemate seems set to continue for as long as Britain uses the wishes of the Gibraltarians as a pretext for blocking any change in the colony’s status – a policy that infuriates the Spanish government, whose former foreign minister, Abel Matutes, stated that the wishes of the residents “did not apply in the case of Hong Kong”.

Yet Gibraltarians stubbornly cling to British status, and all their institutions are modelled on British lines. Contrary to popular belief, however, they are of neither mainly Spanish nor British blood, but an ethnic mix descended from Genoese, Portuguese, Spanish, Menorcan, Jewish, Maltese and British forebears. English is the official language, but more commonly spoken is what sounds to an outsider like perfect Andalucian Spanish. It is, in fact, llanito, an Andalucian dialect with the odd borrowed English and foreign words reflecting its diverse origins – only a Spaniard from the south can tell a Gibraltarian from an Andalucian.

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written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 05.06.2024

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