Facts about Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a confusing place – especially if you have never been yourself. What is it exactly, this strange little piece of land at the end of Spain that isn’t Spanish? It’s British, you’ve heard, but how could it be with such nice weather? What do the people in Gibraltar look like, what language do they speak, what currency do they use?
So many questions. Here are the short answers to the basic ones.
- Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory which means it is under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom but is not technically a part of it. (There are 14 British Overseas Territories in the world including Bermuda and the Falkland Islands.)
- Gibraltar is also part of the European Union because of its connection to the UK but is outside several of the economic associations (such as the customs union, the VAT area, and the Schengen Area).
- Gibraltar is just 6.8km2 in size and, with a population of about 30,000 people, has the 5th highest density of any country or territory in the world.
- English is the official language of Gibraltar but many people also speak Spanish and the local language, which is called Llanito and has a mix of Mediterranean words in it.
- The official currency of Gibraltar is the pound and you can spend notes and coins from the UK in the territory – but you can’t use the locally-produced notes or coins back in the UK.
- Gibraltar has its own political system that makes many decisions within the territory but issues like defence and foreign affairs are determined by the UK Government in London.
- Gibraltar uses the same timezone as Spain (not the UK) and the people drive on the right like in continental Europe (but not in the UK).
But all of those facts are pretty boring – although important. Gibraltar is much more interesting than politics, linguistics and currency. I’m sure you would much prefer some non-important but kind of cool things about Gibraltar, right?
Well, during my short visit to the territory, I learned some pretty weird things about Gibraltar. It’s always been the kind of place that is not completely normal – but that’s probably understandable seeing as it’s so small and has been under the constant threat (or reality) of invasion for more than a thousand years.
So, here goes. 12 facts you don’t need to know about Gibraltar (but I think are interesting nonetheless).
Fact Number 1
The road into Gibraltar gets closed down every time a plane lands at the territory’s airport. Why? Well because the road into town is also the runway! The runway basically runs the whole width of Gibraltar alongside the border with Spain and you can walk right across it when there are no planes coming or going.
Fact Number 2
Speaking of crossing the border, can you believe that it can sometimes take up to 8 hours to get through immigration control? That’s an extreme case but it is not unusual to have to wait a couple of hours. There are a few reasons – one is because Gibraltar has different customs rules so the Spanish authorities want to check people aren’t smuggling goods into their country. But there’s also a theory that it is for political reasons and the Spanish often just slow things down to annoy the British!
Fact Number 3
There is basically no tax on goods in Gibraltar. I know, pretty fantastic, right? You should see the number of people buying cigarettes and booze at the shops on the way out of the country. A packet of 20 cigarettes in the UK will cost you about £10 but in Gibraltar it is about £2. A large bottle of good gin might cost £25 in the UK but will cost about £10 in Gibraltar. It’s almost worth the airfare to stock up on alcohol!
Fact Number 4
Gibraltar has applied to be a part of the Olympics but so far hasn’t been accepted (and probably never will under the current rules). It has, however, competed at 15 Commonwealth Games but is yet to win a single medal. It is also trying to become a full member of FIFA but, for the moment, has to settle to be a part of UEFA, in which it was granted membership in 2013 (although Spain opposed it). Out of the 12 UEFA matches that Gibraltar has played, it has only won one (against Malta 1-0).
Fact Number 5
Just like in the UK, the phone boxes and the post boxes in Gibraltar are painted red. Not much more to be said about that. But they look cool!
Fact Number 6
What is really interesting is that there are more than 50 kilometres of tunnels dug into the Rock of Gibraltar and there’s a rumour that they are protected from radiation or the effects of a nuclear bomb. I can’t find any evidence of this but more than one local person told me this. Along with this rumour is a theory that the UK would use the tunnels in the rock as a secure bunker for important British identities (the government and the royal family) in the case of a nuclear attack. Probably not true but it does make the place seems a bit more mysterious. Who knows what secret bunkers have been built in the tunnels?
You can read my story here about the World War II bunkers and other sights on the Rock of Gibraltar.
Fact Number 7
Speaking of rumours, there is also a legend that there is a secret natural tunnel from Gibraltar to Morocco and it’s accessible from deep inside St Michael’s Cave. Who knows if this is true but there are all sorts of stories of people going missing down in the caves and never being seen again. One of the versions of the legend says that the apes in Gibraltar came from Africa and must have come through a tunnel. While it’s true they probably came from Africa, it’s much more likely they came on boats with some early explorers.
Fact Number 8
The apes bring me to the next fact about Gibraltar. Firstly, it should be noted that they are actually macaques, even though they are usually referred to as Barbary apes. Although they are an iconic part of the territory, they came very close to being wiped out. During the Second World War there were just 7 of them left but the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, ordered that new ones be brought across from North Africa to replenish the colony. Now there are about 300 of them wandering around the rock, stealing food from unsuspecting tourists.
Fact Number 9
The national dish of Gibraltar is considered to be the ‘calentita’. It is a rather plain food that looks like a baked pancake. It is made from chickpea flour, water, olive oil, salt and pepper. Although there’s nothing special about it, the calentita represents Gibraltar’s history well. The territory really doesn’t have any agricultural land so the food that people survived on for a long time was simple, filling and cheap. The annual food festival in Gibraltar is now called Calentita and you can read my story about it here!
Fact Number 10
Although about 78% of the population in Catholic, Gibraltar has a significant population of Muslims, Jews and Hindus. The churches, synagogues and mosques all fit together into the small city in the territory with a level of religious tolerance that is very impressive. Interestingly, the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque at the very tip of Gibraltar is the southernmost mosque in mainland Europe and one of the most beautiful buildings in the territory. It is one of the largest mosques in a non-Muslim country and cost about £5 million pounds to build (it was a gift from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia). It opened in 1997.
Fact Number 11
Anyone can get married in Gibraltar with just a day’s notice – and it will be recognised worldwide. That’s right, if you decide suddenly that you want to elope then Gibraltar could be the place for you. If you fly in one day and lodge your papers, you can get married the next day. For this reason it has been popular with celebrities over the years. Sean Connery has been married in Gibraltar (twice) and this is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono tied the knot as well. This is becoming so popular with tourists, the local authorities are now letting you get married outside the registry office for something special in the botanical gardens, for instance.
Fact Number 12
There are six beaches along the coastline of Gibraltar (which is great if you’re a tourist in summer!). The odd thing, though, is that Gibraltar didn’t always have all these beaches. The Sandy Bay beach, for instance was ‘built’ in just 2014 by importing about 50,000 tons of sand to create a new recreational area for residents and visitors of the territory. Oh well, I guess you’ve got to do something with all that coast!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Gibraltar Tourist Board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.