Upper Rock Nature Reserve, Gibraltar
The rock defines Gibraltar.
The shape of it, instantly recognisable as you arrive by air, dictates the layout of the community that has formed in this British enclave at the tip of Spain. The city clusters around the western edge of the territory where the land is relatively flat. On the edge of it, the sudden and steep incline of the rock itself is visible from almost every vantage point. It dominates the landscape.
It’s not inert, this rock. It is not a useless physical obstacle that Gibraltar merely works around. It has been integrated into the history, into the culture. It holds some of the territory’s greatest natural treasures and has been a natural defence to hold it from attackers.
If not for the rock, Gibraltar would not be what it is today. It has stopped countless attempted invasions that would have led to another administration, another influence, another course of history.
For the visitors today who don’t have to fight their way in, the rock offers many of the highlights of a trip to Gibraltar. The rock is welcoming and generous to those it sees as friends.
While the city itself and the coastline are also important parts of a visit to Gibraltar, I would like to concentrate on the rock and tell you more about the opportunities it presents. I would recommend setting aside an entire day to explore it and see the different sides to its character.
If you have your own vehicle, you can drive around most of it. Gibraltar’s taxi drivers will more than happily take you on a tour (it’s not like they’re doing particularly long trips otherwise). Or you can even walk up and across the rock. That’s the way I decided to approach it – although I would only recommend this if you’re reasonably fit because there’s a lot of uphill.
You can do a loop in either direction that takes you to all of the most important sites. The views and the natural landscapes you’ll get throughout it all. To go up the rock (to the area officially known as the ‘Upper Rock Nature Reserve’), you’ll need to pay an entry fee of £10. This will give you access to all these sites (unless specified in my descriptions below).
This large brick construction on the lower part of the rock was built in 1333AD (over the top of an older castle) by the Moors who controlled much of the Iberian Peninsular at this point in history. It formed part of the defences that these Arab conquerors had constructed to protect themselves from the attacks of Western European forces.
The Moorish castle would have been much larger than the area that can be seen today because of damage over the centuries since it was built. The best preserved section is the Tower of Homage which you can go inside and climb to the top of. It has great views across the city.
Entrance to the Moorish Castle is included in the ticket required to get into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
It’s hard to imagine when you look at it from the outside but the Rock of Gibraltar actually has more than 50 kilometres of tunnels inside of it. Most of these were created during the Second World War using hand tools. In the early stages of the war, the British were worried that Germany would attack this strategic territory and the plan was to accommodate tens of thousands of troops in the tunnels in preparation. Although this never came to pass, the tunnels were used for other purposes like a hospital.
You can’t see the majority of the tunnels but you are able to take a guided tour for about an hour and see some of the highlights. It’s quite an incredible sight to see where people lived deep in the rocks for months on end. There is an extra £8 charge for admission but it is definitely worth it.
City Under Siege
This small museum just up the hill from the WWII tunnels is in one of the first buildings the British constructed in Gibraltar at the start of the 18th century. The museum is free to enter and has no staff on hand. There is just a small exhibition showing what life was like for the residents of the territory during the long siege in the 1700s by the French and Spanish forces.
While it is interesting and shows a good insight into this period in the history of Gibraltar, the museum is relatively simple and not worth the effort on its own. It does complement the Great Siege Tunnels and gives a broader understanding.
Entrance to the City Under Siege Museum is included in the ticket required to get into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
Great Siege Tunnels
Two centuries before the British built the WWII tunnels as a defence of Gibraltar, they built a much smaller networks of tunnels which are now known as the ‘Great Siege Tunnels’. The Great Siege lasted from 1779 to 1783 as French and Spanish troops blockaded Gibraltar in an attempt to claim it for themselves. The tunnels were built into the rock so that holes could be made in the cliffs to mount guns. In the end, it was a decisive element in the victory for the British.
The Great Siege Tunnels are much more polished for tourists than the WWII Tunnels, which are still quite raw. The experience here is simple and can be done without a guide. The length of the main tunnels has small exhibitions and displays explaining the history and different features.
Entrance to the Great Siege Tunnels is included in the ticket required to get into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
The ‘apes’ (they’re actually macaques) are hard to avoid when you visit the rock and are the most iconic of the animal species that live here. Howeber, I’m still not quite sure why there is a particular spot on the rock that has been designated as their home, seeing as they roam freely all over the area.
They can be cheeky and even aggressive and you do need to take heed of the warnings not to carry food near them. I saw one of the macaques jump onto the back of a woman and pull a sandwich out of her hand.
It’s not necessary to visit the Apes’ Den and you’ll probably see them at one of the other sights – especially around St Michael’s Cave.
St Michael’s Cave
St Michael’s Cave is a true natural wonder and is definitely worth the visit. The main hall of the cave is enormous and has actually been converted into an auditorium for performances with a capacity of about 400 people. From this section, there are stairs and pathways which allow you to explore other parts of the cave complex. It clearly stretches much further than you can visit and there is even a theory that it connects to a tunnel that you can use to reach Morocco.
Although it only takes 20 minutes or so to walk through the cave complex you could spend much longer to look at all the different sections in detail. A light display continually changes the colours in the main hall area.
Entrance to St Michael’s Cave is included in the ticket required to get into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
The Mediterranean Steps are a hidden gem on the rock and not visited by the majority of tourists. This is partly because you need a moderate level of fitness to explore them properly. Essentially, this site is a path that has been constructed along the southern and eastern edges of the reserve. It is a rough path and requires climbing up some very steep steps in parts – but the views are definitely worth it. As well as some wonderful angles of the cliffs, you can get up close with some of the flora and fauna of the territory.
The path starts at the Jews Gate and takes about 2 hours to do a return journey. Entrance to the Mediterranean Steps is included in the ticket required to get into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Gibraltar Tourist Board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.