Gibraltar: A new look at a Rock legend
We discover that the little bit of Britain on the Med has new cool cred
Dominated by a towering and unmistakable mass of limestone, Gibraltar might not seem the most obvious choice as a romantic hideaway. But it was where John Lennon and Yoko Ono chose to tie the knot, Sean Connery got married twice - in 1962 and 1975 - and fellow James Bond actor Roger Moore honeymooned. And whilst some people might also consider it an odd choice as a holiday destination, its inherent quirkiness is all part of its charm.
In the space of a day I saw an Egyptian mummy, viewed three countries and two continents from one vantage point, learned about the first-ever wartime gun capable of firing downwards and had a close encounter with several of the only wild monkeys found in Europe - all on a tiny landmass measuring around three miles by two miles.
The strategically placed peninsula, commanding the western gateway to the Mediterranean and clinging to the edge of southern Spain, has been the subject of many squabbles over the years and was formally handed over to the British in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
Once an important Royal Navy base, Gibraltar has seen big business and tourism replace shipping and military operations as the number one industry. With the disappearance of wall-to-wall watering holes that once catered for thirsty landing parties, any first timers or return visitors to the Rock will be pleasantly surprised.
Huge investment means Gibraltar is starting to have more in common with Monaco - and that's on top of being a tax haven and roughly the same size.
On my first afternoon I walked around the £350-million Ocean Village, due to be fully open next month. Owning such a tiny piece of land the ingenious Gibraltarians are used to making the best use of space, and part of the village has been built on reclaimed land. Connected to the famous Main Street shopping thoroughfare by boardwalks, the swanky village with its waterfront al fresco restaurants, casino and upmarket designer shops even offers free berthing for yachtie shoppers who want to drop anchor for some tax-free retail therapy.
Another canny development is King's Bastion Leisure Centre, which opened a few month's ago. Housed inside the stronghold used to defend Gibraltar against French and Spanish invading forces during the 18th century, cannonballs have made way for bowls, a skating rink, separate chill-out areas for children and adults and a host of other amusements at the £12-million complex.
Smart new attractions aside, no visit would be complete without a trip up the Rock for the views and an audience with arguably the most famous Gibraltarians of them all - the barbary apes. Whilst it's easy to catch a cab to the top, I opted for the £8 return cable car trip and reached the rocky peak in just under 10 minutes. On clear days the panoramic view takes in Gibraltar, Spain and Morocco.
Initial concerns voiced by several members of the group that we might not see the apes, or to be correct Barbary macaques, were quickly dispelled within minutes when one jumped on someone's back and tried to grab his camera. Be warned, the cheeky primates are undoubtedly cute, but they're also as smart as the proverbial barrow load of monkeys and will make off with food and unsecured belongings faster than any member of Fagin's gang. It's also strictly illegal to feed them. Local folklore claims Gibraltar would cease to be British if the monkeys were to leave, and Winston Churchill took it seriously enough to ship over extra macaques from North Africa when the population dwindled.
Inside the Rock there's another very different world waiting to be explored, a labyrinth of caves, internal roads and tunnels four times longer than those on the surface. The 18th-century Great Siege Tunnels were excavated to allow the mounting of a prototype gun capable of being fired downwards, and Royal Engineers added more than 30 miles of tunnels during the Second World War.
As we donned hard hats and explored part of the warren of passageways that once housed an underground city of 5,000 men and 300 WRAFs, our guide, ex-Army serviceman ‘Smudger' Smith, brought the tale of the tunnels to life with enthralling anecdotes. The changing face of Gibraltar is also highlighted in the museum, where exhibits include the Egyptian mummy found floating in the Bay of Gibraltar in the 1930s.
Back outside it was time to decide where to go for lunch. Whilst plenty of restaurants still offer time-warp British favourites such as prawn cocktail and steak and chips, there are plenty more contemporary eateries and Café Solo in Casemates Square hit the spot. And after the generous selection of mezze-style appetisers, a salad was all that was needed for a main course.
Beloved of cruise ships and visitors to Spain as a day trip destination, there's actually much more to Gibraltar once you look beneath the surface - literally, with all those tunnels. Recent investment has definitely added to its appeal and it would be easy to fill a five-day or week-long holiday.
In short, the miniature overseas territory may offer the reassuringly familiar face of bobbies on the beat, red telephone boxes, pounds sterling, three-pronged electrical plugs, household name high street shops, a taste of home and all the best things of a little Britain, but there's plenty more besides - with the added bonus of an average of 320 days of sunshine a year.
Travel FactsBritish Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies daily from London Gatwick to Gibraltar with return fares from £116. Monarch (0871 225 3884, www.monarch.co.uk) which offers year-round daily flights to Gibraltar from London Luton, launches a new service from Manchester today, September 12 with flights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from £89 return. Double rooms at the four-star Caleta Hotel (00 350 20076501; www.caletahotel.com) from £125. More information on Gibraltar: 020 7836 0777; www.visitgibraltar.gi
The modern community began in the 18th century when Moroccan merchants settled after Gibraltar was occupied by the British in 1704. At its peak, in the 1850s, the community comprised more than half of the total population.
Today's community is 650 strong. There are four synagogues open on Shabbat and for festivals with daily services on a rotating basis. The Great Synagogue was built in 1724 and is one of the oldest still in use on the Iberian Peninsula.
There are two Jewish cemeteries. The oldest grave is from 1748.
Jews have played key political roles, notably Sir Joshua Hassan, who was mayor and later First Minister.
Kosher facilities include Leanse restaurant in Bomb House Lane; J Amar kosher bakery in Line Wall Road; kosher delis include Uncle Sam's; Solly's Salt Beef Parlour and Delicatessen; I D Abudarham and Ambrosio Edery.