One of the facts I like most about Gibraltar is that the tiny enclave gave us the word gibberish. The Spanish/English version of our own dear Chinglish here in HK. Thank you Gibraltar.

Another fact, for those of you who didn’t go to school, is that the Rock of Gibraltar is the northern Pillar of Hercules.

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Various versions of the Greek and Roman myths of Hercules’ Labours have him smashing the mountain of Atlas in two rather than having to climb over it to get where he was going to, and this event created the Straits of Gibraltar.

Thus was the Med connected to the Atlantic, and one part of the split mountain is The Rock, and the other Monte Hacho or Jebel Musa across the water in Morocco, (that’s Morocco across the water in the photo below).

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Poor, dear, run-down, misrepresented, ignored, forgotten and maligned Gibraltar. Known more recently as the poor-man’s cruising destination, home to online-gambling giants, British squaddies, and for having the worst food in the Med. It’s a crime, it really is.

Don’t get me wrong. It has a long way to go, but Gibraltar is massively better than it used to be. What’s more frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be like this.

It needs one champion. One patron who will buy both The Caleta and The Rock hotels and restore them to 1920′s glory (David Tang, Lungarno, Rocco Forte or Byblos would be my choices).  The rest of what’s needed will follow.

I love the place. I think it’s delightful, and there is more history packed into its 6.8 km² area that almost anywhere else on Earth.

I tell people I’m going every year and there are either blank looks returned by non-Europeans, or looks of commiseration by my fellow Brits or Continentals.

This is what I love:

  1. It has a great climate.
  2. It is in an amazing location.
  3. It has staggering natural beauty.
  4. It has low tax status.
  5. It has some frikkin’ awesome architecture from Napoleonic docks and fortifications, to old-school Spanish streets and art-deco hotels.
  6. Is has a truly fascinating history, with some quite wonderful landmarks.
  7. It has some beautiful gardens.
  8. It’s super retro in the best 70s tradition.
  9. I can indulge my interest in trade, ports and naval strategy.
  10. (This may sound strange coming from me), it has possibly the coolest bowling alley in the world.
  11. Because it’s so ignored it’s not very busy, and I can happily gets lots of work done and not be tempted out to restaurants, delis and clubs.
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Everything is there to make it into an even better version of Monaco, but unfortunately no one who could do anything about it has realised this yet. Shame on you British Government.

What you have to ignore though to appreciate all of the above is:

1) Truly horrendous dining options.

There are no great restaurants, there aren’t even any good restaurants. Really there aren’t.

I mean, we’re on the Med, at the southern tip of Spain in a town that has been ruled over by the Moors, the Spanish, the French and the British and has been a trading port for thousands of years, starting off with the Phoenicians in 950BC by crikey. (Another useless fact, is that archeological evidence suggests that the caves of Gib seem to have been the last bastion of Neanderthal man before they were finally wiped out by good old Homo Sapiens.)

This place should have spectacular cuisine! At the very least you should be able to get fresh bbq’d fish straight out of the sea on every street corner, yet it is impossible to find.

Pizza Express seems to be the epitome of modern sophistication in the town, and The Rock hotel which is meant have the best restaurant, clings onto it’s 1970′s Robert Carrier style menu like there’s no tomorrow. It’s one thing to hark back and recreate 70′s French food in new, lighter and exciting ways, it’s quite another to have stuck with the same heavy stodge since that decade, serving it in 90°C heat in Fawlty Towers’ dining room.

Queensway Quay, which is meant to be the hip, hot and happening Mega-Yacht marina is bland, bland, badly built and a bit more bland.

2) Traffic.

Get you’re damn roads sorted out, and quickly. I don’t want to sit in a traffic jam every time I want to go anywhere.

3) Hotels.

The Rock and The Caleta on either side of the rock, are wonderful examples of art-deco architecture, and they have great swimming pools. But they are pretty dreadful establishments. Shabby, disorganised, slack and with bad restaurants and facilities. Staff are often overwhelmed and rude at the Rock, but both have a certain retro charm, that is crying out to be refurbed beautifully.

The Eliott, more in the centre of town, had an upgrade about 4 years ago, and scores highest on efficiency as well as actually having working internet access in every room (unlike the Rock where you either have to sit in the lobby or mostly stand on one foot facing west if you want to get even a bar of signal in many of the rooms). It’s probably the best of a rum-ish bunch.

4) Development

A few year’s ago (pre-financial world blow-up) there was a brilliant plan to reclaim more land from the sea (strongly opposed by the Spanish) and build Gibraltar out a little, putting in a marina that could take huge yachts and building on the marine repair and engineering facilities and skills that are already in the town.

Every year the mega-yachts have to pass through the strait on their seasonal shift from winter in the Caribbean to summer in the Med. What better place to get your repairs done and take on fuel than in tax-free Gibraltar? And if there were a couple of decent hotels and some great restaurants it would also start attracting the users of those yachts to board in Gib rather than further into the Med.

That’s the sort of tourism you want. Not package tourists who come and spend a few pennies in Marks & Spencer, for crying out loud! And who go to the pub and grab a couple of pints and a pie, only to go back on board for their dinner and disco dancing.

That is not the quality tourism that can keep an economy vibrant and fresh. You need people to stay in town for 3-4 nights and splash some cash around.

Instead, what Gibraltar now has is a stucco, albeit low-rise, marina complex called Queensway Quay. It’s stuffed with themed and franchised restaurants (like Pizza Express), pumping out low quality, non-local food at extortionate prices. It’ll do, as it still has better restaurants than other parts of town, but it’s utterly generic. In fact, it’s rather like The Waterfront in our own dear Discovery Bay, but with even less charm.

5) Casino

Can you believe that the only casino in the town is run by Gala, better known for its Bingo Halls in the UK?

No thank you.

I prefer my casinos to be more of the Mando standard in Macau, or 50 St James in London: Small and refined.

Apparently the casino will move to a new building at some stage, so one can only hope it will have a bit more class.

6) Macaques

I hate them. Anyone who hikes the Maclehose in Hong Kong, or has been to Ubud in Bali will know what I’m talking about here.

There are other things lacking in Gibraltar like unique shops, good local food stores, decent customer service etc, but really you can’t expect those things in the Gibraltar of the present day. The population is really small, and is still caught between working in some sort of support role to the British military, catering to the dreariest form of tourism, or to the worst end of the financial services industry, poor loves.

Hopefully some hedge-funds will start choosing Gib over Geneva and Monaco and the whole place will change overnight.

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Spot HM’s sub

Upshot.

I’ve stayed in a room with sea view and balcony at The Rock. I’ve never had breakfast there or dinner, but have partooken of a few sundowners and snacks on the Wisteria Terrace. I’ve also stayed at the Eliott more recently and apart from the choking-ly expensive GBP18 fee for 24 hours of internet usage, it was of a higher standard decor and efficiency than the Rock, if a little less charming architecturally.

We lunch at The Caleta and dine mainly on Queensway Quay. We drink down in Grande Casemates Square often at the Lord Nelson, bowl in King’s Bastion and for some reason, even have late night kebabs and have, on more than one occasion, almost got into a fight. How British is that?!

It’s a lovely town to walk around, plus there is a diversity of history which is obvious and fascinating, with lots of different places to visit or hike to.

If you’re London based, a nostalgia freak or just a little bit twisted, and have been most everywhere in Europe for a long weekend, Gibraltar is close and easy to get to. It really is a great little place to discover, and get some sun in the bones. It’s tiny, hot, super-quiet and has enough to do to keep you happy for a good few days.

Alternatively, if you just want to slip into oblivion for a while – concentrate on getting a project finished or just collect your thoughts, there’s a lot worse places to sit on a terrace and watch the Qatar Gas II Project in action than The Rock.