Many visitors describe Gibraltar as an extension of Great Britain in the heart of the sunny Mediterranean. Indeed, Gibraltar’s British presence is nearly impossible to ignore, from popular retail stores along Main Street to the English-style pub food served at many of the local restaurants and bars. The influence of neighboring Spain is most evident in the language, Llanito, a unique mix of Spanish and English, or Spanglish for short.
Few places in Europe have been inhabited as long as Gibraltar, whose history dates back more than 100,000 years. One of the world’s last known Neanderthal settlements, the Rock of Gibraltar is said to be one of the pillars Hercules used to create a bridge across the present-day Straits of Gibraltar in ancient Greek mythology. Much of their oldest history is displayed at the Gibraltar Museum (18-20 Bomb House Lane, Gibraltar), housed in a former Muslim bathhouse.
However, Gibraltar’s official recorded history begins around 950 BC, when the Rock was part of the Phoenician empire. This place was marked Calpe and they believed it to be the literal end of the world. Although the Carthaginians and Visigoths captured Gibraltar as part of their respective empires, it was the Moors who ultimately conquered and occupied Gibraltar in 771 AD. Today, the most obvious reminder of their seven and a half centuries of rule is the Moorish Castle Complex (Upper Rock Nature Reserve, Gibraltar).
Gibel Tarik, as the Moors called their new territory, remained in Moorish hands until 1309, when it was annexed to the Kingdom of Castile in 1309. Gibraltar once again became territory in 1333, but fell to Spain in 1462. In 1704, Gibraltar was captured by Dutch and British sailors, and eventually became a British colony.
Gibraltar was a common battleground between Spain and Great Britain during much of the 18th century, but Great Britain eventually regained permanent control of the territory. The small colony grew into one of their most important naval bases as a significant stopping point for ships sailing through the Suez Canal on their way to India.
Although Gibraltar’s importance increased during WWII as a control point to the Mediterranean Sea, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco imposed severe travel and other restrictions on residents after the war, leading locals to prefer to remain British subjects. Great Britain and Spain continue to dispute Gibraltar’s status today, but nobody can argue the territory’s presence as a popular tax-free shopping haven and tourist destination.
On the surface, Gibraltar’s 30,000 permanent residents appear to identify more closely with Great Britain, despite being surrounded by sunny southern Spain. British chains line the streets, pub food is served in restaurants, and British soldiers patrol the territory. Spanish influence is most evident in the local Llanito dialect, a combination of English and Spanish, and in the laid-back lifestyle, even though Gibraltar doesn’t participate in siestas. Italian, Portuguese, Moroccan, and Maltese are some of the other nationalities present and the national dish is a chickpea baked bread called calentita, a mish mash of all of the above.
Gibraltar has its own radio and television stations, and the Gibraltar Chronicle is the second-oldest continuously published English newspaper in the world. Their distinct culture is most apparently on display on National Day when each September 10, Gibraltarians dress in the white-and-red colors of their flag, marching through the streets, and releasing 30,000 red-and-white balloons.