David Whitley discovers that The Rock has gone upmarket in a bid to lure in new tourists.
Twenty years ago, this was a car park. A brutishly ugly one at that. Today, however, Casemates Square couldn’t be more pleasant. Terrace cafes, blazing sunshine, a beer in hand and the famous Rock looming overhead.
The rejuvenation of Gibraltar’s main square acts as a metaphor for the tiny British territory itself. Not so long ago, it was a pretty dismal military outpost full of dodgy pubs catering to squaddies and a relationship with neighbouringthat was bad enough to ensure that the border was closed.
In the last couple of decades, however, the British military has scaled back its operations and Gibraltar has had to stand on its own feet, give people a reason to visit and smarten up considerably.
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It’s done a good job of it too – the formerly shabby Main Street is now pedestrianised and beautified, while the traditional British fish and chip shops have been supplemented by classier restaurants offering a more international flavour
More than just a military base
“People used to have the impression that we’re just a military base on a rock where everyone lives in caves,” says Nicolas Guerrero, the chief executive of the Gibraltar Tourist Board. “But this is changing. People are beginning to discover a unique destination, with a recipe that cannot be found anywhere else.”
People are certainly discovering it. Gibraltar is in the middle of a property boom, and businesses are piling in to take advantage of the minimalist tax regime. The sudden attractiveness means that buildings are creeping ever upwards, cranes dot the skyline and increasing swathes of land are being reclaimed from the sea.
The 6.5 square kilometre residual fragment of the British Empire is trying to go upmarket, and the new Ocean Village development is a sign of this.
£350m ($725m) has been ploughed into the complex, which combines high-end apartments and offices with waterfront restaurants, shops that veer away from Gibraltar’s usual duty free stereotype and a leisure zone.
The latter will involve pools, a children’s maze and activity centre, a Moet et Chandon champagne bar and the relocated casino. The aim is to make it a seven day a week hub on the water for residents and visitors alike.
There are shades of’s Darling Harbour in the plans, and there’s a clear pitch being made to the yachtie set with extra berthing facilities. It should be as good as done by the end of the year, although large swathes are already open.
In truth, the Ocean Village development isn’t quite as classy as it would like to think it is. There’s an air of a poor man’s Monaco or Dubai about it – no truly upmarket development boasts a KFC and Pizza Express – but the apartments are selling like the hottest of hotcakes, and the setting is undoubtedly impressive.
Changes are also afoot at Europa Point. This is the very southern tip of the territory, and offers stunning views across the water of Spain, Morocco, the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Up until last year, it was military land, and now a programme is underway to turn it into a landscaped park worthy of the prime location.
The dismal old restaurant is being knocked down and an 18 month beautification programme is underway.
One surprisingly attractive addition is the mosque in front of the Rock. It was funded by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and its very existence gives a good idea of how different cultures live increasingly comfortably next to each other here.
Another recent makeover has been bestowed upon the King’s Bastion. Formerly a prime military site, the exterior has been kept intact, but inside it’s a giant children’s playground. Leisure facilities, a bowling alley and ice rink have been put in, partly for the locals and partly for tourists. Prices have deliberately been kept commendably low, and it offers something for the kids other than laughing at the monkeys on the Rock.
But for all the diving, dolphin cruises and developments that are bringing the punters in, Gibraltar is at its very best when it develops new attractions around its substantial heritage.
World War II tunnels
Three years ago, a small section of the extensive tunnel network deep within the Rock was opened to the public. The tour through it gives an astonishing insight into one of the most incredible engineering feats in history.
During the Second World War, Gibraltar was a vital strategic base. Ships were refuelled, troops were stationed and plans were made. In fact, it was where the war-changing North Africa campaign was planned and controlled from.
As part of all this activity, over 50km of tunnels were drilled into the Rock, with stores, command and communications centres, electricity generators and sleeping quarters all included. It took just three years to dig out this secret city, and somehow the Germans never found out about it.
An ex-army guide leads visitors through the accessible parts – the rest is still used by the military to train Afghanistan-bound troops in tunnel warfare – and the adventure is packed with tales of conditions, mischief and mind-blowing logistics.
It’s a model example of rejuvenation and repurposing. And if Gibraltar handles the myriad other projects on the go the same way, then this tiny Mediterranean oddity has a very bright future.