It’s hard for me to explain exactly how challenging it was to travel the relatively short distance from Madrid to the tiny little British territory of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean coast. There are no direct flights from Madrid to Gibraltar, and flying with a connection would have taken all day. Due to circumstances beyond our control, my best friend and I ended up having to take several trains, several buses, and several taxis over the course of twelve hours just to reach the home of The Rock. However, it was worth every stressful minute.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Gibraltar is hills—mostly steep and ample in number. The second thing I remember is its charm. For a territory that occupies only four square miles, I didn’t expect too much. What we found was a place filled with a fascinating history, jaw dropping views and sunsets, and a cast of animal characters sure to bring smiles to the most hardened souls. Here is my list of awesome wheelchair accessible things to do during your visit to Gibraltar.
1. The Rock of Gibraltar. In ancient times, The Rock formed the northern- most of the famed twin Pillars of Hercules that guarded the passage between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic (the southern pillar was a peak in Morocco). The long struggle between Moor and Christian transformed Gibraltar into a fortress, and after 1462 it became a symbol of the Spanish Reconquista. Falling under British control in 1704, Gibraltar became a point of vital strategic importance in the Age of Sail. As guardian of the route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Gibraltar was besieged multiple times and figured prominently in many wars. The best way to visit The Rock is to hire a wheelchair taxi through the Gibraltar Taxi Association for a tour. Once you start driving, you will be amazed at how large this formation actually is, and how many places to visit there are inside The Rock itself.
2. St. Michael’s Cave. St Michael’s Cave was long believed to be bottomless. This probably gave birth to the story that the Rock of Gibraltar was linked to the Africa by a subterranean passage under the Strait of Gibraltar. The famous macaques were said to have come to Gibraltar through this subterranean passage. Pomponious Mela, one of the earliest geographers who lived about the beginning of the Christian era, spoke about the cave in his writings. During WWII the cave was prepared as an emergency hospital, but was never used as such. The cave is open to visitors and makes a unique auditorium for concerts, ballet and drama. While wheelchair users can’t explore the bulk of the cave itself, you can enter the natural rock auditorium and attend a concert or other performance there. There is an electric wheelchair lift to take you to one of the upper platforms where there is reserved seating for wheelchair users.
3. The World War II Tunnels. With the entry of Italy into the War, and a powerful Germany dominating Europe, the strategic importance of Gibraltar grew. The problem of storage was urgent and vital; space became even more valuable; stores, food, and equipment had to be built up and protected, and siege accommodation was required for the troops. A tunnel system would meet these needs, and would give full protection from the then known types of air attack, as well as from sea and land bombardment. The total length of the entire tunnel network inside the Rock is approximately 34 miles, 52 kilometres. A good portion of the tunnels are wheelchair accessible. Licensed tour guides will take you on a tour lasting approximately 30 – 40 minutes and include static exhibitions and photographic displays. Tours run Monday to Sunday from 09:30 – 19:15 (last entry 18.15). Price for the tour is £8.00. In order to access this attraction you will need to enter the Gibraltar Nature Reserve, Upper Rock with a full attractions ticket.
4. Crossing the airport runway. Gibraltar Airport or North Front Airport is a civilian airport that serves Gibraltar. The lack of flat space on Gibraltar means the peninsula’s only runway is bisected by its busiest road, the Winston Churchill Avenue that heads towards the land border with Spain. A pair of flimsy-looking barriers closes vehicular traffic every time a plane lands or departs. The road can be closed for up to two hours per day, creating backups all across town and up to the Spanish border. Fortunately, it’s not a busy airport. It handles only about 30 flights a week, all flying to and from the United Kingdom and Morocco. As air and road traffic have both picked up over the years, pressure has been building to construct a roadway that doesn’t bisect an active runway, for safety and convenience’s sake. The new road would cross the runway via an underground tunnel, leaving a clear path for aircraft takeoffs and landings. In the meantime, both vehicles and pedestrians, including wheelchair users, can easily cross the runway in between departures and arrivals. Enjoy the adventure while you can!
5. Exploring Main Street. Gibraltar has a history of shopkeepers and traders that dates back to the 1800s when the Rock flourished as a trading port boosted by its strategic, geographic location. During this period the modern identity of the Gibraltarian people evolved through a mixed population of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Jewish and Moorish communities. Gibraltar remains home to many descendant families who established their businesses during this period and their shops are still visible in Gibraltar’s busy shopping centre. Gibraltar is a VAT free jurisdiction, goods sold in Gibraltar offer the best value and the currency is the Gibraltar Pound. Along with the more traditional shops, visitors to Main Street will recognise British and international high street brands and chains. These sit alongside handicraft and souvenir shops. Popular purchases include cosmetics and perfumery, jewellery, tobacco and spirits, designer glass frames, specialist linens and electronics.
6. Trafalgar Cemetery. A key landmark in Gibraltar’s military history, it commemorates the famous Anglo-French/Spanish Battle of Trafalgar fought off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Formerly known as the Southport Ditch Cemetery, it occupies a small area of land just to the south of the city walls, in what had been a defensive ditch during the period of Spanish rule of Gibraltar. Although there are only two casualties of the Battle buried in the Cemetery, a ceremony to commemorate Lord Nelson’s victory is held every year. The remainder of the interments are mostly of those killed in other sea battles or casualties of the yellow fever epidemics that swept Gibraltar between 1804 and 1814. In addition, tombstones were transferred to the Trafalgar Cemetery from St. Jago’s Cemetery and Alameda Gardens. The cemetery is no longer used for burials and was abandoned for many years, but was restored in the 1980s. In 1992, a memorial to the Battle of Trafalgar was erected in the cemetery. Is relatively small, but is in a beautiful garden setting. The paths are somewhat narrow, but wheelchair accessible, if a bit steep in a couple of spots.
7. Gibraltar Botanical Gardens. The spectacular Alameda Gardens were first opened to the public in 1816 and there are a number of commemorative busts and cannons which date back to the 18th and 19th century on view. For most visitors, however, it is the beauty of the plants and trees which make the Alameda such a magical place; many are native species while others are imported. At certain times of the year, various cultural events take place in the gardens’ open-air theatre. Tours of the Botanic Gardens are also available. Two important monuments can be viewed here, but pride of place goes to the General Elliot Column and the impressive bronze ordnance at its feet. At the entrance are two of the four Russian guns given to Gibraltar by Britain, for Gibraltar’s help during the Crimean War, in 1858. The main plants of the Alameda Gardens from the earliest days were the Stone Pine, the wild Olive, and the Dragon Tree. It would appear that some of these trees, which still survive, pre-date the opening of the garden and thus are at least 200 years old. Planting subsequent to this had included notably species from South Africa (e.g. Plumbago capensis, Aloe arborescens, capensis, Tecomaria capensis) and Australia (e.g. Melaleuca decussata), possibly as a result of shipping contact between Gibraltar and the other colonies en route to Australia. The accessible entrance to the Botanic Gardens is at the north end, where Europa Road starts to veer left on to Elliott’s way. Entrance is free, and while the paths are paved, some sections are in poor repair. Be wary of some steep inclines and large divots in pathways.
8. Ceremony of the Keys. The Ceremony of the Keys is performed once a year by the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and re-enacted every Saturday morning at midday in Casemates Square by the Gibraltar Re-enactment Association. Since the capture of the Rock in 1704, the Keys of Gibraltar have symbolised the possession of the Fortress by Great Britain. The Keys have come to be regarded as the seals of office of the Governor and as such are handed over from one Governor to the next. During the Great Siege (1779-1783) the Governor General Elliot, wore the Keys at his belt constantly except when he handed them to the Port Sergeant. As the Sunset Gun was fired, the Port Sergeant, accompanied by an armed escort, would lock the gates in the North Wall at Landport, Waterport and Chatham Wicket. The Keys would be returned to the Governor. The following morning the Port Sergeant would collect the keys again, re-open the gates and hand back the keys to the Governor for safe keeping. After peace was restored in 1783, drums and fifes accompanied the Port Sergeant and his escort to warn aliens to leave the Rock before the gates were closed. This procedure was carried out each evening without interruption for approximately 140 years and was discontinued after the First World War. The event was then revived as a ceremony in 1933. The Re-enactment Association sometimes vary their ceremony to their already very popular march down Main Street.
9. The Great Siege Tunnels. The labyrinth of tunnels known as The Great Siege Tunnels are perhaps the most impressive defense system devised by man. It was during the war of American Independence, when France and Spain made an all-out attempt to recapture the Rock from the British in Gibraltar’s 14th Siege, always called The Great Siege, which lasted from July 1779 to February 1783, that the then Governor General Eliott (later called Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar) is said to have offered a reward to anyone who could tell him how to get guns on to a projection from the precipitous northern face of the Rock known as the Notch. Sergeant Major Ince, a member of the Company of Military Artificers, forerunners of the Royal Engineers, suggested that this could be done by tunnelling. Permission was granted, and Sergeant Major Ince started work under the direction of Lieutenant J. Evelegh, a Royal Engineer, Aide De Camp to the Governor, on May 25th, 1782. Work did not stop with the end of the Siege, but instead of continuing straight towards the ‘Notch’, a tunnel was driven downwards and a large chamber opened under the ‘Notch’ called St. George’s Hall, where a battery of seven guns was installed. The Cornwallis Chamber was also excavated at this time. During the Second World War, the Royal Engineers (originally the Artificer Company during the Great Siege) including a Canadian contingent, achieved wonderful feats of engineering, adding some 33 miles (52km) of tunnels. Most of the Great Siege tunnels are wheelchair accessible, and can be visited as part of your accessible taxi tour.
10. Casemates Square. The square takes its name from the British-built Grand Casemates, a casemate and bombproof barracks completed in 1817. Located at the northern end of Main Street, the square is lined with numerous pubs, bars and restaurants. Strategically positioned at the entrance of Main Street in the heart of Gibraltar’s shopping district, this lively area was once the site of public executions. Following the refurbishment of the square in the 1990s to replace a car park which occupied half the square, it is the site for al fresco restaurants, cafés and bars, and has become the hub of nightlife in Gibraltar. The square is also used to host various major cultural events from live open-air concerts, grand military parades, National Day celebrations and New Year’s Eve parties.
11. Gibraltar Crystal. Gibraltar Crystal is a hand made boutique crystal manufacturer based on The Rock of Gibraltar, specialising in custom-made pieces. There is an exhibition on the history of glass making is situated adjacent to the blowing area. Both the exhibition and the viewing of glass blowing is free of charge. Gibraltar Crystal was established in 1995. Their premises at the entrance to Main Street, is in the heart of Gibraltar and its renowned shopping district.