Existing Member?

Irene's Adventures


UNITED KINGDOM | Wednesday, 20 September 2017 | Views [169]



We stayed in the small coastal town of San Roque, just outside of Gibraltar. There was not much to see or do, but it was lovely and quiet. Our room at Hotel Las Camelias had a view of the water. It also had a restaurant with a patio to enjoy evening drinks. We walked to the marina and admired the many yachts before coming to a wonderful Belgian restaurant, the Mytilus, where I had the best sea bass dinner ever!

 San Roque

The following morning we drove to Gibraltar. The Rock dominates the horizon well before one gets within 30 km. We had to cross the runway that divides British Gibraltar from Spain. The airstrip was originally a grassy horse racecourse, it was commissioned to an airstrip during WWI. The Spanish objected to its use when a plane crashed on their side of the frontier fence and the airstrip closed. In 1934 there was talk of reviving the airstrip. Between the Spanish, the British Army (which was using the space for training exercises) and the Jockey Club it remained a rarely used grass strip until WWII. It quickly became obvious that the runway needed to be properly surfaced, widened, and extended to cope with the wartime demand. In January 1942 the runway lengthening began. By July 1943 it was doubled in length. Today it still separates Spain from British Gibraltar and is used by airplanes, cars, and pedestrians. When a plane is coming in or taking off guards make sure everyone is off the tarmac. Barriers are lowered and the wait begins. If there are multiple planes taking off or landing the wait can be a couple of hours. It is a common late-for-work excuse. Today, there is a tunnel being built under the runway that should solve the traffic problem. Interestingly, there is a street sweeping regime that continually cleans the runway to prevent the massive plane engines from sucking in any debris. A stray plastic bag or a fallen bolt could prove deadly should the engine suck it in.

 Gibraltar runway

We parked near the Cable Car and took a ride up the 673 meters to the Ape's Den. It is called the Ape's Den because there are scores of barbary macaque waiting for handouts when the cable car stops. They are a wild, tailless monkey believed to have been brought from Africa centuries ago. There is documentation as early as the 1600's which speaks of them being a nuisance. Despite being cautioned repeatedly by the cable car attendant that the monkeys are wild and not to get too close to them, people were trying to pet them. We went into the gift/coffee shop for a moment and there were signs warning people not to take food outside. We were barely out the door when there was a skirmish with a monkey swatting a bag of potato chips out of a woman's hand, ripping her handbag in the process, and devouring the chips. Her baby monkey was screaming and screeching nearby because the mother monkey was not sharing. They may look cute and cuddly, and almost human looking, but they are not. They have long sharp teeth and nasty fingernails.

Barbary Monkey



 Ed & Irene at Gibraltar

We took a few shots of the Rock peak behind us then proceeded to St. Michael's Cave. It is a limestone cave with such large and beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that it is also called St. Michael's Cathedral. Because of its natural acoustic properties, it was converted to an auditorium. It is a regular venue for theatrical productions, all genre of musical concerts, and even beauty pageants. We wandered around awed at the size and beauty of the natural formations.

 St. Michael's Cave  

St. Michael's Cave

We continued our downhill walk admiring the view from our great height and wondered about some large rings pounded into the cliff face. We think they may have been to secure the cannons that were brought up from sliding back down the hill.

huge rings in stone

There were curious yield signs with rabbits, a praying mantis, butterfly, and other creatures on the face of the sign.

yield sign

We came to the Great Siege Tunnels. Everyone has heard the line “Solid as the Rock of Gibraltar”, we found out why.


A siege is when soldiers try to capture a strongly defended town or fortress by surrounding it. The attacking forces hope that by cutting off food, supplies and reinforcement the defenders will eventually surrender. This has happened many times to Gibraltar, but the 14th siege that began in 1779 and lasted 3 years, 7 months and 12 days is known as the Great Siege.

 Great Siege Tunnels

There was a huge gap in Gibraltar's defenses, and until it was fixed, Spanish forces would continue to advance using the cliff to shelter themselves from bombardment from the existing fortifications. A tunnel was excavated during the siege, initially as a way of getting a cannon onto a large natural projection on the cliff face, known as the Notch, to protect the gap.


To build the tunnel they bored holes into the rock and used large chisels (called jumpers) to split the rock or pack it with gunpowder to blow chunks off. They often used natural fault lines that minimized stress fractures in the rock, resulting in a stable tunnel 200 years after it was made. In comparison, the mechanical drilling, nitro-glycerine, and straight line tunneling used in WWII has contributed to rapid decay of the tunnel that was built later.

building the tunnel 

On May 25, 1782 work began. In 5 weeks they had dug an 8 foot square tunnel 82 feet into the rock. At the end of 6 weeks a hole was made to the outside. Whether by accident, to vent the tunnel to outside air, or to dispose of digging material is unknown, either way, the hole in the rock face was an excellent place for a cannon. Realizing this was better than one cannon on the top, they began to mount a series of cannons along the length of the tunnel itself. When the siege ended in February 1783 the tunnel was 370 feet long with four guns mounted in six embrasures.


The first opening in cliff face did not allow for the recoil of the cannon so the tunnel had to be enlarged. This is the only cannon in the actual tunnel and not a cave. These cannons were heavy and when they recoiled they had ropes looped through huge rings to pull them back into firing position. The rings were affixed with a 30cm spike drilled into the rock and held in with molten lead.


The siege ended before the Notch was reached, but tunnelling continued. Instead of placing a single gun on top of the Notch they hollowed out a space beneath it and installed an entire gun battery. The large, high ceiling chamber with openings for 7 guns was named St. George's Hall.


Artillerymen found a way to use ropes hung like curtains (called mantlets) to protect themselves from shrapnel and small arms fire, and shield them from view as they reloaded the gun. The mantlets also helped to reduce sparks and smoke from blowing back into the openings when the cannon was fired.

cannon with mantlet holder above 

Interesting tidbit: On 13 September 1782 the Spanish and French launched 10 heavily armoured ships to pound Gibraltars weakest defenses, hoping to create a breach for 300 specially designed boats to land. It was common knowledge that a spectacular attack would soon take place and around 80,000 spectators gathered. The Spanish even built a grandstand for dignitaries. At the end of the day, the British took 357 men prisoner with another 1473 Spanish and French killed, wounded, or missing. I suspect the home team spectators went home disappointed.


As time when on, the old cannons were upgraded with newer ones. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Gibraltar was never directly threatened for the rest of the century. However, the British continued to improve the fortifications, including the addition of another 12 km of tunnels.


No significant alterations to the tunnel were made until WWII, when attacks from the air, rather than land, were the new threat. The Great Siege Tunnels were extended in two directions during the war, with a long straight extension called the Holy Land Tunnel - so named because it points in the direction of Jerusalem. Built with Canadian diamond drilling ingenuity it continued through to the east side of The Rock. The aim was to provide facilities for a garrison of 16,000 men to live inside the Rock for up to a year. Designs for storing food, water, disposing of waste, laundry facilities, and a hospital were made. Massive generators were installed to power searchlights scanning the skies. There are a total of 48 km of tunnels inside the Rock.


We were getting rather tired leaving when we left the tunnels so we carried on the downward trail that lead back to the town. We walked past the Lime Kiln dating that is the last remaining kiln from the 19th century. It was used to produce lime for white-washing buildings, paint cisterns to prevent bacteria and to pour over dead bodies to prevent the spread of plague. Also used to heat cannon balls.

 heating cannon balls

Just past the Lime Kiln was the City Under Siege. It was a small exhibition that consists of the original buildings from the 1700's. Mannequin characters help the exhibit come to life. It was here we learned about the logistics to survive a siege. Stone channels collected rain water and channelled it into underground cisterns sustaining a population of 7000 for 3 years. To preserve the stocks of flour the General stopped his soldiers from powdering their hair. The high prices that could be charged for even small quantities of poor quality food tempted ships from North Africa to smuggle supplies past the enemy. Civilians often survived on little more than grass, seaweed and wild onions. Small gardens were a valuable thing. A cabbage could cost over two days pay. The head and feet of a sheep sold for 3 weeks wages! Sieges were often long and boring. Many soldiers passed the time by carving graffiti on the walls, recording a unique record of their time – literally carved into stone.


To prevent the enemy from using landmarks, many towers and steeples were demolished. Paving slabs were lifted and roads plowed in case a cannon ball hit, causing the ball to sink into the earth rather than ricochet about the streets.


We carried on down the Rock, stopping briefly at the 8th century Moorish Tower of Homage. We were very tired by this time and barely peeked inside. Notably, its picture is on the Gibraltar five-pound banknote.

 Tower of Homage

We got back to the car and headed back to San Roque where we found a quaint market and stocked up on some breakfast fixings (bread, butter, parma-ham, tomato, cucumber, cheese).

 market in San Roque


We left for a brief stop in Malaga before heading to Cadiz for the night.


Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About irenecabay

Irene Cabay

Follow Me

Where I've been

Photo Galleries


My trip journals



Travel Answers about United Kingdom

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.