Between A Rock and Hard Place

Corliss Group Online Financial Mag Hong Kong

Corliss Group Online Financial Mag Hong Kong Between a rock and hard place

One of a handful of Britain's remaining possessions, Gibraltar is an interesting anachronism says Gillian Vine.

Last year, sabre-rattling Spaniards soured relations with Britain, saying it was time they had Gibraltar back.

No you can't have it, said the British Government, supported by most of Gibraltar's 29,500 citizens, who rallied around the slogan ''Let no-one dare untie this knot''.

The Spanish response was border checks with consequently long queues and delays, so I was pleased to come into Gibraltar by sea, during a port-hopping Mediterranean cruise.

But how did the Brits acquire this 6.7sq km chunk of Spain?

In a sense, it was Spain's own fault, or rather that of King Carlos II, who died childless in 1700.

He had nominated as his successor his 16-year-old great-nephew, Philip, Duke of Anjou, who duly was crowned with the support of his grandfather, French King Louis XIV.

It sounded fairly straightforward but another of Louis' grandsons, Austria's Archduke Charles, also fancied the Spanish throne.

Britain, Holland and Portugal joined the Austrians in getting behind Charles and they fought it out.

The Spanish War of Succession was won by Austria and her allies, although one has to wonder what the point was, as Philip became king after all.

Admittedly, it was under a deal whereby he gave up all claims to the French throne, while the long-term winner was probably Britain, which was handed Gibraltar in 1713 as part of the Treaty of Utrecht.

Its location overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar meant the new territory was ideally situated as a military base.

The Battle of Trafalgar took place off Point Trafalgar, some 60km from Gibraltar, in October 1805.

After the defeat of a 33-strong French and Spanish fleet by 27 Royal Navy vessels, under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson, wounded seamen were taken to Gibraltar.

However, as headstones in the little Trafalgar Cemetery mutely testify, not all the wounded survived.

Nelson died during the battle and his body, preserved in a barrel of brandy, was taken ashore at Gibraltar before being transferred to England for a state funeral.

Gibraltar was of strategic importance to the British during World War 2 and despite Adolf Hitler urging Spain to grab back the territory, the Spanish - who now undoubtedly regret their inaction - stayed neutral.

British military leaders ordered the construction of a network of tunnels inside the Rock of Gibraltar to provide secure accommodation and storage.

The idea wasn't new, for as early as 1782 defensive tunnels had been dug and even before that, there were stories that the Rock was hollow, probably based on the existence of St Michael's Cave, an immense limestone cavern where Neolithic skulls and rock drawings have been found.

This cave was utilised during World War 2, too, with a hospital set up there.

Two-hour tours of the tunnel complex and cave are available and a combined ticket is £8 ($NZ16) per person.

My father-in-law, a Royal Navy signalman, was stationed on Gibraltar during World War 2 and described being left perched halfway up the Rock during an enemy attack, watching his ship sailing away without him.

Seeing the old signals station on an exposed site high up the Rock brought home to me how vulnerable he must have felt, but he survived and rejoined his ship some time later.

A ride on the cable car to the top of the Rock (£8.50 one way, or £10.50 return) is a must for any visitor.

I opted for the return but had the weather been better would have ridden up and walked down via the nature reserve, even though I wouldn't want too many close encounters with the Barbary apes with their formidable teeth.

Until 1984, when it closed its major dockyard, the British Ministry of Defence was the mainstay of Gibraltar's economy, accounting for more than a third of all spending.

Things perked up in 1985, when the reopening of the border with Spain at La Linea de la Concepcion enabled visitors to pop across for a day's bargain hunting.

These days, Main St resembles the high street of any bustling English town, with all the usual British chain stores such as Marks and Spencers, Dorothy Perkins and British Home Stores.

Because Gibraltar is duty free, there are great buys in more expensive cosmetics (I bought face cream at half the price I pay at home), perfumes, high-end jewellery, tobacco and alcohol, the latter at prices well below those anywhere else in Europe, or New Zealand, for that matter.

However, with the Spanish economy improving and cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia showcasing their beautiful buildings, old and new, to attract tourists, Gibraltar looks rather like the poor relation.

Away from the central hub, apart from newer apartment blocks things appear somewhat shabby.

Maybe handing Gibraltar back to Spain would inject some welcome EU dosh into the territory but no loyal royalist would ever dare untie the knot.

Corliss Group Online Financial Mag Hong Kong Between a rock and hard place

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