Every mid-November for the last three years, the British territory of Gibraltar has welcomed an international array of world class writers, historians, and speakers to discuss literature of all kinds. The Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival is a fantastic opportunity to explore this tiny peninsula of land, famed for being juxtaposed between Europe and Africa and for its melding of various cultures including British, Spanish and Moroccan.
As far as literary festivals go Gibraltar’s offering is relatively low key. All the action takes place over four days inside various buildings scattered around the city centre: the beautiful Garrison Library set in a shaded hilly square; the historic Convent and King’s Chapel; and the Sunborn Gibraltar, a five star yacht-hotel floating in the marina. Each day of the festival, I could walk from my room in the O’Callaghan Eliott Hotel (perfectly situated opposite the Garrison Library) to the various venues which, thanks to Gibraltar’s compact size, didn’t take me long – and on those walks I was able to fit in some casual sightseeing of Gibraltar’s Main Street too.
The unique blend of cultures in Gibraltar is what makes the Literary Festival so special: it manages to bring together a whole host of experts in a relaxed environment to investigate the region’s history, poetry, famous figures, and politics. Together, speakers and attendees are able to discuss how Gibraltar is affected by the wider world and what global factors affect it. One morning, you’re sitting beneath richly embroidered military banners or expansive portraits of the Queen while a contemporary historian talks about the Arab Spring, and in the afternoon you’re inside a 15th century church listening to a woman discuss her short stories about living with a Moroccan family and her resulting conversion to Islam.
There’s also a strong focus on educating children throughout the festival, with a Schools Festival programme running alongside the main schedule. Suitably tailored talks are given by many of the festival’s central speakers to local Gibraltarian schoolchildren (although adult guests can occasionally sneak in too). For locals, the festival broadens artistic horizons of the territory and promotes a strong literary affiliation – and it also allows visitors to experience the other attractions Gibraltar has to offer.
Despite Gibraltar’s popularity as a cruise ship destination (the fact that Gibraltarians speak English is great for British tourists), the territory is actually filled with cultural surprises for visitors who dig a little deeper. There’s a quiet emphasis on British military history dotted all around Gibraltar – from the Trafalgar Cemetery and the Siege Tunnels to the statues and memorials commemorating military heroes – but also the repeated indication of how unlike Britain this place really is. At any one moment in Gibraltar, there are the sounds of Arabic spoken by elderly men in wooly cardigans sitting on stone walls under shady trees to escape the midday heat; Muslim women in headscarves and long thin shirts pulling shopping carts; schoolchildren eating fish and chips while gossiping in Spanish; people eating roast beef outside on a sunny mid November day. It’s almost like visiting three different countries at once!
Exploring central Gibraltar by foot is easy: the main streets in the town centre are pedestrianised and there are plenty of architecturally beautiful houses to wander past – plus little British touches like red post boxes and English street names. The territory has many religious points of interest, too – the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque is the southernmost mosque in mainland Europe and sits a few metres away from the Shrine of Our Lady of Europe, a fifteenth century wooden carving housed in a Roman Catholic church. Together, they’re a great representation of Gibraltar’s cultural diversity.
Heading up towards The Rock (perhaps Gibraltar’s biggest tourist draw) usually requires either a fairly strenuous hike or a choice of transport methods. Local buses, touring taxis or a six minute ride in the cable car will take you up to the viewpoint where you can look out over the Strait of Gibraltar towards Africa, and observe the troops of barbary macaque monkeys that live on The Rock. The only wild population in Europe, there are over 200 of them swinging around – and their feedings are timed to coincide with sunset so they don’t go searching for food in the bins of Gibraltar’s residents.
Money Saving Tips
- Gibraltar is small enough that you can walk just about everywhere, up staircases and behind little rows of houses and venturing up hills to discover little interesting nooks and crannies. If you’re getting tired, local buses run the length of the territory and don’t cost much.
- Thanks to their British associations, visitors to The Rock can spend their UK currency in Gibraltar – just don’t bring local coins back to England as they won’t be accepted.
Did You Know?
- Gibraltarians speak their own unique dialect known as ‘llanito’ – a mixture of Spanish and English which is local only to Gibraltar. Whether you speak one or both of those languages it’s a fascinating dialect to eavesdrop on!
- Gibraltar is accessible by road through Spain, but roads are narrow in the territory – so if you’re already in Spain and planning on driving to Gibraltar for less than six hours, it could be worth hiring a car and parking on the Spanish side of the border then walking the last fifteen minutes to passport control. For example, Estepona in Spain is only 30 minutes drive from Gibraltar.
- There are over 34 miles (55kms) of tunnels crisscrossing through the inside of The Rock – which is almost twice the length of all the roads in the territory. Now mainly blocked off from public access, the British Army excavated these tunnels during the 18th Century to transport ammunition, store water reserves and even to accommodate men during a possible siege.
The Alameda Gardens are a lush green eight hectare haven for botanical plants, landscaped gardens and non-indigenous flora to adapt and flourish – and it’s also the location of the statue of Molly Bloom, a character from Joyce’s seminal book ‘Ulysses’.