Driving Across The Gibraltar Border

Our expectations of Gibraltar were confounded at every turn: no delays at the border and one of the best hotels we’ve ever stayed in.

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Approaching The Rock from La Linea, southern Spain. More photos, and a map, below.

David Cameron telling the Spanish prime minister there must be no repeat of previous year’s border queues was greeted by immediate three hour delays in July. In general however, summer 2014 has been quite quiet by recent standards.

Having said that we were lucky. Earlier on the day we crossed into Gibraltar delays reached fifty minutes, and again later that night. Last week, drivers waited well over two hours to cross.

Gibraltarians have become very adept at crossing when it’s quiet but wildcat ‘enhanced checks’, by definition, strike at any time and everybody knows it.

Queues build very quickly. For all the loops and multiple holding lanes on each side it’s strictly one at a time through the border itself.

Exactly like the UN ‘safe zone’ in Cyprus capital Nicosia there’s a tense, dangerous atmosphere with the protagonists stood just yards away from each other.

The Spanish Guardia Civil officer on the way in had a professionally neutral, just-doing-my-job demeanour but the one on the way out, the next day, was icily polite at best and made a point of not physically touching our passports.

We weren’t exactly waved through by the Gibraltar police either. Singled out in fact. For all the UK-style local number plates with their GBZ prefixes, at 1,500 miles from London (by the direct route) a UK-registered car must be a rarity in these parts.

After a brief moment of panic over which side of the road they drive on – the right – it was straight into the chaos of Gibraltar itself. There are almost as many cars here as there are people – 30,000 – reputedly the highest rate of car ownership in the world.

With just 31 miles of paved carriageway that makes for busy roads, especially during the early evening rush hour when we turned up.

Touring round looking for somewhere nice to stay was hopeless. The road was lined in all directions by apartment blocks. We couldn’t get anywhere near the waterfront – probably our fault – and soon reverted to good old hotels.com.

Where else in Gibraltar would you want to stay though other than at The Rock Hotel? A mile down Europa Road which rings the peninsula, and much quieter, the 1930s art deco ocean-liner style hotel look outs directly onto Algeciras Bay.

At €140 it’s not cheapy-cheap but the palm fronds everywhere, discrete good service – a glass of sherry on check-in – and pinkish southern light seeping through the glassy foyer gave it an exotic air of Singapore-style Colonial gin palace, in the best possible way.

The watchword in the recently refurbished room – with an enclosed balcony, cafetiere, and deep pile woollen rugs at the bed sides – was Parker Knoll: unflashy, high quality, comfortable and very British. Margaret Thatcher would have loved it.

The idea in Gibraltar had been to snuffle out some of the characters we’ve been hearing about. In the end there wasn’t time for that. After a quick whizz around the rest of Europa Road – including an abortive attempt on the Upper Rock road, see below, and staring off the end of Europa Point to catch a glimpse of Africa – it was time to chance the frontier again.

But thanks to the charms of The Rock Hotel – definitely worth the visit just in itself – it won’t be long before we’re back again.

To keep track of delays at the border see @GibraltarBorder on Twitter, or the Gibraltar Frontier webcam.

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gib border small cover

The Spain-Gibraltar frontier. Strictly one at a time.

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The British Naval Base, harbour and Bay of Algeciras from The Rock Hotel.

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Built in 1932 by the Marquis of Bute, The Rock Hotel over looks the Botanic Gardens from beside the Gibraltar cable car. Famous guests include Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Errol Flynn and Sean Connery. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married there in 1969.

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Austria’s Grossglockner and Silvretta mountain passes – and Denmark’s Oresund Bridge – have competition for Europe’s most expensive tolls from Gibraltar’s Upper Rock road: £10 per adult occupant. Pressed for time, we passed.

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The southernmost mosque in Europe, and one of the largest outside a Muslim country, the Mosque of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques was built on Europa Point – right at the bottom of the peninsula – by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia in 1997 to serve Gibraltar’s one thousand Muslims. Europa Point apparently has views of Morocco, a few miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar, but – thanks to some haze – “not when we were there”.

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Like Paris’ Orly Airport from the A6, Amsterdam’s Schiphol from the A5 or Lisbon’s Aeroporto de Lisboa from the E1 circular road, but better. Planes from those other airports spectacularly land across major roads but planes in Gibraltar actually land on (albeit at ninety degrees) the road into town. There’s a level crossing and barriers where drivers wait for incoming flights. Another great reason to go back.

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In the six months to May 2014 more than 500 formal complaints were made about border delays, mainly by people who live in Spain and work in Gibraltar. On most days in that period there were delays of at least one hour for traffic leaving with a peak of four hours. The longest waiting time for pedestrians was 90 minutes.

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