The Rock of Gibraltar guards the pinch point between Europe and Africa. All ships from the Mediterranean Sea must pass through the Straits of Gibraltar to get to the Atlantic, and that has set its strategic importance through the ages and shaped its stormy history.
The tiny peninsula at the southern tip of Spain was occupied by the Arabs until a surprise attack by the Spanish in 1309. They held the 1,400-foot-high rock until 1333, when it fell again under Moorish control.
Finally, the Spanish got it back and kept hold for 240 years. Britain became interested in Gibraltar during the time of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600s, but an opportunity to capture it didn't arise until the war of Spanish Succession.
It was then seized by a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet, and British sovereignty was formalized in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht. It was declared a British colony in 1830.
Naturally, this set as well with the Spanish as it would with us if Spain still owned Florida. There have been 15 attempts to recapture it since 1713, the most famous being the Great Siege of 1779, which lasted three years, seven months and 12 days.
More recently, Spain has closed the frontier in 1969 and 1985 and shut off Gibraltar's water supply. England has stubbornly hung on.
Getting there is easy enough if you're vacationing on the Costa del Sol, the south coast of Spain. The entire seashore from Malaga to Algeciras is lined with coast-view condos and beach-front hotels.
The excellent weather and reasonable prices of Spain (less reasonable since hosting the summer Olympics in 1992) make this coast a perfect retirement area for much of Europe. And there are a number of reasonably priced tour packages available from the United States.
From any town on the Costa del Sol, drive south on the coast highway and turn left at the sign. The border checkpoint is a formality, but you should have a passport.
Proper planning might get you there at lunchtime, so turn right at the fork toward the waterfront and stop at Gadsby's restaurant. Excellent Spanish or English food in a charming English pub with efficient service and delightful chitchat.
Gibraltar has been populated since neolithic times and has become a mixture of cultures, including Phoenicians, Romans, Genoese, Carthaginians, Moors, Spanish and, of course, the British. The chief bartender at Gadsby's is a combination of all of the above.
The cable car to the top of the famous rock shuts down at sunset, so the next stop should be at the far side of town. Drive around the town, not through it, and look for the fork in the road. Look up for the cables and follow them to the base. There is a parking lot next door. Tickets to the top and entrance to the caves costs $10.
You change cable cars two-thirds of the way up and continue to the top for a stunning view of the surrounding area. The rock's unique position and subtropical climate provide a perfect habitat for eagles, lizards, owls, foxes, butterflies and a host of migrating birds flying from northern Europe to Africa.
Permanent residents include the blue rock thrush, peregrine falcon, Barbary partridge and the famous Barbary ape. More than 600 species of wildflowers have been identified, several of which are unique to the rock.
If your timing is right, there will be apes about. Don't think their casual walk is a lack of alertness.
On the top is a concession stand selling food and drink. A woman was sitting at one of the tables and left a chocolate bar several inches from her left hand. A female ape, 40 pounds of muscle and speed, snatched it from the table in a second, moved with her back to the guard rail, peeled off the paper and foil and slowly enjoyed the chocolate.
Later, the ape walked from table to table looking for unattended food. She ignored cameras, film, maps and empty cartons. Then she spotted a plastic shopping bag hanging from the handle of a baby stroller.
On the top, in plain view, was a red bag containing peanuts, and the ape went for it, startling the life out of the poor mother. The baby wasn't in danger, but little did the mother know, until our thief was walking away with the bag of peanuts.
The ape perched on top of the rail, carefully pulled open the package, slowly shelled the peanuts one at a time and ate them, ignoring onlookers.
You also can watch birds coasting on the wind to land on the sharp top edge of the rock, which extends 300 feet past the concession area. The back side of the mountain is lined with concrete to act as a rain catch basin, and 1,400 feet below is the Caleta Palace Hotel.
The town is on the opposite side of the rock. On the cable car side you can look over the straits to the city of Tangiers in Morocco.
Legend has it that the Barbary apes travel to and from Morocco by a natural tunnel from St. Michaels Cave deep beneath the straits. The caves, located halfway between the top and middle cable car stops, have never been fully explored and their depths are unknown.
The walk down toward the cave and back to the middle cable car stop is longer than it appears on the map, so give yourself lots of time. But don't miss the walk, because the wall is a favorite sunning spot for families of apes. They are used to people and don't scurry away from clicking cameras.
The town of Gibraltar is a city of shops, all very charming and all very British. The shops take American, Spanish and English money, but the best deal is Spanish. Walking through these great shops is a must even if you don't buy a pint of beer, a British flag, a T-shirt of Gibraltar or English teas or jams.
If you leave at night, look back. The rock is lighted up by floodlights from below. Impressive indeed.
Tours to Gibraltar are easily arranged from any hotel on the south coast of Spain. Typical cost is $50 round trip by bus and should include lunch. There is a public bus that runs from some cities on the Costa del Sol once a day for $12, transportation only. Cars can be rented for about $40 a day, and the roads are excellent for the two-hour drive.
Contact the British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, N.Y. 10176-0799; (800) 462-2748.