A closer look at the famous Rock of Gibraltar reveals a peculiar façade. From a distance, I can see what look like tiny holes in the rocky mountainside ascending in a line of sorts. I soon learn those holes are actually cannon ports in the so-called Great Siege Tunnels, dug and blasted out of the Rock in the late 18th century. The very next day, I’m inside the Great Siege and World War II Tunnels network, actually looking peering out several of those cannon holes onto dramatic waterside views.
Since colonial days, the Rock has been a strategic military point – a British stronghold since 1704. Located on a narrow peninsula along the coast of southern Spain, it stands tall over the Strait of Gibraltar, the waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, and separating Europe from Africa.
Spain made several failed attempts to drive out the British, but it was during the 14th and last attempt, the 1779-1783 Great Siege, when the British decided there was apparently no better defense than hiding within the belly of the Rock. So they began digging and igniting gunpowder blasts to create what’s now the Great Siege Tunnels, taking only five weeks to tunnel 80 feet into the mountain. The British held their ground, afterwards extending the tunnel to 370 feet with cannons facing the southern border.
The same thought prevailed during World War II when the British feared a Nazi invasion, so 5,000 engineers and laborers drilled and blasted 24 hours a day, from 1940-1943, to dig most of the 34 miles of tunnels that remain today. The maze of tunnels housed living quarters, mess halls, communication centers and hospitals for 16,000 soldiers and the workers as well – a city within the Rock. Despite the efforts, a Nazi invasion never came.
Today, a 45-minute World War II Tunnels tour brings visitors within the Rock, but only through less than a half mile of tunnels whose walls and concrete walkways are often slickened with rainwater filtering through the mountain. Life-sized dioramas depict living conditions for soldiers and ax and drill-wielding laborers who dug the tunnels. Panoramic views from a few mountainside lookouts stretch along the coastline all the way to Morocco.
“We have a saying in Gibraltar that there are more tunnels than roads,” says guide Kyle Gonzalez. “Visitors are amazed how the workers lived and how they survived the ordeals they went through. If you were on patrol here, you didn’t know what time of day it was. You’d never see the sunlight.”
While in Gibraltar, hop a cable car up the Rock for stunning views of two continents. Taxi tours include the Great Siege Tunnels, the stalactite and stalagmite-clustered St. Michael’s Cave, and other mountain lookouts including the Queen’s Balcony. The territory’s macaque monkeys roam freely and often pick at tourists’ purses and food at the Apes Den. And Irish and British pubs serving fish and chips line Main Street and Grand Casemates Square in the center of town.