Every year, the people of Gibraltar dress in red and white and take to the streets to celebrate National Day (September 10) with rallies, parties, music, fireworks and 30,000 balloons
Walking down Europa Road from the Rock Hotel, a sea of red and white grew thicker as I approached the middle of town. But it wasn’t a football match I was heading to. This was Gibraltar’s National Day, when residents of the Rock turn out to celebrate their independence and culture.
As I made my way down Main Street, past Marks & Spencer and the host of duty free shops, I was soon swallowed up among the swelling crowds heading for the main events. Pubs with names like the Angry Friar, The Horseshoe and The Gibraltar Arms were decorated with flags and packed with revellers. Red and white bunting fluttered from all the buildings and criss-crossed the streets as people made their way to City Hall in The Piazza, also known as John Mackintosh Square.
A big crowd milled around the square and surrounding streets. Whole families enjoyed the sunshine, teenagers larked about, taking mobile phone pictures of each other, and toddlers sat on fathers’ shoulders. Some came in fancy dress, all in red and white. Others waved Union Jacks and the castle and keys flag of Gibraltar. Some had the flag painted on their faces and even family pets were dressed for the occasion. Everyone enjoyed a relaxed party atmosphere under the watchful eye of a handful of bobbies of the Royal Gibraltar Police.
National Day is held in Gibraltar on September 10 every year. Although I had visited the Rock several times, this was my first experience of this unique occasion. The first event was held in 1992 to commemorate the day in 1967 when the population voted overwhelmingly to remain British. So many turned out on that day they couldn’t all fit into John Mackintosh Square.
When we reached the square it was packed and buzzing as the mayor welcomed everyone with a short speech, then gave the signal for 30,000 red and white balloons to be released - one for every Gibraltarian. The crowds cheered as the balloons floated away in a clear blue sky over the Bay of Gibraltar. It was quite an emotional moment.
The party carried on all day, with stalls all around the square, some selling traditional spinach pies. The recipe for these came to Gibraltar via Genoese sailors centuries ago. With the familiar sights of British bobbies and red telephone boxes, the mood was rather like a huge village fete. It seemed as if everyone from the youngest to the oldest inhabitant was out on the streets. Listening to the conversations was fascinating, as Gibraltarians seamlessly switch, sometimes in the same sentence, between English, Spanish and their own language, Llanito.
As the day wore on and the crowds began to thin out, we walked down to Casemates, the main square in the town, and stopped at the Lord Nelson pub, a favourite watering hole of mine. Casemates was the setting for the kids’ activities, with fairground rides and a fancy dress parade. Then it was on to the King's Bastion leisure centre, which only opened in 2008 and is a brilliant place to spend some time if the weather isn’t kind to you. It has bars, restaurants, cinemas, ice skating, bowling and a gym. On National Day, it was obviously the place to carry on the party.
Feeling a little footsore by this time, we decided to head back to our hotel, where we would get a great view of the firework display due to start at 10.30pm. Making our way towards the Eliott Hotel (where I stayed when we wed on the rock a few years ago), we were sidetracked by the sound of live music. Governor’s Parade, outside the Eliott, was packed with revellers listening to four very talented young lads bashing out rock classics. The Pickwick pub in the square was serving, so we took a pit stop to listen for a while. The band was followed by a folk singer who played some Dylan and Bowie, cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd.
We finally returned to the Rock Hotel for a much appreciated bath - shared with the rubber ducks supplied in every room - and a meal. We ate on the hotel’s Wisteria Terrace and I had a beautifully cooked Gibraltar Bay sea bass, which was superb. Back in our room, we settled on the balcony overlooking the historic harbour to enjoy the spectacular fireworks display while enjoying a glass of wine to toast the end of this very special day.
Although it's too late to enjoy the event this year, in 2010, September 10 falls on a Friday, which would make it the perfect time for a weekend break or longer stay. But make sure you don’t plan your shopping trip for a Sunday, as almost all of the shops are shut.
Monarch (www.monarch.co.uk), easyJet (www.easyjet.com) and British Airways (www.britishairways.com) all have flights to the Rock. So why not stay on for a few days? You can take the cable car to the top of the Rock to see the famous Barbary apes and visit the World War II tunnels; try a dolphin safari; or go on a day trip to Ronda or Algeciras in Spain, the Spanish town of Ceuta on the North African coast or Tangier in Morocco. It’s surprising how much there is to see and do in Gib, even when the party’s over.