Gibraltar is full of caves. They are a part of the long history of the Rock, stretching back to the earliest times. One of the most famous – and the one most easily accessible to visitors – is the spectacular St Michael’s Cave, close to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Inside the Hollow Mountain
The Phoenecians called Gibraltar Calpe (meaning “hollow”), and the Romans expanded this to Mons Calpe, or Hollow Mountain. The name was appropriate. Gibraltar has more than 200 caves, both sea and inland caverns, a result of erosion of the limestone rock.
The caves have always been important to Gibraltar, often playing a military or defensive role. But the discovery of the skull of a Neanderthal woman in Gorham’s Cave, a sea cave on the eastern side of the peninsula, suggests that they may also once have been used as homes. This find was so important that the Gorham’s Cave Complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can get a glimpse of the caves from a nearby viewing platform (Monday-Friday, 10am to 2pm), or take a guided tour into the caves themselves.
St Michael’s Cave
For many visitors Gibraltar’s caves are synonymous with St Michael’s Cave. This is a massive cavern in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. More than 700 feet deep, it is full of stalagtites, stalagmites and other limestone formations.
St Michael’s Cave was well known in classical times, but the discovery of Neanderthal artefacts and remains shows that it was in use much earlier. It was used for military purposes since the Moors occupied the Rock in the Middle Ages, and during the Second World War it became a hospital and an ammunition store. Today the Upper Cavern, which forms a large natural auditorium, hosts concerts and private events.
Visiting St Michael’s Cave
Visiting St Michael’s Cave is quite an experience. A light show of ever-changing colours fills the whole of the Upper Cavern, and soft music follows you as you walk through the vast empty space and down the steep steps to the chambers below.
Beneath this level is the Lower Cavern, discovered by accident during the military operations of WWII. This is where you’ll find the most spectacular rock formations and an underground lake, but the surfaces are uneven and you need to be reasonably fit to explore it. You can visit this area with a guide, but be prepared to wear sturdy shoes and a hard hat.
Myths and Legends of Gibraltar’s Caves
Gibraltar’s caves have attracted all sorts of myths and legends. At one time people thought that St Michael’s Cave was bottomless, and that it was connected to North Africa by a long tunnel beneath the sea (Gibraltar’s colony of macaque monkeys was supposed to have reached the Rock that way). And the Ancient Greeks named Gibraltar as one of the twin Pillars of Hercules, with St Michael’s Cave as the entrance to the underworld. The name of the cave is said to derive from its similarity to the grotto in Monte Sant’Angelo in Italy where the archangel Michael once appeared.
Then there is the story of the 18th century shepherd who is said to have tried to guide Spanish troops through the Rock and into the British garrison. And there are more recent accounts of mysterious disappearances in the caves and passages that riddle the Rock. But for me the greatest mystery is the one revealed by the discovery of Neanderthal remains. Who exactly were the earliest inhabitants of Gibraltar?