It’s amazing to think, but just twenty years ago, Grand Casemates Square was actually a car park. A visit to the plaza today however will leave you with an entirely different point of view. Boasting its open-aired cafes, radiant sunshine, and its picturesque view of the famous Rock, Casemates Square is undoubtedly one of the finest chill out points of Gibraltar. The plaza is one of the two main areas people congregate in Gibraltar, currently for food and entertainment, but as history will show us, that wasn’t always the case. The word casemate comes from the Spanish term meaning a fortified position, chamber or an armored enclosure; and there is a very good reason why it is so called.
The history of the Casemates area really begins with the Muslim engineers who decided that the beach was a perfect place to lay down the foundations for the City of Victory in 1160. This was in preparation to take over Gibraltar which was mostly unpopulated. The Sultan of Morocco, Abd-al-Mummin had a grand scheme to establish the Muslim presence here. The settled area was chosen from the castle to the land below, the calm anchorage making it the perfect place to bring in boats for repairs.
The area came under Spanish control in the early thirteen hundreds. The monarch of Spain, Ferdinand IV ordered a shipyard to be built, where in the late 15th century galleys were permitted to enter through a gateway in the wall near Water Gate. In the 1570s the building of the Old Mole eventually fell into disuse because the sea and sand caused the foundation to drop. Back then, the area of Grand Casemates Square formed part of the old Spanish town called “Villa Vieja”, which was enclosed with its own towers and gates. There are plans dating back to the early 17th century that refer to the Grand Casemates Square area as being called “La Barcina”.
It was under the control of Spain until the Treaty of Utrecht in the early seventeen hundreds when Britain received control. They too encountered the same sinking foundation problem when they took over. As a result, they built the fortress walls and battlements on higher more solid ground, some not being completed until after the infamous Great Siege when the Spanish and French mounted their attack on the Rock. After four long years of consistent attacks by the opposing forces, many structures and buildings housed within were totally destroyed. It was decided then by the British to demolish the remaining ruins, leaving an open area, which is now today commonly known as the Grand Casemates Square. On entering Casemates from Waterport, you will pass through a large gateway made up of four large arches. This is where the entire city would be closed off from the outside and held under lockdown and curfew.
Until 1864, Casemates Square was one of the main locations for public executions on the Rock. It was a popular place for the rulers to carry out the punishment of the known enemies of the state until the practice was stopped, the last public military hanging being held in 1864. The plaza was also used as a military parade ground.
Nowadays however, Casemates Square, as with much of Gibraltar, is open to and represented by many different ethnic peoples. Situated right at the bottom of Main Street, it has a wide range of restaurants, cafes and bars, in which you can order a drink, get comfy, and “people watch” until your heart’s content. During the warmer days, Casemates provides the perfect chance to take your meals and drinks outside. Crowds of people can always be seen taking a break from the heat and enjoying an ice cold beer or a refreshing glass of wine.
As well as sipping on a soothing drink, you can enjoy Mediterranean culinary delights from an enormous range of cuisines. There are of course the good old favourites such as Pizza Hut and Burger King, but if you are keen on something a touch more authentic, some local “raciones” or “tapas” of pork, anchovies, octopus and spicy prawns will have you coming back for more. From pub grub to fish & chips, mouth watering steaks to irresistible seafood dishes, there is always something for everyone. During the evenings after sunset, guests have an enormous selection of cafes, restaurants and bars, where they can be wined and dined at pleasure until late hours of the evening.
Grand Casemates Square, locally known as la plaza, Casemates Square or Casemates, is the largest of the two main squares located in the city centre of Gibraltar, and is used for special events throughout the year, hosting various shows, festivals and nightlife. Now in the twenty-first century, music bands and partying are an important part of the tourism and economy of Gibraltar. Regular bands perform everything from sultry flamenco to good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. As well as that, during the months of summer, the plaza becomes the venue for the annual Summer Nights programme, a mix of talents on show, from various dance groups to X-factor and BGT contestants. There is always something for every age group, even a bouncy castle and face painting for the kids.
We have covered dining out, cocktail sipping, people watching, music bands, and summer night action, but there are still several other Gibraltar attractions located right here in the square, that we still haven’t yet covered. Casemates hosts several special events that are held throughout the year. Hopefully your visit will coincide with one of them and you will be fortunate enough to take part in the local celebration. National Day (10th Sept), May Day (1st May) and New Year’s Eve celebrations (31st Dec) are to name but a few. It can be quite an experience to celebrate these fantastic holidays alongside the majority of Gibraltar’s population all gathering together in the square.
One of the chief attractions at the Casemates Square not yet mentioned is the Ceremony of the Keys. It is a re-enactment of the locking of the gates that lead to the old Gibraltar garrisons. Like its counterpart in London, the Ceremony of the Keys, carries on the tradition that history is not dull but a living part of life. The ceremony is performed once a year courtesy of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and re-enacted every Saturday at noon by the Gibraltar Re-enactment Association. Perhaps that only adds to the mystery and attraction of the Casemate area, the ghosts of the people who fought and died for this lonely bit of strategic ground.
Anything else you can experience at Casemates Square? The answer is yes. Right at the entrance to the plaza through the main gate, take a few minutes to visit the Gibraltar Crystal. Watch in amazement as glass blowers create a wide range of fascinating glass pieces that you can take home as souvenirs of Gibraltar. As well as that, they have a museum on the premises boasting some valued pieces of glass, that will definitely perk your interest.
Slightly further along, just outside Al Frescos Fish & Chips, a most unusual weapon can be observed. A Koehler depression gun carriage, with its barrel pointing towards the ground. Invented by Lieutenant Koehler in 1782, its main function was to fire downwards on the enemy during the height of the Great Siege. It’s this very innovative aspect of the cannon that makes people wonder how the cannon ball didn’t roll out before firing. In fact it was merely common practice as with all muzzle loaders, that the ball was kept in place by a wad that was forced up the barrel just after the cannon ball. What is interesting about this extraordinary cannon, is that it once again demonstrates the great importance of Gibraltar, and the lengths that were taken to retain control of the Rock and entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Between the years of 1309 and 1809, a mere 500 years, the Rock of Gibraltar holds an incredible record of being besieged an amazing fourteen times.
Back to Casemates, located a little further up from the Koehler depression gun, a lifelike statue of a soldier was introduced to the square in 2004. It commemorates the Gibraltar regiment and their fearless dedication to the protection of the Rock.
A bit of archaeology too. During the excavations and refurbishment of the square in the 1990s, the archaeological remains of a galley house were discovered and unearthed. The foundations of this galley house are actually still on display within the plaza.
Last but not least, take the opportunity to enjoy some duty free shopping. Casemates Square and Main Street run parallel to each other where visitors can find local history and culture entwined, as they shop till their hearts content. From every sort of electronic gizmo to filling up your makeup bag and more, Gibraltar has a famous history of shopkeepers and busy traders dating back to 1800’s when all sorts of new inter country trade was brought in via its port. The most popular products sought after include electronics, jewellery, perfume, cosmetics, spirits and tobacco.
Grand Casemates Square, home of the time traveller whilst you eat, drink, shop and contemplate a vast history, will leave you with phenomenal memories. It’s an all year round hive of activity mixed with ongoing traditions and first class entertainment for every age group. An absolute must during your visit to Gibraltar.
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