Gibraltar and its famous rock are home to more than 200 caves due to erosion of the limescale rock. St Michael’s cave is a much-loved tourist attraction in Gibraltar and its mystery is part of its universal appeal. Even though it’s over 300m above sea level, rumours say that the cave is bottomless. There’s been a long held belief that Gibraltar is linked to Africa by a passage under the Strait of Gibraltar. It is believed that this is how the Macaques arrived! The puzzling story of the disappearance of Colonel Mitchell and another officer who were rumoured to have entered the cave before 1840 and were never seen again. The story gained momentum and the caves were searched in 1840, 1857 and 1865. Two further and more thorough searches were conducted in 1936 and 1938, but no remains were found. Was this just a case of a piece of fiction gaining too much attention or do the caves really descend forever?
In 1974 a Neolithic bowl was found in St Michael’s cave. Then later an ibex drawn with charcoal was discovered, aged to be between 15,000 – 20,000 years old. In nearby caves, two Neolithic skulls have been found and are dated from 40,000 years ago.
The caves in Gibraltar were well known to the Greeks as Homer wrote of the “wonderous cavern that adorn this landscape”. Around 45 AD, geographer Pomponius Mela’s description of Gibraltar was “a mountain with wonderful concavities, which has its western side almost opened by a large cave which may be penetrated far into the interior.”
In 1704 500 Spanish troops climbed up the east face of the rock of Gibraltar and used the cave to sleep in overnight. The next morning they unsuccessfully tried to ambush the Anglo-Dutch troops who had recently taken the rock. The Victorians were the first to light up the cave and use it for leisure and entertainment. St Michael’s cave was used for picnics, parties, concerts, weddings and even duels! During WWII, Gibraltar was tunnelled extensively for defence and storage. St Michael’s cave was prepared to serve as an emergency hospital but it was not needed.
Since 2021, the lighting in St Michael’s cave has been revamped and they have installed an experience called the Awakening. Looking at their website the Awakening is something they are proud of, An immersive light and sound installation expressing layers upon layers of history fused with the Rock. These ancient clocks now lay dormant. The Awakening illuminates these sculptures of time and reawakens their hidden story.
The show runs every 20 minutes and it’s a chance for you to sit down in the auditorium and enjoy the natural beauty of the cave. Children will enjoy the light show and is engaging for them compared to the information boards. However as adults the show felt a bit like a gimmick which I think is down to calling it The Awakening and making such a big deal of how enlightened we were going to feel afterwards.
St Michael’s cave is one of the highlights on the rock. We got the cable car up to the top and worked our way down, and the cave is the only spot where you can grab a bite or drink. Just watch out for the macaques who will literally fight you for a morsel. It’s probably best to stay inside whilst you eat and I would recommend getting a pint on tap whilst you are there. The caves are truly beautiful and it can get quite busy so take your time going around rather than getting swept around by a guided group on a time limit. It’s worth sitting down before or after the light show in the auditorium and just taking in the grand natural space around you.
St Michael’s cave is included in the Nature reserve ticket price of £18. It’s open from 9-18.15, with last entry at 17.45. We did try to gain access to a tour of the lower part of the cave, however communication from the guide was very poor and the lack of schedule or booking system eventually led to a lot of wasted time and no tour.
Last Updated on 23 September 2023 by Michael