If it were not for the British presence in Gibraltar the town of La Linea de la Concepción would not exist and since 1704 the inhabitants have been at once living in its shadow yet prospering from its proximity despite almost three hundred years of disputed ownership.
In 1727 Felipe V decided he disagreed with the terms of the treaty of Utrecht, declared the treaty null and void and sent an army to retake Gibraltar. The Spanish army established itself on the sandy isthmus between the present day town and the Rock basing itself around the only substantial building there, a 16th century watch tower, the remains of which can still be seen on Playa Levante. We can only conjecture now how the few people living in the village of La Atunara a couple of kilometres away must have felt since they had been happily trading with the military presence on Gibraltar since 1704. Happily the needs of one army replaced another and, as we shall see, the needs of two armies raised a town.
The Spanish army has had a considerable presence in La Linea since then and even to this day and it is that presence that caused the development of a town, originally called Linea de Contravalación de la Plaza de Gibraltar that translates literally as Line of Exchange of the Place of Gibraltar; exchange in this case being used in the military sense. The eastern end of the line was the massive fortification of Santa Bárbara the remains of which are now open to the public.
So began a blockade of Gibraltar that often became a siege during which any exchange was bullets and cannon balls. The latest blockade, thankfully with no exchange of fire, was between 1969 and 1982 with border restrictions being finally lifted in 1985. However Felipe V's ambitions were never realised and Gibraltar remained firmly British. The Spanish army consolidated its position and the town grew up to support it. The oldest building in La Linea, built between 1863 and 1865, is the Old Military Headquarters in Plaza de la Constitución that now contains El Museo del Istmo, (the Isthmus Museum). Only opened to the public in 2003 it contains some excellent and rare maps and charts created by Spanish and French cartographers depicting the military and naval history of the area since 1704.
The oldest building may have had a military purpose but the second oldest was for more peaceful pursuits, the 19th century colonial style church, the Parroquia de la Inmaculada and the square outside became the civilian centre of the town that grew rapidly to provide all the services and entertainment that an army requires.
The townspeople soon discovered, like their neighbours in La Atunara, that having the British on Gibraltar was not entirely a bad thing. They were eager customers for the fresh fruit, meat, fish and vegetables from the surrounding fertile valleys of southern Spain. A thriving meat and fish market was established that is still one of the best in this part of Spain and migration between La Linea and Gibraltar became a daily occurrence. Much of the fortification work on Gibraltar carried out between 1704 and 1945 was accomplished using labour from La Linea. Even during blockades and sieges the contrabanistos kept limited lines of supply open although they tended to trade in tobacco and spirits rather than meat and tomatoes. In three hundred years very little changes, Gibraltar still depends on fresh supplies from La Linea, the border still attracts smugglers and workers still cross the border from their homes in La Linea and the surrounding area. After the blockade, in 1985, many Gibraltarians realized the cost of living was cheaper in Spain and moved off the Rock so today the migration is both ways.
First time visitors to La Linea tend to be passing through on their way to Morrisons supermarket or walking from the airport, across the border to the nearest taxi rank or the bus station just across the road intent on reaching the more popular destinations along the Costa. Rarely is La Linea thought of as a tourist destination itself but, behind the dilapidated, crumbling façade presented to those on the only two roads in or out of the place there lies a town that is vibrant and already with a surprising number of ex patriot residents who with foresight, saw and benefited from something others did not see.
On the eastern side of the town Playa de Santa Bárbara stretches from the heavily wired and permanently watched border to the fort and Playa de Levante continues as far as La Atunara, the picturesque fishing port on the Mediterranean side of the isthmus. The recently refurbished Paseo Maritimo is a pleasant 2 kilometre stroll from the fort to the old church and the traditional restaurants that surround the harbour. The western side of the isthmus is rapidly becoming La Linea's competing response to the marina at Gibraltar. An ambitious scheme to create an attractive alternative venue and haven for pleasure boats is well underway with many yachts already taking advantage of this most easterly marina on the Atlantic.
Within the town it is also apparent that La Linea is experiencing rejuvenation. The Plaza de la Constitución is now the centre of town. From there the two main pedestrianised shopping streets, Calle Real and Calle del Sol offer the visitor a glimpse of a thriving Spanish town as yet untarnished by undue foreign influences. Tapas bars rub shoulders with restaurants and fashion shops stand alongside jewellers in the typical colourful, noisy, eclectic mix found in Spanish towns. From Plaza de la Constitución, the straight road south, Avenida 20 de Abril, offers an open view of the Rock and the Customs Post at the border for traffic and pedestrians entering Gibraltar. Parallel to it is a road called Prolongacion Calle Gibraltar that motorists and pedestrians must take as they leave the Rock. A final reminder as you depart Gibraltar that Spain still covets the last five kilometres of the peninsula to Europa Point.
Yet even there, on the Spanish side of the border, the canny Linenses, as the residents of La Linea are called in Spanish, are ready to trade with anybody entering or leaving Spain. The 24 hour Andalucia Diner, looking like a gigantic stainless steel motor home, pavement cafes, car hire firms, a new small shopping precinct and a not so new restaurant that resembles a pirate ship occupy the space that was once no man's land between the Spanish and British lines. Alongside is the Parque Municipal Princesa Sofia with its impregnable concrete bunkers built by German engineers during the Second World War, a sinister reminder that not so long ago Spain was prepared to retake Gibraltar using force. Today diplomacy rules and the bunkers can be visited by booking a guided tour at the Tourist Information Office.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.