St Michael's Cave
St Michael’s Cave has interested visitors to Gibraltar ever since the days of the Romans. The Cave was long believed to be bottomless. This probably gave birth to the story that the Rock of Gibraltar was linked to the Continent of Africa by a subterranean passage over 15 miles (24km) long under the Strait of Gibraltar. The famous Rock Apes were said to have come to Gibraltar through this under-sea passage. The story also said that the passage emerges at Leonora’s Cave, which begins inside St. Michael’s Cave itself.
Pomponious Mela, one of the earliest writers on geography who lived about the beginning of the Christian era, described Calpe (the Roman name for Gibraltar) as, ”A mountain with wonderful concavities, which has its western side almost opened by a large cave which may be penetrated far into the interior”. An early description of St. Michael’s Cave says, “it is narrow at its entrance but wide within, like a pitcher”, while a third writer tells us that it was dedicated as a shrine to Hercules.
It was at one time believed that when the Spaniards first tried to retake Gibraltar from Britain in 1704, a party of 500 of their troops spent a night in the cave after climbing the precipitous east face of the Rock by a path shown to them by a shepherd. Next morning, however, the alarm was given and troops of the garrison surprised and overpowered the raiding party.
Colonel Mitchell and another officer were said to have descended into Leonora's Cave at some unspecified date before 1840 and were never seen again. This story led to extensive explorations of the cave in 1840, 1857 and 1865, but no trace of the missing officers was ever discovered. A scientific exploration of every hole, crevice and passage the cave made in the years 1936-1938 did not reveal any human bones or recent rockfalls which could have covered the remains of their own and arranged the story to cover their disappearance. The cave consists of an Upper Hall, connected with five passages, with drops of between 40 feet (12.2m) and 150 feet (45.7m) to a smaller hall. Beyond this point a series of narrow holes leads to a further succession of chambers, reaching a depth of some 250 feet (62.5m) below the entrance.
During the Second World War the cave was prepared as an emergency hospital, but was never used. In blasting an alternative entrance to the cave - now used as a tourist exit - a further series of deeply descending chambers, was discovered now called Lower St. Michael’s Cave. These chambers end in a mini lake. Special guided tours to this lower section of St Michael’s Cave are arranged, please contact the Gibraltar Tourist Board for further details
The Cathedral Cave is now open to visitors and makes a unique auditorium for concerts, ballet and drama. It has been in use as a theatre since the early sixties and there is a seating capacity of 400. Details for hire of the cave can be obtained from the Gibraltar Tourist Board. At some period during the history of this cave, part of a stalagmite became to heavy on one side and fell, possibly thousands of years ago. It now lies on its side at the far end of the main chamber, cemented through the years by nature to the floor of the cave. In 1792 a slice 18” thick (45cm) was cut off from the top end. What remained was a cross-section which revealed the interior structure of the stalagmite in a most dramatic way. Within a diameter of approximately 4’6” (1.35m) can be seen the history of its growth. During periods of excessive rain its growth is clearly indicated by light-brown rings and patches. The darker areas were formed during periods of less rain. But perhaps the two thin lines of crumbly white substance are the most interesting part of its structure. It is believed that these represent glacial periods. Besides the cross-section the stalagmite is also translucent in certain parts. This stalagmite, which is centuries old, enables visitors to see the unique beauty of crystallised nature.