The tiny British territory at the tip of Spain, with its open border and lack of restrictions, has become the go-to place for couples looking to wed.
By Ceylan Yeginsu
When Je’nell Griffin’s husband proposed to her in November, she dreamed of having a big church ceremony in her hometown, Los Angeles, where she imagined gliding down the aisle in an ethereal gown flanked by scores of friends and family.
But eight months later, after her plans were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the 36-year-old talent recruiter found herself exchanging vows in a small conference room on a yacht hotel in Gibraltar — a tiny British territory nestled under a towering rock on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
Like many of the couples who married there this summer, Ms. Griffin had never heard of Gibraltar until it appeared at the top of a Google search for “the easiest place to get married in Europe.”
At a time when countries around the world are curtailing wedding ceremonies and imposing strict travel restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Gibraltar has welcomed couples of all nationalities, including Americans, who are determined to perform their nuptials despite the obstacles posed by the pandemic.
“It was vastly different from the dream,” said Ms. Griffin, who flew into Gibraltar from Los Angeles, via London’s Heathrow Airport. “But in the end, the reality of being married to my person far outweighed any vision.”
Many of the marriages being celebrated in Gibraltar, like Ms. Griffin’s, involve an American citizen marrying a partner from another country, because of the numerous hurdles the Trump administration has placed on immigration and travel.
“We were just tired of constantly being disappointed by all the immigration restrictions that worked against us,” Ms. Griffin said, referring to the sweeping travel ban that prevented her British fiancé from visiting her in the United States. Now that they are married, he is exempt from the ban because he is a spouse. “Living in different countries, this was the only way we could guarantee seeing each other.”
Other couples who have faced wedding restrictions in their own countries have also seized the opportunity to marry in Gibraltar this summer, ahead of a potential second wave of the virus. Ireland currently has a 50-person limit on gatherings, so Craig Byrne, 25, and Orla Moore, 22, both Irish, got married in Gibraltar in front of the registrar and two local witnesses to avoid disappointing family and friends who would not have made the cut to attend.
“As you’ll know, Irish families are big — you have your brothers and sisters and their children and then the aunts and uncles and cousins and all their children. There’s just no easy way to really choose who you are going to invite without causing a big commotion,” said Mr. Byrne, a trainee lawyer.
“In the end we just told everyone we were postponing and taking a holiday in Spain and Gibraltar. We didn’t tell our families we got married until we were back because we didn’t want any fuss leading up to it,” Mr. Byrne said with a mischievous laugh. “You can imagine how that went down with the parents.”
Even before the pandemic, Gibraltar was a popular wedding destination because of the minimal bureaucracy involved in tying the knot there. Couples are required to present their passports and birth certificates, and stay in the territory overnight either before or after their wedding. They receive their wedding certificate by mail within three weeks.
There is a history to Gibraltar weddings: John Lennon of the Beatles married Yoko Ono there, in 1969, after facing a series of setbacks in other countries.
“We chose Gibraltar because it is quiet, British and friendly,” Mr. Lennon is quoted as saying in the book “The History of British Rock and Roll.”
“We tried everywhere else first. I set out to get married on the car ferry and we would have arrived in France married, but they wouldn’t do it,” he said. “We were no more successful with cruise ships. We tried embassies, but three weeks’ residence in Germany or two weeks’ in France were required.”
Few of the couples getting married in Gibraltar on a recent weekend had concerns about the risks of traveling there during the pandemic. So far, the territory has managed to contain the spread of the virus, reporting fewer than 350 total cases and no deaths. However, cases have spiked in recent weeks and the territory’s open border with Spain, where the health ministry reported nearly 9,000 new cases last Friday, prompted Wales to remove Gibraltar from its list of countries exempt from quarantine requirements.
Still, wedding planners are reporting huge demand; the flights on British Airways and easyJet were full throughout August and slots at the registry office — the British equivalent of an American City Hall wedding bureau — are booked up until November.
“We were just expecting people to cancel or postpone, but as soon as the travel restrictions were lifted in July the phones wouldn’t stop ringing,” said Chamaine Cruz, the founder of the wedding events company Sweet Gibraltar Weddings. “It makes sense as it’s easy to get married here. It’s cheap, there are many direct flights and the marriage certificate provided is recognized worldwide.”
Rock Occasions, another wedding planning service in Gibraltar, reported a 20 percent increase in bookings through the end of August.
“The couples coming here are determined that the pandemic does not ruin their lives. They just want to get on with it,” said Resham Mahtanim, a wedding and event coordinator at Rock Occasions.
Olivia Windham Stewart, a 34-year-old British human rights specialist, who married her American partner in Gibraltar’s botanical gardens last week, echoed that determination. “It’s been such a frustrating and disappointing year, having to slow down all our life plans, so it was such a big relief when we found Gibraltar and realized that there was a place where we could actually get married,” she said.
Throughout the day, couples line up outside Gibraltar’s Civil Status and Registration Office, waiting in anticipation for their ceremony, which takes place in a drab room, brightened up by a youthful portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and typically lasts around 15 minutes.
Afterward, couples stand in front of the building’s blue shutters and pose for photos, some wearing full wedding attire, complete with bridal veil and pocket square, others in summer dresses and slacks.
One item of clothing is mandatory for the ceremony: a face covering (even during the first kiss).
The bizarre circumstances bring couples from all over the world together and on a recent weekend, after their ceremonies, many of them joined locals and tourists at the Ocean Village Marina, a popular drinking spot on the harbor, and celebrated in the bustling restaurants and bars with Champagne and live music; those sitting outside at the bars and restaurants mostly did not wear masks.
Amanda Durocher, an American teacher, married her British fiancé on a quick trip to Gibraltar in August.
Emotionally, she said, the process had been draining. “For us, leading up to it was super anxious and then it was a relief,” she said. “And now we just feel so overjoyed by knowing that we have some more control over our lives.”
Still, like other brides who traveled with their partners to Gibraltar alone, Ms. Durocher found aspects of the process surreal and lonely.
“You have to skip all the details like mimosas with your girlfriends, getting your hair done, your mom zipping you into your dress,” she said.
“Alex and I got ready together. He zipped up my dress and I didn’t feel nervous at all until the ceremony,” she continued. “That’s when it hit me, like ‘oh my God, this is actually happening and it’s happening right here, right now.’”
After their ceremonies, many couple embrace the opportunity to travel after months of being cooped up inside during lockdown and stay on in Gibraltar to take a vacation. They hike to the top of the limestone rock, rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the Mount Sidi Musa — one of the pillars of Hercules in Greek mythology — on the northern tip of Morocco.
Those visiting from Britain described a sense of familiarity as they came across British-style street signs, iconic red telephone boxes and gastro-pubs among the Andalusian-style townhouses.
“When you are sitting here on the Mediterranean under the sun you realize that there is a crazy upside to this whole thing,” Ms. Windham Stewart said. “If we weren’t traveling to Gibraltar to get married, we would just be stuck in North London working.”
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