Tarifa – the alchemist of Andalusia
Kite-surfing at Tarifa, Spain. Photograph: Getty Images
Darkly-dressed Moroccans carrying stitched sacks pile off the gargantuan catamaran that looms over the fortified walls of Tarifa. Africa is just 11 km away, across the Straits of Gibraltar. The cedar forests of the Rif mountains where some of these families have come from are faintly visible through the haze. The ferry signs are in Arabic and Spanish. In fact, most things in this finely tapered needle of Europe jutting south from the Andalusian coast seem caught in suspension between two continents, like a slowly-dripping stalactite about to connect with its stalagmite.
Tarifa is where Paulo Coelho’s Santiago character in The Alchemist came to crystallise his vision of an ideal life. It works a similar magic on many. I ended up there by looking for a place I thought I would never find: somewhere to escape the Irish winter with cheap flights, guaranteed sunshine, pristine beaches, great food and areas of wilderness to hike in.
Behind the castellated walls of the old town are narrow, cobbled 18th-century lanes with whitewashed, stone-carved buildings in a mix of Iberian mercado and Moroccan medina styles. It feels like both a Berber village and a Spanish sherry town. The culinary influences are equally mixed – locally caught tuna and roasted quail alongside tagines and Moroccan pies.
It’s no surprise to learn the Moors and the Christians fought over this area for seven centuries from 711AD. Then, later, the British arrived from neighbouring Gibraltar. The most recent invasion is by kite surfers. Dutch and German camper vans now line the fishing port with towels flapping from the windows like battalion ensigns.
There are 10km of white sandy beaches, a bit windy for sunbathing, but perfect for wind and kite surfers whose sails and kites splash the sky with delirious displays of colour. Until the surfers came, Tarifa was a traditional fishing village and much of it feels unchanged for centuries. A large militarised zone along the coast from Gibraltar has persevered, giving a lingering clandestine atmosphere to the place, a sense of untold secrets waiting to be uncovered.
For me, the real treat is that Tarifa is a bus ride from Malaga airport, which Aer Lingus and Ryanair so diligently serve. Furthermore, I can swim there in December along a causeway that separates the Atlantic from the Mediterranean – the Atlantic is warmer, though only three metres of granite divide them. Also, I can walk along an endless shore trail to the west or a cliff-top trail to the east or else inland through cork forests, olive groves and subtropical river valleys in the Natural Parks of El Estrecho and Alcornocales.
In fact, the long-distance GR 7 hiking route, which traverses most of southern Europe from Greece, ends in Tarifa, so walking possibilities within Europe are practically unlimited. If one chooses to follow Coelho’s Santiago on the ferry crossing to Africa, even greater possibilities await.