It's known as the wind capital of Europe – but Tarifa in Spain is also a fascinating town at the edge of the Continent, writes VICTORIA WHITE
WHEN YOU walk along the causeway at the beginning of the main beach in Tarifa, at the southwestern tip of Spain, the Mediterranean is on one side of you, the Atlantic on the other, Africa in front of you while Europe is behind you. You are at the edge of one world and at the frontier of another.
Perhaps Tarifa has a special appeal for Irish visitors for this reason. So much of being Irish is about looking out across the Atlantic and imagining another life. The southwest coast of Spain, the Costa de la Luz, feels like another chapter of the same story.
But that’s not why we chose to holiday in Tarifa. We were looking to buy off our pre-teen children and still have a good time ourselves. The winds which come in off the Atlantic over the huge beach of Playa de los Lances give Tarifa the name “wind capital of Europe” and put it among the best wind- and kitesurfing beaches in the world.
There are dozens of surfing schools, and also diving, biking and horse-riding (see gotarifa.com or visit the friendly tourist office on Paseo de la Alameda).
We also have a bird-mad boy and Tarifa offers migrating birds a short crossing to and from Africa. We went in late April, described as one of the migratory “rush hours” in the literature (the other is in the autumn) when you can apparently see “huge numbers” of honey buzzards and even the odd black stork.
Predictably, we didn’t, but we did see quite a few eagles and I got terribly emotional about the swallows nesting in the hallway of our attractively crumbling 18th century apartment in the old town.
The best thing about Tarifa is that the old town, a Moorish warren of winding streets built on the site of Carthaginian and Roman settlements, is 10 minutes’ walk from the beach. So you can wander the town and buy your picnic provisions in the old Moorish covered market, which sells the usual amazing Spanish array of sea creatures, as well as bread and fruit and charcuterie.
You can wander on down to the beach when the mood takes you, and then you can choose between the windy challenges of the endless Playa de los Lances or stay on the other side of the causeway at the calm, small Playa Chica. The kids snorkelled and saw such luminous sea life they would come back gasping about “another world”.
The straits beyond Tarifa, between two seas and two continents, are a very attractive spot for whales and dolphins, and several companies offer whale-watching boat trips out of the harbour.
We went with the terribly zoologically correct Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals (firmm.org) and saw crowds of pilot whales out for a splash with their constant companions, the bottlenose dolphins. The kids got to eyeball one of them from the front of the boat.
ALL THE TIME you’re looking at the Rif mountains of Morocco and inevitably you’re going to want to go there. The crossing between Tarifa and Tangier, at 35 minutes, is the fastest anywhere, and you can do a day trip for €60 (see frs.es).
This company also does two and three-day all-in trips, but we opted to go independently. This involved two long rides through the Moroccan countryside in a bockety Mercedes taxi, and in a Berber village near the town of Assilah.
The B&B in Morocco (berbari.com) was a cluster of traditional dwellings with a straw roof in which the returning storks had made huge nests. The red earth all around seemed to be humming with life after spring rain, flowers in deep orange and pink bursting out of buds.
Traditionally-clad people ambled by on donkeys to fetch water from the well. It can’t have been much fun for them, but my children were awe-struck by their first brush with subsistence farming.
Away from this idyll, however, in pretty, walled Assilah on the ocean’s edge, and in Tangier’s souk, we were hassled nearly to despair. We more or less ran back to the Tarifa ferry and felt immediately the comparative cool and calm of Europe.
The cultural distance you cover in that 14km of seawater is astonishing, particularly when you think that the Moors ruled Andalucia for 700 years, after Tarif Ibn Malik crossed the straits to the town now named after him, Tarifa. Of course, the border isn’t natural, but policed now by Spanish helicopters and coastal patrols.
You begin to see how much of a frontier state Andalucia is. The Easter processions, from the 15th century church of San Mateo in the heart of the town, were clearly shows of Christian strength – a bit like Orange parades. Which is not to say the “thrones” carrying ornate effigies of Jesus and Mary, swaying with the effort of the many men who carried them, weren’t hugely impressive. I won’t soon forget suddenly coming on the statue of the body of Christ surrounded by candles and laid out on a bier on Good Friday.
THE 106KM up the coast towards the city of Cadiz, easily explored by car or by bus, are beach-fringed and backed by wonderful nature reserves. Obvious stops are the Roman archaeological site, Baelo Claudia, with its ancient fish paste factory, and the white-washed, elevated town of Vejer de la Frontera.
Cadiz, reputedly the oldest city in Europe, is a stunning Phoenician city, surrounded by water, so every lively, narrow street seems to end in the sea. Its carnival in February is the most famous in Spain.
The museum, with artefacts such as a statue of Hercules (said to have founded the city) from 200 BC and the clay containers in which Baelo Claudia’s fish paste was traded is like the textbook which tells this particularly fascinating chapter of the Atlantic story.
Tarifa where to . . .
The cool, bohemian Tarifa clientele ensures there’s a huge variety of characterful old apartments available on websites such as gotarifa.com.
For instance, Casa Marrakech, which sleeps four, is in the middle of the old town and has a harbour view from the terrace (€60 per night in low season, €145 in high season). Modern apartments on Playa de los Lances are a good bet too –
they are all low-key and low-rise, though it seems the recession may be all that’s keeping back a wave of development.
If I were going without kids, I’d head to the Casa Amarilla (lacasaamarilla.net), an aparthotel right in the middle of the old town in a fabulous, yellow-tiled 19th century building. Prices for apartments for two, with the services of a restaurant and cafe, range from €52 in low season to €95 per night in high season.
If you have transport, there are lots of houses in the countryside, including the two famous El Cancho eco-houses designed by Swedish architect Thomas Sandell on an elevated site about 7km west of Tarifa. The Wallpaper House sleeps up to four and rates are between €120 per night low season and €150 high season; the Boston Beach House sleeps four to six and rates are between €145 per night low season and €190 high season (tarifabeachhouse.com).
Close to El Cancho is the iconic Hurricane Hotel (hurricanehotel.com), which looks like the Hotel California on the front of the Eagles album. Situated in its own extensive gardens, which supply the restaurant, with a great pool and access to a fabulous beach, this is one to dream of visiting (beachfront doubles from €104 low season to €171 high season and family suites from €145 low season to €255 high season).
We loved the Cerveceria Freiduria Varadero (C/ Alcalde Juan Nunez) on the way to the beach, good old Spanish fish and chips and beer on a traditional cane-roofed terrace.
Also on this street, and perfect after thrashing in the waves, is Churreria La Palmera, where you are served big vats of thick chocolate and huge plates of churros.
Don’t miss the tiny Bar Rico (Coronel Moscardo) – TV on, holy statues, wonderful tapas.
The traditional bakery, La Tarifena, (Nuestra Senora de la Luz) serves Tarifa’s sweet, Arabic-inspired confectionery.
Paella and platos combinados are on offer in the Restaurante Alameda (Paseo Alameda), which has flamenco performances on Thursday nights.