SPAIN: The Trafalgar coast, the Andalusian Caribbean
Once neglected by tourist promoters, the section of coastline stretching between Chiclana, south of Cadiz, and Tarifa, on the southern tip of Andalusia, is on the way to becoming a Mecca for surfers and the favourite destination of many tourists looking for more authentic holidays, rooted in the land.
The section of coastline stretching south of Cadiz was for a very long time neglected on account of strong easterly winds in the Straits of Gibraltar... Over the years, these same winds that kept the region out of the tourist boom have proved to be its principal asset: not only by transforming this coast into one of the most renowned surf spots in the world, but by safeguarding the almost virgin nature of its beaches, pine woods and cliffs.
Protected from the temptations of mass tourism, the natives are unaffected and particularly welcoming. So don’t be content with the pleasures of the beach – immerse yourselves in these villages, even if they don’t all have exceptional cachet, you can explore their gastronomic and cultural heritage on their bustling squares and markets, which radiate joie de vivre.
Chiclana de la Frontera
If we start with Chiclana, it is not so much because of its beaches (although they are magnificent) as for the typical atmosphere of this town, which has retained the soul of the little white villages of the provinces. If you are lucky enough to arrive on a Saturday morning, don’t hesitate to plunge into the bustle of its market, on calle de la Plaza. In the same street you will find the church of San Telmo, dating from 1783, recognisable by its bell tower with ornamental apertures. Inside you will see some altarpieces and paintings (Inmaculada de Mulato) and the image of Our Lady of Los Remedios (protectress of Chiclana), which was found in the 16th century.
A few steps further on, you will reach the covered market whose stalls are packed with perfectly laid out products: fish from the bay of Cadiz, vegetables from La Janda and succulent chicharrones, a kind of pork scratchings that are a little too fatty but so delicious... Also make sure to stop in some of the bodegas in the same street, where highly renowned sherries mature. The Bodega San Sebastián, for example, is worth a visit, if only for its historic setting.
Leave this bodega by the door that gives onto Jesús Nazareno street. On the square of the same name stands Chiclana’s most significant Baroque monument: the church and convent of Jesús Nazareno. The complex was built from 1667 to 1674 and financed by donations made by merchants from Cadiz, made wealthy thanks to trade with the Indies. Outside, the Genoese Baroque door of Carrara marble is one of the finest in the province. The interior is particularly remarkable for its Baroque altarpieces from the 17th and 18th centuries and for the wooden sculpture of Jesús Nazaren, on the high altar. As for the delicious almond tart prepared by the convent’s good Augustine sisters, it is quite simply a blessing.
We did warn you, Chiclana, is also (and above all) a beach: La Barrosa, a long ribbon of sand over 7 km (4 miles) long. Apparently the composer from Cadiz, Manuel de Falla, found inspiration for his Atlantis here. This beach is renowned for its fine sand and beautiful scenery because, although partly urbanised, it retains a relatively wild aspect with its dunes and pine woods. At dusk, the sun gives a reddish glow to the fort of the islet of Sancti Petri where, according to legend, a Phoenician temple dedicated to Melkart (Hercules) once stood.
Like Chiclana, Conil is aptly nicknamed “de la Frontera” (of the border). Although this name historically dates back to the Reconquista – the reconquest of the peninsula against the Moors – one cannot ignore its geopolitical nature, being a stone’s throw from the Moroccan coast, caught between two worlds, on a land formerly trodden by sailors, soldiers, pirates and adventurers.
Seen from the beach, Conil appears as a white village on the hillside between the ocean and the river Salado. Several monuments stand out from this white labyrinthine mass: the Guzmán Tower, built in the 14th century at the wish of the hero of the Reconquest, Guzmán the Good; the parish church of Santa Catalina, which retains some original Renaissance elements (16th century); and the church of Santa Catalina, erected in the 16th century on old foundations. The 19th century restoration added elements of different styles, hence its composite character, typical of the region. Today the square where it stands is one of the liveliest places in the village at nightfall.
The best way to explore the little town and its history is still to join the guided tour organised every Wednesday by the tourist office. The tourist office also offers a bicycle ride along the coast, from the mouth of the river Salado as far as Roche, a chic seaside resort where you can visit the harbour and fish auction. It’s worth stopping at the Rochelighthouse, where there is a remarkable panorama, in particular the view of the coves and the dehesa de Roche (old area of pasture land intended for stock breeding), classed as a site of community interest.
On the other bank of the Salado, south of Conil, lies Castilnovo beach, a vast stretch of fine sand over which the old watchtower of Castilnovo keeps guard. Thanks to the sustained efforts of the local council, this section of beach has remained unspoilt with, in the background, a vast plain devoted to farming and stock breeding. This beach, which is very popular with naturists, is an ideal place to leave your troubles behind for a day of relaxation... On condition, of course, that the easterly wind – the dreaded Levante – is not blowing too strongly!
Heading south along Castilnovo beach, you come to El Palmar, the seafront of Vejer de la Frontera. Barely ten years ago, this section of coastline was frequented only by the inhabitants of neighbouring villages and a few families of naturists. Today it is a cosmopolitan and exotic crowd of motor homes, surfers and kitesurfers who follow certain rituals, such as the pantheistic liturgy that brings together an enraptured crowd on the beach at the moment when the sun is swallowed up by the sea.
Later in the evening, the chiringuitos (the beach cafes) fill up with beautiful people, trendy young things and surfers, who dance and party on the sand late into the night.
Despite all this activity, the village of El Palmar has not succumbed to the sirens of society life: most of its inhabitants continue to work in farming, fishing or stock breeding. So don’t be surprised by the incongruous proximity of holiday villas and bungalows with fields, vegetable gardens and farmyards.
Caños de Meca
Further south are Zahora beach and the Trafalgar lighthouse, which mounts guard facing the place where the Franco-Spanish fleet suffered one of its most bitter defeats over 200 years ago. Still heading south we reach Caños de Meca, legendary destination of hippies in the 1970s. For a very long time this place remained untouched by the official moral code promulgated by Francoism. Caños was notably a pioneer in the practice of naturism, and a somewhat outmoded hippie and punk atmosphere still reigns here today.
If the scorching temperatures of the south of Andalusia encourage you to stop for a swim in the sea here, we advise you to head for the central part of the beach, which is quieter because it is frequented by families and locals. To the south, the coves and cliffs are the domain of the heirs of the hippies of yesteryear. It is also here that the caños (springs) that gave the village its name are to be found: they gush from the cliff overlooking the sea. If you happen to come across some strange greenish-grey creatures, don’t be surprised: the cliffs are rich in clay and one of the favourite pastimes of the holidaymakers – very beneficial for the skin, so they say – consists of smearing it all over the body, leaving it to dry and walking to wash it off at the last spring, which forms a curtain of water on the threshold of a natural cave. An idyllic spot, but dangerous on account of landslides and tides that can trap you without warning.
These cliffs are part of the Natural Park of La Breña y Marismas del Barbate, which is home to birds such as the buff-backed heron, egret and herring gull, the jackdaw, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch and bluetit. Among the birds with large wingspans are the peregrine falcon and kestrel. They all occupy a habitat consisting of umbrella pines, red juniper (Juniperus turbinata) and undergrowth where rosemary, dwarf palms, blackthorn and broom grow. With a bit of luck you might come across the rare common chameleon, which forms one of the biggest colonies in Spain here. You will discover these marvels by taking the paths that crisscross the park. One of them leads to the chapel of San Ambrosio: built in the 7th century, it still displays Visigothic elements.
Returning to civilisation, we enter Barbate, formerly devoted to fishing but today more tourist-oriented. This little town bursting with life might surprise those setting foot here for the first time: everything, from the way people drive to the way they speak or dress, seems to fit a code known to the natives alone. After the first impression has worn off, one nevertheless discovers an affable and welcoming people, who like to joke, enjoy the pleasures of life and are jealous of their character and customs. To blend in with them, there’s nothing better than to stretch out on Playa del Carmen beach, or take the ritual evening walk along the seafront.
The place known as Zahara de los Atunes is also part of the district of Barbate. Its name – de los atunes meaning “of the tuna” – leaves no doubt about the link that binds the population to the trap nets. In Zahara, as well as tasting the best tuna in the area, you can make the most of the long, fine-sand beaches and let your imagination run free at the sight of the remains of Castillo de la Almadraba, a castle built for the dukes of Medina-Sidonia in the 15th century in order to safeguard the trap nets from the greed of the pirates.
As you can see, this fringe of coastline is rather special in the Spanish tourist economy. If you want to find a more classic resort, Atlanterra is nearby with its “Germans’ beach”, the Beverly Hills of Cadiz, as well as the bay of Bolonia, its famous dune and Roman site, and Tarifa, a Mecca for surfers and an age-old crossroads of peoples and cultures.
Photo credit: © Antonio Campos