EUROPE’S most southerly town looks out across the Strait of Gibraltar where two mighty continents collide. But the clash of cultures is entirely geographic.
Indeed, Tarifa radiates such a calming vibe it would threaten to relax the mighty shoulders of the titan Atlas himself but there’s no danger of the sky falling down…Hercules’ two mythological pillars (Gibraltar and Mount Jebel Musa in Morocco) have long since relieved him of that burden.
Shaded by pine forest, cushioned by soft dunes, and 14 kilometres from Africa, this Costa de la Luz gem’s Carribean-copy beaches and laid-back vibe set it apart from the more structured resorts along the Malaga coast to the east.
And that’s unlikely to change thanks to Tarifa’s protected location in El Estrecho Natural Park.
The coastal town in Cadiz province is an endearing mix of beach bum bohemianism and boutique chic, with the added attraction of great seafood and restorative Atlantic winds.
It makes it the perfect escape (along with its near neighbours, including Vejer, Zahara and Canos de Meca) from the high season heat and bustle of the nearby Costa del Sol.
The brisk breezes, in particular, make this remote corner of Andalucia a Mecca for wind and kite surfers, a community of barefoot adventurers who came and never left.
But it is not just the wind that drives tourists to Tarifa, which harbours more than a thousand years of history within its atmospheric old medina.
Pass through the famous Puerta de Jerez archway and drift effortlessly into a maze of whitewashed streets, past a mosaic of hip boutiques, tasty tapas bars and evocative secret plazas.
“I only came out here as a favour, with no real plans to stay yet here I am 15 years on. But that’s Tarifa,” cafe owner Adele told me with more than a little pride.
Adele’s cosy ‘cafe in the arch,’ as it is known about town, is a popular pit-stop for newcomers, who mingle effortlessly with the affable Tarifidians and digital nomads who seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence inside.
From here your feet naturally gravitate downhill to the ocean, along meandering cobbles and through arabesque squares perfumed by orange trees and shaded by palms.
The journey ends at Tarifa’ s bustling port where old salts still embark to fish the tuna-rich waters with almadraba trap nets, the ancient Phoenecian way.
Various local companies navigate the waters of the Strait, offering close encounters with the dolphins and whales that swim this salty corridor running between Spain and north Africa.
Cross it you probably will if you’re staying here for any length of time…You can resist the beguiling views of the hazy purple Riff mountains for only so long before curiosity wins out and you find yourself Tangier-bound on one of the frequent daily ferries.
But you can get some of that exotic north African vibe in Tarifa.
Former leader Guzman el Bueno, the chap enjoying the best views atop a pillar outside the port, was Moroccan himself although he later worked for the other side, defending Tarifa from attack by his countrymen for the king of Spain.
The castle he defended is Moorish, dating from 996, but the citadel walls protectively encircling the old town have been scrubbed clean and repointed and look like they were built yesterday.
In fact Tarifa was key to the entire Moorish invasion, captured and given its name in 711 by Berber military commander Tarif ibn Malik.
It became the base from which Arab armies from the Maghreb set out to conquer Cordoba, Granada and Sevilla, beginning the centuries of Muslim rule that shaped this funky seaside town.
But the area goes back before that, dating from 1A.D when the Romans were coining it in with their fish-salting business and built a sizeable town right on the coast at nearby Bolonia.
The visitors centre of Baolo Claudia, where you can walk along ancient Roman roads and take a seat in the amphitheatre is an extra reason to take a side trip to this glorious beach with its 30-metre tall UNESCO-listed dune (the biggest in Europe).
Flop down at one of the wooden chiringuitos scattered along the sands and order up a feast of fresh fish, crisp calamares, pimientos de padron and an ice bucket of wine.
Moors, Cathaginians, Romans, they all recognised the Costa de la Luz as an exceptional place to live, and it’s this patchwork of cultural influences that makes Tarifa so wonderfully atmospheric and open minded.
These days it’s more famously Europe’s kitesurf capital and the only conquerors storming the city are those looking to stake a claim on the white sands of Playa Chica or Los Lances.
Day after day, depending on which way the fickle Atlantic wind blows, kites in luminous colours and patterns are hoist from the sand where they bob above the waves like little half moons (or ‘painted toenail clippings’, as someone said) against a blue screen sky.
No matter how you spend the day in Tarifa, you should stick around for its legendary nocturnal life. The surf set has attracted some of the coolest night spots on Spain’s southern coast or even, dare we say it, on the party island of Ibiza.
Come sundown, the narrow alleyways around Calle Cervantes are crowded with drinkers easing their way in and out of the numerous cocktail bars and surfer haunts
Perched in one such surfer bar I was immediately immersed in conversations that confirmed the cosmopolitan nature of this unique community.
Jovial chatter filled the room in accents that ranged well beyond the extent of Spain’s borders … Dutch and English, French and Portuguese, Argentinian Spanish as well as Andaluz.
“Tarifa is melting pot, always has been, that is the source of its appeal,” kitesurfing instructor turned Tomatito bar owner Dom tells me, in between calling out ‘holas’ and ‘qué pasa hombres’ to arriving customers.
Eager to extol the virtues of Tarifa and share the treasures of the place he traded for Norwich many summer moons ago, he continues: “Everyone is friendly here and will look out for you.
“If someone comes in on their own they won’t be wanting for company for long if they want it. It’s that kind of openness that I value about this place.”
Indeed it is not hard to see why so many people intending to pass through on their way to somewhere else tend to stop here and settle.
It is much more than a simple case of travellers reaching the edge of Spain, stopping and saying this ‘will do.’
There is a magnetic charm to Tarifa that is reflected in the warmth of the people you meet, unrattled by even the most stubborn Atlantic wind.
Perhaps it’s those same welcome summer breezes that also keep the folk in Tarifa so spiritually cool in this fascinating melting pot that simmers all summer with good vibrations but never boils over.
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