The town of Tarifa, at the southeastern end of the Costa de la Luz, is the real Spain, with a history reaching back to the Phoenicians, writes Isabel Max
It’s clearly a place worth fighting for: The town, which has changed hands between Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, and Christians, straddles the Med and Atlantic and offers a commanding position of the Straits of Gibraltar.
Historically, whoever controlled the town controlled the shipping routes between North Africa and Europe.
You need to dip back into the aeons of time, to AD 710, when the town got its name from an Arab officer named Tarif-Ibn-Malik who led the Moors’ first successful expeditionary force into Spain.
Today, it’s Tarifa’s expansive white-sandy beaches and famed winds which have tourists and kite surfers jockeying for space in her coastal waters.
But it’s the old town, a five minute walk from the beach, that ultimately gives the gorgeous landscape its wind-whipped and sea-sprayed patina.
In narrow cobblestone alleys, hemmed in by white walls inlaid with colourful doors, you’ll find yourself transported back in time to when Malik and his forces strengthened the mediaeval castle walls, parts of which still stand.
TRIP TO THE SHOPS
Very much the real Spain and ancient authentic Andalucia, the winding, cobbled streets were designed in AD 910 to offer shade at all times of day.
All the better for the modern-day shopper with the best shops to be found along Calle Nuestra Señora de la Luz which also offer something of a history lesson, as well.
The Moroccan shop, Etnika, drew me in with a kaleidoscope of colour. The dresses and scarves on display are just a precursor, though, to the textiles, ceramics and jewellery which crowded its corners. It is a treasure trove of inspiration from across the Straits.
We also popped into TalZen, a bohemian style boutique and an impressive one-woman show. Though eclectic, everything from t-shirts to talismans is thought out. I found too many souvenirs and bought them all.
A near-synonym for ‘shopping’ is ‘hungry’ and, looking for comfort food, I found Chilimosa Vegetariana.
In a tiny kitchen across from my table, two chefs whipped up wonders borrowed from Greek, Afghan, Indian, Japanese, French and Italian cuisines.
Our server, Jack, a British man who we later discovered is the restaurant owner, recommended the Indian mixed platter. It is a feast for one with tangy korma, onion bhajis fritters, fresh chutney, green salad with beets, basmati rice and a conical spiral of crispy poppadom. Each element was spot-on.
My friend’s large portion of vegetable lasagne, made with soya granules, was just as comforting as its beef counterpart.
The food’s unpretentious presentation underpinned the restaurant’s mission: to bring a home-made flavour to international cuisine, with ingredients from local, sustainable sources.
We ended our night at Taco Way, the tourist-heavy bar with a rainbow of synthetic leis dangling from the rafters and garish (though strong) cocktails.
We fit right in until we decided we did not want to.
All around the once quiet old town it was completely buzzing, the bars alive, while queues built up outside clubs in the wee hours.
Smaller bars in plazas, such as Bar El Otro Melli, become well-positioned for people watching, as people zig and zag through the excited 1am maze.
SUNDAY MORNING STROLL
I woke up early to plan a route into the Parque Natural del Estrecho, which is a welcome adventure.
A mere 400 metres from Old Town, the closest point of entry is the Colada de la Costa trailhead.
While the northeast section of the park is the road more travelled to see the Baelo Claudia ruins, in Bolonia, the southeast end offers accessibility, solitude and breathtaking views for hikers or runners.
The path takes advantage of an ancient drovers path still used to herd livestock from Tarifa to Algrecias.
Indeed, my hike was halted as I was forced to circumnavigate cattle under a bridge right in my path.
Having just finished the chapter detailing bullfighting in The Sun Also Rises — Hemingway’s words are haunting: “As long as a bull-fighter stays in his own terrain he is comparatively safe. Each time he enters into the terrain of the bull he is in great danger.”
A pair of hikers caught up with me while I was hesitating (and taking photos) and they deftly walked right through, ¡Son amistosos! the woman shouted back at me.
I eventually crested a hill which gave way to a view of every shade of the sea, segmented by blades of eroded rock called ‘flysches’, and a herd of cattle grazing in the sun.
I edged as close to the herd as I dared, then turned back. The bull-frienders were making their way up the hill.
While I was not expecting to run alongside bulls, take my hiker friend’s word for it — the cattle were unperturbed and friendly, even.
A Sunday morning is optimal for a walk around Old Town — Tarifeño history comes into focus when the bustle is at bay.
Aimless is the best way to do it. In an hour’s stroll, you will happen upon beautiful tiled plazas, church façades draped in blooming Bougainvillaea and street art of the evil eye.
We ventured south and glimpsed Morocco from the steps of the Torre del Miramar, the Castilian tower constructed in the mid fifteenth century.
If your stroll takes you back north, stop for a drink at Bossa, the bar which shares a wall with the emblematic Old Town entrance, Puerto de Jerez, built during the Nasrid reign in the thirteenth century. Old school and, on a Sunday, uncrowded, Bossa is great for a card game, a little reading or a mid-day chat.
An Aperol spritz (made with Spanish Cava instead of Prosecco, of course) is refreshing enough to get pulled to Playa de Los Lances with the low tide.
ROLL OUT THE TOWEL
The beach was no exception to the Sunday vibe in Tarifa — delightfully deserted. Though this spot on the Atlantic can get windy, we were lucky and it was just sun, not sand, in our eyes.
As the evening drew nearer, we made the ten minute walk back to the hostel.
Two hostel-mates, surfers from Argentina, invited us to share a taxi with them to Chiringuito Waves bar, better known as just ‘Waves,’ where a live DJ spun records for the setting sun.
A 15 minute drive out of town, Waves is the culmination of Tarifa’s kitesurfing spirit.
The dirt road entrance is lined with camper vans and wetsuits on washing lines.
Tucked under a pergola, the bar looks out onto the expansive north end of Playa Los Lances, where kites pepper the sky.
To the south, the buildings of Old Town jut out into the Atlantic, looking pink in the dusk like the extended body of one of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Whether it is a fun way to unwind after a day of kitesurfing, a precursor to your night out or the closing act of a day well spent, Waves is worth the excursion.
After a dip in the warm waters as the last windsurfers skated to shore, we headed for an early night, with a morning bus home at 9am.