The Coast of Light

Why do we travel? Is it because we are desperately trying to escape whatever little life we are living; escaping work and people and problems...the real world? Or is it the other way. Do we simply have a searing desire to see new places, to drown our eyes in newness, regardless of what awaits back home? Maybe one, maybe the other, maybe both. The point is we do it. The country you live in makes it easier or harder to do this. Russia is unwieldy. The UK is expensive. The USA is too full. China is too difficult. New Zealand, too far. Spain, time and time again, has proved to welcome the budding, itchy-footed traveller with sunny open arms. It's so easy, so tempting to hop on some bus or train and high-tail it to a far-off village. So I did, again.

Deep down, right down, in the south of the country is the Costa de Luz (the Coast of Light). The area of Cadiz and Huelva west along the coast from the heavily built-up and ruined Malaga part of the Spanish Med is a land of monstrous beaches of golden sand, little white towns and long evenings. Further inland the Cadiz province houses other delights: tiny postcard-perfect pueblos blancos that pepper the mountains and hills for miles around - mirroring the Alpujarras on the other side of Andalucia; and finally the quaint city of Jerez de la Frontera and all its sherry.

Hidden in the hills.

An hour east of Jerez de la Frontera the parched yellowing Andaluz plains give way to a humped horizon of deep viridian. As one climbs the world gets greener. First the road passes Arcos de la Frontera, an old fortress town placed prominently on a wedge of rock; its old quarter perched on a cliff face. From the aptly named El Bosque the drive is windier and reaches Benamahoma sitting in a mossy crux between two hills. Spiralling up away from the world, along an ever rising arm of valley, the whole green tapestry of grand forested and craggy lumps of mountain opened up for us. Then the road shot right, over a verge and dropped into Grazalema.

Grazalema is a shining example of a pueblo blanco. Sitting up in a nook, surrounded by peaks on three sides and one facing a low-set plain, Grazalema is a perfect little village of narrow cobbled streets and orange-tiled roofs and churches. The little towns like this only really subsist on the tourism trade, however the village still has a lively industry in cakes and artisan shops of different types. After Grazalema the road then climbs to its zenith at the Las Palomas pass, 1357m. It then descends and the view explodes away. Kilometres over nothing.

Hills and gargantuan mounds of earth that from the bottom up would appear monstrous, there seemed to be small eruptions of brown or far-off beached ships covered in olive groves. The white towns dotted the panorama like some giant had clumsily dropped paint drops on the planet; and the lakes looked like the sky had clumsily formed puddles that hadn't been mopped up yet. And then finally past Zahara de la Sierra that sat proudly like some white king cobra coiled up around a rocky outpost, topped with a castle looking out over its lake.

A Roman and his sand.

A similar distance south of Jerez de la Frontera, sailing past salt-marshes, house-sized heaps of sodium chloride, and sporadically ugly new development, one eventually hits the coast. Playa de Bolonia is a massive beach without a town; just a spattering of summer villas. It is backed by a cleft of hill that essentially cuts it off from over-development and Andalucia behind it. Standing on the the beach, Africa and its mountains can be seen lurking off in a haze, daring you to jump on a boat.

On the east end of the beach is a blob of land constituting a little mountainette and on the other is a thirty-metre high dune, ever-growing, that is slowly, bit by silica bit, eating a forest of beach pine trees. The azure Mediterranean, the straw-coloured sand, and the mossy intensity of the drowning forest forms a perfect natural tricolour. The real flag of the south.

Set back behind the sands, posing venerably in the shrubby grass are the remains of what was once probably the most scenic Roman settlement in the Empire. The ruins of Baelo Claudia, from the second century, show us that this distant outpost was in reality a thriving fishing town that was key in the production of a important and sought after fish sauce, garum. A fishy Roman Worcestershire sauce basically. They loved a condiment. It's less appetizing when you think that it was, and still is, made from fish guts.

To watch the sun drop into the sea, we saw off the day at another beach - El Palmar. It was longer than your focus could manage and was utterly undeveloped except for a single string of chiringuitos - little bars and restaurants - of one or two floors that ran along for a couple of kilometres. It all felt very 'surfer'; chilled out but with a buzz.

Uncle Pepe and his sherry.

After filling up on the delights of Manolo, Lucia's father's, cooking - acedias (a dab-like flatfish), gallo a la plancha (grilled plaice), ensalada de huevas (fish roe salad), pechuga de pollo al Jerez (chicken breasts fried in sherry), home-made alioli, all served with copious amounts of fino; and after sampling the somewhat limited nightlife of the city, it was time, with fuzzy heads, to explore the old town of Jerez de la Frontera.

Jerez de la Frontera is essentially a blown-up pueblo blanco that has got too big for its boots and spilled out into the modern age. The outskirts are mostly unattractive flats and shops, like everywhere in Spain. The centre, however, is a joy. White cobbled streets that slink off to nowhere and hide little churches; twee shops that show you that you are still in a provincial town really; floppy palm trees to remind you how close Africa is; old men sitting in the shade whilst beautiful young couples have morning paseos; a colourful flea-market buzzing at the base of the city's fortress, the Alcazaba; the haughty grand and Gothic cathedral, which stands oddly next to the Gonzalez Byass sherry factory; and a whole Andalucian sky of blue. To throw away a few hours Jerez is a perfect place, and it tastes nice too.

You can't not taste the town. The town called Jerez...sherry. The place is littered with bodegas that produce the finest tipple this side of the continent: Tio Pepe, Gonzalez Byass, Williams & Humbert, Garvey, Osborne; they're all there, getting drunk with each other when no one is looking.

That lingering hope is that this wonderful place never succumbs to the spoils of tourism and its merry band of pirates. May it never turn into another Malaga of Valencia coast. Good luck to it.