South From Madrid #4: The Coast of Light

Time to head east. Time to strike the Coast of Light; the finest of the great costas. It lacked many things both good and bad: the overbuilt tourism of Blanca and Sol, the geographic exuberance of the Bay of Biscay or the Scandinavian affectations of Galicia’s Rías, and it lacked the absurd pristine isolation of Huelva. Instead, it blended enough of all to be quite the finest stretch of sands and settlements. The first bone-white smudge was Conil; the initial blob of white town sitting in stretched out sand flats of glaring homes and tin farms. Ahead, the rise of the sierra, but not before the sea-plains of horses, sunflowers and egrets, cacti and palm trees. The air was heavy and moist and rang with the sound of a million invisible insects. Birdsong, always birdsong in Spain, and farmers in their fields. To think Cadiz was so close. To think Sevilla was so close. 

 

 Horses at Trafalgar

Horses at Trafalgar

Civilisation petered out into a seascape of chiringuitos, restaurants and sandy tracks. El Palmar, one of those small hubs of ramshackle huts and houses that cling to life as they cling to the coast, has enough tourism in the hotter months to sustain a somewhat alternative population of people I would unashamedly put into the categories of hippies or surfers. Good on them. They have forged a simpler way of life in an area of perpetual sun and sand-shine. Modern bedouins. Then further down the coast to that great area of mythic maritime victory: Trafalgar. A cape-spit swamped on both sides by mammoth beaches with nobody to play on them, the only testament to the infernal battle is a diminutive and graffitied panel up at the lighthouse. In the shadow of the mount horses galloped through the surf, chased by dogs, and scattered sandpipers. This was a world of little roads and little houses stuck between the vast hulk of Spain and the infinite blue of the ocean. How fascinating is life on the edge of land!

 

 Vejer de la Frontera

Vejer de la Frontera

Further east the road rose through some Andalusian interpretation of the English countryside - bushes, hedges and hay bales. Higher still climbed the track until the first of Cadiz’s more famed pueblos blancos blinded us into gawps and gasps. Vejer de la Frontera. One of those Berber villages that mixed the sublime with the ridiculous, Vejer slid along a ridge, its chalk-white body set off cleanly against the bright green of its hill. The town centre was tight and spartan: clean walls, palm trees, shocking bright bougainvillea. At the end of each street one glimpsed snatches of blue sea or emerald valley. Vejer was busy and setting up for something so we didn’t stay.

 

 View from El Tesoro

View from El Tesoro

Lunch was taken at the top of the world. El Tesoro was perched on a ledge near the top of the hills that shelter the legendary Bolonia beach and its roman ruins. Behind the little wooden-beamed restaurant were rocky, toothy peaks. In front was the road, the absurd road, gravel and full of potholes and tight curves that snaked up from the Bermejo valley below and rose several hundred metres to a stop. Then the view from the terrace, the Coast of Light - the broad arc of sloping headlands and the ever-present sandy beaches that spread out to Tarifa - hiding under a film of heat. 

 

 Fruits of Andalusia

Fruits of Andalusia

The family prepared us fresh tomato salads generous with olive oil and salt, chicken and beef croquetas, roasted goat legs and juicy steaks. The wine was local and smooth. The air was perfumed with the smells of cooking, but also the aromas of flowers, garlic, manure and rosemary. The terrace was painterly and decorated with geraniums, roses and, stretching out to the cliff edge, expectant young grapevines. The only sound was the gratifying sizzle of meat, the lazy clinking of wine glasses and the low bumble of muted conversations. This was a meal where the food wasn’t the only protagonist. Perhaps the wine was talking when I made my notes.

 

 Tarifa's Arabic squares

Tarifa's Arabic squares

Eastwards the countryside, though still appealing in the grander scheme of things, lost its magic and overt appeal. The hills got scrubbier and low and reminded me of the parched terrain of Almeria, though the odd white town and windmill added a certain charm. Before the inevitable assault of ugliness that was Algeciras I wanted to make a visit to Tarifa, one of the most Arabic of Spanish towns. The outskirts were comprised of shop after shop selling surfboards and swimming trunks. The windy beach was a line of colourful kites that swooped and spun like mad butterflies. The town was not especially gorgeous yet retained an endearing and somewhat untouched African centre of those characteristic white walls. Tarifa was studded with Moorish flourishes, a tower and wall here, a patio there, though, with old men and coiffed women taking their aperitifs on the terraces and young boys playing guitars under flowered trellises, it was still undeniably Spanish in nature. 

 

 La Linea's church

La Linea's church

Algeciras finally belched into existence and reminded me that even in this graceful country of Spain ugliness was still something they could be pretty good at. The road hugged the bay and, as the fuming towers and containers dissolved away, the last point of Spain before Britain’s southern nook Gibraltar arrived: La Línea de la Concepción. An odd town, quite hideous, and pushed into depression by that wily bastard-general Franco. La Línea is an ugly and tragic slum that I felt sorry for. A victim of a dictator’s desire to annoy a richer nation. A ruined and overblown fishing town sitting in plain view of the Rock. However this is Spain and my God the locals shall not be anything but Spanish! I was charmed at the amount of life in this horrid little place. Locals still lined the streets and sat on the terraces. Done-up ladies in their seventies promenaded up and down the main drags, showing off to who knows who. Señoritos and señoritas in their best clothes and make up, hair dye and designer clothes. Tacky but proud. The flats were scummy and the streets swarthy, but the Spaniards, as ever, were polite and the youths gentlemanly. 

 Cafe Modelo

Cafe Modelo

The town’s one square buzzed with families and whirling children. Beside the church, seemingly the only thing of any age, was a low-budget photo exhibition. At Café Modelo, an old bar with glass chandeliers, waiters in black bow ties, and grand marble staircases, we took sandwiches and beers and watched the day end. Little girls ran in and out of the cafe playing with bottle tops and a pigeon strolled in but was quickly ushered out by a barman. Were we in the fifties? But then no, young girls typed and nattered in the light of a Macbook and outside people played on their phones. Strip away the pretty buildings and the constructs of history and all the towns are the same. Though tomorrow wouldn’t be. Tomorrow it was to the UK; to Gibraltar.