From Gibraltar to Ayamonte on the Portuguese border (just over 300 kilometres), the coast is relatively unspoilt, with Cádiz and Huelva (both with a population of about 140.000) being the only significant urban areas. There are lots of magnificent beaches of white sand on the Costa de la Luz, as this coast is called, and large scale tourism hasn’t yet scarred its beauty. But with overdevelopment having spoiled much of the Mediterranean coast, the next logical area for growth is precisely the Costa de la Luz.
From Algeciras to Cadiz
The stretch between the port of Algeciras and Cádiz is notorious for the strong easterly winds (the Levante) that blow through the strait of Gibraltar, and quite possibly account for the relatively little tourism in the area (another reason is that the Spanish army owns a large chunk of the land between Tarifa and Barbate). The Levante can reach gale force in the spring and fall, whipping up the sand and making beach life impossible. In the summer (June to September) the winds are more like moderate breezes, but even so they can blow endlessly for spells up to 15 days. As a major route for birds migrating between Africa and Europe, this is a must place in Spain for bird lovers in spring and fall.
Locals have taken advantage of the windy conditions to make Tarifa, the southernmost town in Spain, into a Mecca for board and kite surfing. An historic port with daily ferry service to Tangiers, it has something of the air of a Moroccan town. In fact, it was not long ago that some of the older women of Tarifa still wore veils to cover their faces. Today Tarifa retains its historic air at the same time as converting itself into something of a chic town for young surfers.
Not surprisingly, the winds have also attracted the attention of alternative energy enthusiasts and the hills behind Tarifa are dotted with hundreds of windmills.
There is a sombre side to the fun loving lifestyle of the windsurfers in Tarifa. A short step away, in Tarifa’s cemetery, there are rows of unmarked graves. These are the resting place of unknown Africans who tried to cross illegally the treacherous straits of Gibraltar in tiny boats (pateras) searching better times in a prosperous Europe, which they had learned about on TV. Overcrowded and flimsy, the pateras most often capsized leaving a toll of bodies to be picked up on the Spanish shore. Those few that did make it across were soon picked up by patrols and held in a detention centre in Tarifa to await extradition. In recent years the traffic has eased owing to high tech patrols (helicopters, powerful motor launches), and most illegal African immigrants now try the Canary Islands route. In 2007 the number of boats that managed to reach Spain was down 50% over the previous year, but still some 189 people lost their lives in the attempt. So far, in January and February 2008, 13 people have died off the shores of Cadiz province.
For an update on mass migrant movement from Morocco to Spain, with photos and map, in August 2014, see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28770346
Beyond Tarifa, the mountains –a continuous inland presence down the Mediterranean coast– recede and give way to undulating hills. Here you pass large, sprawling cattle ranches some of which breed many of the toros bravos that end up in bullrings throughout the country. Watch for the white egrets calmly pecking around the cattle or storks lazily flapping by. In the spring, these fields are full of wild flowers, justifying for some people the breeding of fighting bulls because it has prevented the fields going under the plough.
The coast in this part is well known for its bluefin tuna fishing, with a history going back to pre-Roman days. The system of fishing practiced by the fishermen of Barbate and Zahara de los Atunes (mentioned by Cervantes in one of his short stories) is the traditional almadraba whereby the tuna are herded through corridors of nets to a central pool. Once the fish have reached the pool, the entrances are closed and the fishermen –encircling in their boats—gradually reduce the area until the tuna are bunched together and are easily killed. Most of the tuna are then taken to Barbate which has large canning facilities. The major customers are the Japanese, and the increasing popularity of sushi has seen Japanese boats head for Europe in large numbers; it isn’t unusual to see them lined up off Barbate in season. Unfortunately, the demand has caused massive overfishing by large factory ships in the Mediterranean, so much so that in September 2007 the European Union was forced to ban bluefin tuna fishing for the rest of the year.
Between Tarifa and Zahara de los Atunes are the Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia (Bolonia). In its time Bolonia was an important provider of garum a pungent delicacy much sought after in Rome. The large stone vats in which garum was prepared can still be seen on the beach, some distance away from the town, and with a reason. Garum was a seasoning concoction made of the entrails, heads, roe and blood of fish (tuna, mackerel, anchovies) left to ferment for weeks in salt until it had all decomposed. The stench was appalling, but the Romans were passionate about it and willing to pay exorbitant prices.
The road continues, bypassing one of the prettiest towns in Andalucía, Vejer de la Frontera. Isolated atop a steep hill, Vejer is worth a detour. Many visitors have fallen for this classic Moorish town with its whitewashed houses and cobbled, labyrinthine alleys. The de la Frontera here alludes to the time when Vejer (and several other nearby towns similarly identified) marked the frontier between Christian Spain and what was left of al-Andalus, Moorish Spain. But Moorish Spain did not disappear when Vejer fell to the Christians in the 13th century; in the local museum, you can see a black gown (cobija) that covered all but the eyes, of the kind worn by the women of Vejer until the 1950s.
The views from Vejer are stunning. Inland you look across rolling hills towards Medina Sidonia; on the sea side, you gaze down at Barbate and Cape Trafalgar, scene of the famous naval battle where Royal Navy ships under Admiral Nelson defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain in 1805.
At Chiclana you cross large salt beds and fish farms before turning left towards the narrow peninsula that leads to Cádiz. The old city of Cádiz (it claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe) is worth a visit, but you have to pass through a heavy industrial zone followed by uninspiring high rises before getting to old Cádiz.
From Cádiz to Ayamonte
The road to Huelva and the Portuguese border follows inland 95 kilometres to Seville; there is no other way to cross the Guadalquivir and its tributaries which meet to create a great expanse of wetlands. These, together with pine forests and wild sand dunes, make up the Coto Doñana, Spain’s biggest National Park and wildlife reserve. The park is a major rest stop for birds migrating between Africa and Europe, and is home to several animal species (Iberian lynx, wild boar, deer etc.).
From the Coto Doñana to Huelva the coast is flat with long, sandy beaches edged by pines. Just before reaching Huelva, in the estuary of the Río Tinto, a small, undistinguished looking village once played host to a very distinguished visitor, Christopher Columbus. This is Palos de la Frontera, the former port (now silted) from which Columbus set sail for Asia but found America. Although Columbus’s contribution is recognised, it is the native sons, the brothers Pinzón, both captains, who are more celebrated in the village. Locals feel that the Pinzóns’ role in the first voyage has been much underestimated.
Nearby is La Rábida, a 14th-century Franciscan monastery where Columbus stayed in 1485 on his way from Portugal to Andalusia in the hope of arranging a meeting with Ferdinand and Isabel, the famous Catholic Monarchs. It was a fortuitous choice because in 1491 a depressed Columbus returned to La Rábida after having failed in his quest for support from the monarchs. It so happens that the abbot of La Rábida at that time was one Fray Juan Pérez, a former confessor of Isabel. Pérez wrote a letter to the queen strongly supporting Columbus. The rest, as they say, is history.
Huelva has a struggle to attract tourists. Most of the old town was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and sprawling industrial growth in the suburbs prejudices visitors before they get to the centre. Petrochemical refineries, cement factories and fish canneries don’t do anything for the tourist dollar. Huelva is also an important fishing port, and exporter of metals from the Río Tinto mines inland.
From the Coto Doñana to Ayamonte on the Portuguese border, extensive strawberry fields have converted one of the poorest areas of Andalusia into one of the most prosperous. As early as February, trucks loaded with strawberries head north for European markets. The town of Lepe epitomises the change. Once the butt of jokes throughout Spain, the Leperos now have the last laugh as they head for the bank.
However, there is a dark cloud regarding the fate of the Coto Doñana in the face of the extent of strawberry cultivation. Strawberries require a lot of water and much of it is drained from the aquifer feeding the Coto. For an excellent summary of the problem, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jun/28/strawberry-spain-donana-wildlife-iberian-lynx