Regions & Cities
Costa de la Luz
By Ben Curtis
Sep 12, 2004, 11:29

Many years ago BBC Radio 4 produced a series called ‘the off-season’, going to well known places when no one else would. Goa, for example, in monsoon season. The theme struck a chord, and I decided to travel out of season whenever possible, to see better what lies beneath the thin veneer of tourist crowds . So I was delighted to be heading to Spain’s south-westerly Costa de la Luz in January, hoping to discover why this particular ‘Costa’ is so little known. I expected it to be overcast and cold, but at least everyone else would be kept away by post-Christmas economics and the new school term.

On the Tarifa road, south from Cadiz, crossing fluorescent green hillsides in twenty degree sunshine, past towering Eucalyptus trees, like shaggy cumulonimbus clouds tethered against a swimming pool sky, it was obvious that the weather was anything but ‘off’. Yellow flowers lined the highway, locals on mopeds rode past in t-shirts, and cattle gathered beneath bulbous pine trees and flailing palms. Spring, it seemed, had arrived early, or perhaps winter had simply never been.

At Los Caños de Meca, halfway between Cadiz and Tarifa, the beach, like the stringy village behind it, was deserted, the white sand and azul sea radiating tropical abandon. Something was wrong. January or not, it was all too glorious to find oneself alone. Heading a few minutes back to the Cabo de Trafalgar, where the famous battle was fought, I stopped suddenly, surprised to see a man float serenely past a sand-dune at head height. He was a kite surfer, one of many skimming back and forth across the bay, propelled by vast, multi-coloured kites that carried them high into the air when they changed direction. These aqua/aeronauts had gathered to make the most of the coasts most obvious natural
resource: wind.

Windsurfing on the Costa de la Luz
Down the coast at Tarifa, they’ve known about this wind for some time. Windmills line the hills behind, harnessing its energy, and windsurfers, lured by a constant force six, consider this to be Europe’s best location. So forceful and unforgiving, in fact, is the breeze that sweeps through the town’s narrow streets, that it is said to have driven a number of the residents to clinical insanity.

Tarifa’s other essential element is Africa. Not 15 kilometres across the straits of Gibraltar, Tarifa is the closest point to Africa in Southern Europe. It’s an astonishing spectacle: the mountains of Morocco rise through the haze during the day, the lights of Tangier shimmer across the water at night. For those that arrive in Spain legally, via the daily Tangiers-Tarifa ferries, they may very well believe that this country is little different from the one they’ve left behind. Tarifa developed under Moorish rule in the eighth century, and the warren of tight, twisting streets in the souk-like old town has changed little since then.

For a growing tide of illegal immigrants, the proximity of these two land masses proves too much to resist. Night after night the Guardia Civil are stretched to the limit in their attempts to stop illegal crossings from Africa in small boats. On one particular night last summer, over a thousand people were rounded up along this stretch of coast. Many, however, are not so lucky, drowned in the strait’s wild waters, their bodies washed ashore, then splashed across the front of Spain’s daily papers.

Ten minutes back up the coast lies a settlement of a very different nature. Baelo Claudia occupies one of the most impressive sites on the entire Spanish coast: the slow sandy curve of a four kilometre beach rising to a giant sprawling dune, the meadow-green valleys tumbling down from high rocky escarpments, dotted with tiny, fragrant purple flowers. These Romans knew a thing or two about location.

The remains of this town, uninhabited since the seventh century, constitute the most complete example of Roman life on the Iberian peninsular. Many of the Basilica’s columns survive, as do parts of the forum, theatre, market and temples. The town was founded around the fishing and salt-preserving industry that sprang up at the water’s edge, echoes of which can be found today in Bolonia, as the scattering of restaurants and hostels along the beach is now known. ‘Today’s speciality is Sargo, a local fish. It all depends on what they bring me in the morning,’ says the waiter, jerking his head towards the wooden boats pulled up below the great dune.

So beautiful is Bolonia, populated largely by free-range chickens and foraging donkeys that you wonder how it has been able to survive the ravages of large-scale tourism. The reason is two-fold. Firstly, from midday, the beach is plagued by that same Tarifan wind. Lying by the sea in the afternoon is an experience akin to a sand-blasting. Secondly, most of this land in now protected. Someone tried to put up an apart-hotel in the eighties, a few kilometres up the coast at Zahara de los Atunes. They were stopped half-way, and recently the building’s empty carcass was dynamited to the ground on national television. It sent out a clear message to other potential developers: the Costa de la Luz is not up for grabs.

Cadiz, at the head of this stretch, is the closest one comes to contemporary civilisation. Even here, however, there is a sense that it is fleeting, that the elements cannot be kept at bay. The old town follows a grid of low, cobbled streets, whose mysterious houses hide cool, plant-filled interior patios, built long ago on shipping and fish, all decaying, Lisbon-like, beneath the constant attack of salty sea-spray. Everyone wants to move into the new apartments on the road into town, and it won’t be so very long, you feel, until Old Cadiz is another Baelo Claudia.

I leave with the feeling that there is always a touch of the off season on the Costa de la Luz, and that it is relatively unknown because it is unkind. No-one but the kite and windsurfers were there in January, and it’s hard to imagine torturous crowds descending in summer. Three civilisations after all, Roman, Moorish, and Modern have struggled against that indomitable environment, yet still it remains a perfectly unspoiled and unkempt coastline, of bright eucalyptus highways, fine sands, and furious, unrelenting winds.

To read more about this, and other areas of Spain, visit Books on Spain

© Copyright 2004 by & Ben Curtis