Tuesday, January 10, 2012

who has seen the wind...

Do you want to experience wind? Stand facing it, run against it, let your scarf blow, watch sprays of water dance on the crest of waves for hours on end? Tarifa. Go to Tarifa. The wind from the African Sahara never stops blowing in this southernmost town in Spain (in all of continental Europe, actually --Tarifa: 36° 00′ 15″ N).


It’s easy to understand why. If you walk out to sea on the stone causeway (and now you really are as south as it gets), and turn around and face land, on your left you’ll have the Atlantic, on the right you’ll have the Mediterranean. This is where it all meets.


They say it is the only spot on earth where you can stand and look out at two separate continents and two wide-open seas, all at once.

The Mediterranean here is not yet the calm sea we know and love. Here, it is just at the edge of becoming a sea. These are the Straits of Gibraltar and yes, just a dozen miles from Tarifa, there is that rock, British, jutting out, but more on that later.

And across these Straits there is Africa.


(At dusk, the twinkly lights across the water make it seem so close... And it is close: just a short twenty miles across the waters.)


You would think that Tarifa, with its incredible stretch of fine white sands and pristine azure waters of the sea (on the Atlantic side) would be a mega tourist destination. You would be wrong. The coastline here is dotted with very plain, lowrise apartment houses. The hotel scene is low key, to put it kindly.

So why is Tarifa so... lonely?

Well, it’s hard to get to. Take our trip from Ronda. We leave early, before the sun breaks the horizon over the hills, over the gorge.


We catch the train (on the Granada line) heading at a slant to the coast (and there are lovely misty valleys to admire along the way)...


...and in about two hours we arrive at its final stop – Algeciras. So now we’re in Algeciras. That’s no tourist hub either. It’s one of the leading ports of the world – the hub for traffic from Morocco and ports beyond. We spent a scant hour there, poking around the near to the station market -- an interesting market, or at least the artsy statues are interesting. This, right in the midst of butcher stalls:

DSC03533 - Version 2

The market feels like a daily market in a small industrial town would feel – busy and no nonsense.


So now we have to take a bus to Tarifa. There are several that make the connection and they climb the rocky hills that separate Tarifa from the rest of the world, offering us some mighty nice views across the straights, toward the mist shrouded coast of Africa.


...then briskly down again, into this old town of Tarifa. And it is old. (I read that the word tariff comes from this once important trade center.)


There are Roman ruins nearby, and it has, too, a Moorish past, and a brief (hostile) encounter with France, many spotty (and violent) encounters with African invaders – poor Tarifa may be scorned by tourists, but it surely was a desirable point for invaders from the north, east and south.

Ah, there's Africa again. So close.


So why hasn’t Tarifa blossomed now, especially for the sun worshiping northerners? It remains a tiny little town. Half the size of Ronda (so – population around 17,000), somewhat cut off from the mainland and here’s the real truth: it is just so windy here!

When I first mentioned to someone I was heading for Tarifa, she asked – oh, are you and Ed going for the wind surfing? Tarifa is the choice European destination for wind surfers. What a surprise.

Insofar as there is tourism here, it is there to serve the needs of these people.


We are, of course, in the off off season, so there are only a handful now, riding the winds of the Atlantic, but it is clear that Tarifa is their dream.

Ed and I are not windsurfers. We’re here because it’s quiet and the beaches are vast and the hills invite hiking and there are migratory birds that pass through Tarifa (they hover and wait here for the winds to settle just a little, allowing them to complete the crossing south) and so you can admire them as well – oh, there’s plenty to do for people who love nature and open spaces and views onto the ocean.


We’re staying at a place that is sort of a small hotel, though not exactly that. It’s a cluster of tiny apartments, or at least they offer kitchenettes with the rooms, and lovely balconies too (for us to hang our laundry!). At this time of the year, the going rate is 60 Euros per night. Escanaba, step aside! Ed says we’re getting cheaper and better by the hour!

The apartment is in some ways quiet – the winds don’t penetrate the old town in the same hostile manner – they prefer to frolic along the coast. No street noises either. But the tile floors and metal circular stairs in the units send off echoes of noises inside so that if anyone dares walk in spiky heels across the floors the whole place trembles. Still, it is a large and tremendously lovely unit, looking out onto a whitewashed square and we happily settle in for a three night stay.

Our first afternoon in Tarifa is devoted to taking it all in: the town, the beaches, the great bodies of water to the south, to the west, the fishing boats that bring in an incredible array of seafoods.



As usual, we hadn’t eaten much for breakfast or lunch and so by late afternoon we are ready for tapas. Well now, that may work in Seville, Granada or even Ronda, but in little Tarifa, most eateries shut down for the afternoon. We settled for some creamy mushrooms and seafood slaw at a cafĂ©. The people watching at lest is terrific. And the cookies from a bakery across the street -- sublime.



We take a walk to the grocery store outside the old town and then along the beach, for the (windy) sunset...


The rays peak through the clouds in tiny slivers, giving just a glimmer of light, but enough to make it a memorable event.


And late in the evening we go for dinner. We dine well. Very well. The best seafood place in town (and there are many places preparing seafood here) has a special going: a set dinner of a green salad and a seafood paella for 9 Euros, tip and taxes included. I can't think when I last had a sit down dinner for that price, on any side of the ocean.

And, oh, is the paella superb! Served in a huge pot..


...with chunks of fish, tiny shrimp, mussels and squid, it is a huge meal, leaving, unfortunately, no room for dessert.

So we’re in Tarifa for a few days. The moon is there, above us, grand as ever (just three days shy of being full, but you wouldn’t know it)...


We’re here to walk, rest, work a little too.

And the sun keeps shining (though from behind a few clouds now) and the wind keeps blowing and gusting and blowing...