Drive 45 minutes West away from Gibraltar International Airport into the province of Cádiz, make a turn onto the Costa de la Luz and you’ll find the surf town of Tarifa. Balancing on the tip of Continental Europe, arguably the southernmost point before Africa, the town is a fusion of Roman, Moroccan and Spanish history and in the summer months, is a sacred destination for surfers, beach bums and seafood aficionados.
The town was founded in the 1st Century by Roman settlers and was later invaded by North African Moors. In 1295, the Spanish nobleman Guzmán El Bueno refused to surrender to another Moorish invasion and kept the town Iberian ever since. The exchanging of many hands has made Tarifa a cultural and historical compound, with narrow cobbled streets, mini Romanesque piazzas and markets, as well as Moroccan-style bazaars and Moorish white buildings with flat rooftops.
During the summer, the town is enjoyed by wind sport enthusiasts coming in from Northern Europe and surrounding Spanish towns. I arrived on a Friday morning, the heat wasn’t scorching and remained fresh from the Atlantic winds, creating a different climate from the typically Andalucían dry heat. Taking a walk along the Playa de Los Lances, I enjoyed the refreshing ocean spray and looked across the water to Africa, it was so close and looked like it could be within walking distance.
As a non-surfer, I was happy to just walk barefoot on the sand and was taken for lunch in a bar on the beachfront. It served a delicacy of the region: plump, fresh tomatoes with olive oil and sea salt, topped with Almadraba red tuna from the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Med meets the Atlantic Ocean. Speaking to a local in the bar he told me, ‘they say in Spain that you can be loco como los Tarifeños, [meaning “crazy like the Tarifans.”] There is a lot of wind here, Easterly and Westerly gales that often clash. Too much wind is said to drive a man crazy…and maybe we are!’
With culture comes artistic expression, something that is firmly placed within Tarifa’s charming, white-washed streets. Artists and photographers can’t resist the pull of the beautiful surroundings, including one photographer Manuel Caminero, who opened Atlas Beach photography shop and gallery in the town’s heart. [@atlasbeachtarifa] Tarifa is his first love and muse and he explores different ways of depicting its uniqueness through daring angles and whimsical edits. ‘I fly in a rickety mosquito helicopter to catch these shots… my mum went crazy when she found out,’ he laughed. Outside his gallery, Bazaars are filled with North African fabrics, clothing and artwork.
In the late afternoon, I came across a small and beautiful courtyard, decorated and adorned with tiled cladding and greenery. It was the home of local resident José Muñoz-Alonso who died three years ago after turning the yard into a recognised cultural site, open for public viewing. He decorated his courtyard with everything he could find, sticking fractured tiles to form cladding along with pebbles, shells and even bottle tops to decorate. The locals referred to him as Gaudí de Tarifa, their own answer to the world-famous Catalan artist and architect.
I explored the town until the sun melted and my appetite led me to the well-known fish restaurant La Pescaderia. There were all kinds of seafood and Moroccan dishes, but their classic was grilled fish fresh with a side of dauphinoise potatoes, traditional red pepper salad and an olive oil dressing. It was delicious and fresh, salted from the sea and grilled on open fires. “I’ll choose a nice small fish for you” the waiter ensured, and after dinner, he offered me a measure of vino dulce on the house, a sweet wine, like sherry, from Jerez. After dinner, there is a labyrinth of cocktail bars and small night clubs, with Reggaeton and Latin music parading the night into the early hours of the morning.
What’s the best thing about Tarifa? In such a culturally mixed town, it’s the people of course. It’s only alive for a few months of the year so you can’t help but slip into the laid-back, mañana-mindset, where people are willing to sit, chat and enjoy the marmalade sunsets and glorious beaches. It’s miles away from glamorous Marbella, often associated with southern Spain. Still untouched by hard-core commercial tourism, people seem a bit more in touch with nature: you can look up at night time, and have a clear view of Venus that shines to the left of the moon like a beauty spot. Being on the cusp of a continent, you kind of feel like you’re on the edge of the world where it curls round into a spherical mass.
The clashing winds of Tarifa bring with it a daring and vibrant fever which makes me think that to live here could drive you a bit crazy, but that might be the best part of all.