Tuesday 15 March 2016

Looking out at Africa from Tarifa, Andalucia

Spain, 4th – 13th March 2016

We’re currently parked up for the night on a piece of land near Tarifa, overlooking the ocean and the beach where all the kitesurfers and windsurfers flock.  Morocco is close enough to our kipping spot that we can see the white specks of buildings as well as a windfarm on the mountain peaks on the other side of the water.  This is the point of our trip where we’d considered going over to Morocco and branching our travels to include a little bit outside of Europe, but from a practical standpoint it didn’t quite materialise this time around; give us a couple of years and maybe it will be a different story.  Our trip down to this southern extreme of Spain hasn’t been for nothing however, as amazingly, Matt’s long neglected windsurf gear has finally had a dusting off.

After a week or so exploring inland we travelled back to the coast, arriving at the town Sanlucar de Barrameda.  There’s a motorhome parking area (GPS: 36.78422 -6.35929) which was very busy, probably a combined result of Spanish weekenders coming out to play and also because of what the aire has to offer.  It’s right next to the beach (separated by a small road), has a free service point, an active town and a supermarket (Mercadona) in walking distance, all while remaining free of charge.

We spotted a familiar van amongst the hundred-odd there which belonged to Haz and El, two Welsh ladies we’d met four months ago in northern Italy.  A catch-up was in order, and as we were travelling in opposite directions we got plenty of recommendations about places to see going forwards.  Combined with the recommendations we had already been given, we’ve probably got enough to see us through for several weeks.

After a couple of months of deserted and quiet resorts over winter, Sanlucar was surprisingly full of life, with a hustle and bustle going on in the main square and the main pedestrianised streets.  It’s the first beach resort we’ve visited since leaving Portugal so it could be that it’s livelier here due to the slightly warmer climate, or there could just be more people around now that March has arrived; either way, it was a pleasant place to go for a stroll.  Sanlucar has a long stretch of beach on the south bank of a river that separates it from the Coto de Doñana National park, a marshy wetlands area popular with birds.  The park is highly protected and can only be visited on a guided tour or boat, so as we’re not keen birdwatchers we stuck to our side of the river.  A rare water-based event did almost occur, however; the decorative objects on the roof made an appearance as Matt started to get rigged up for a windsurf session, for the first time since Greece.  Everything was going well until we discovered the boom (the bit that you control the sail with) had seized up, and no amount of manhandling seemed to help.  At least we got a heads-up before attempting to rig up at Tarifa.

After three days we moved on, but didn’t make it too far.  A 23km drive took us to a spot near Rota (GPS: 36.63789 -6.39106, Free inc serv. pt), where I was too bunged up with a cold to feel like doing much in the way of exploring, opting for a lay down while Matt investigated.  He assures me the beach was nice; I’ll have to take his word for it.  I mustered up the energy to accompany him on a cycle ride into Rota the next day, which was something of an illness-related vague blur, but I remember a nice promenade, a deserted old town, and the fact that they really take their cycle paths seriously here: we saw our first cycle path roundabout.  I must be going about this illness business the wrong way, as I had to cook my own soup rather than sit around like a lady of leisure; I did, however, manage to get Matt to cook dinner the following night under supervision, hopefully imparting him with enough knowledge that next time he can replicate my white wine sauce recipe without interference.

We carried on south to Cadiz, a city on a peninsula that apparently has a rather nice port town.  Unfortunately it’s very busy in the port area and so parking is extremely limited, so our chances at parking anything beyond a car were slim at best.  We decided to drive in anyway to chance it, but didn’t have any luck and had to settle for a driving tour.  That being said, the bits that we did through the windscreen did look rather smart; perhaps it’s just not one for visiting in a van.

We carried on to Conil for a spot of freeparking (GPS: 36.27143 -6.08916), where once more Matt did most of the exploration whilst I was still recovering, although he did take me out the following day to show me around.  It’s a coastal town generally popular with Spanish tourists, and whilst there are a few backstreets that are quite nice there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about the place.  We did see another familiar van around, spotting a converted ambulance belonging to a (young!) British couple we’d met on the west coast of Portugal.  They’d been around the area for two weeks, going between this spot and Tarifa mainly following the wind for paragliding.  It seems the longer we spend on the road, the more we’re bumping into familiar faces!

A few people had recommended Vejer de la Frontera to us, a typical white Moorish town not far off the main road between Cadiz and Tarifa.  Vejer is built atop a hill, giving it a good vantage point over the surrounding countryside.  After driving a few km up a steep road you reach a car park near the tourist office, where there is ample parking.  To the west is a new town area full of blocks of white buildings dotting the hillside, but the attraction of the place comes from the walled sprawl of narrow streets and alleys that make up the old town, with traditional plastered Moorish style buildings.  In many places the front doors were open, allowing you to see through to some beautiful central courtyard areas, sunshine pouring down onto private patios full of flowers and plants.  Given that this area of Spain has over 300 days of sunshine a year outdoor living was an important part of the old architecture, with most rooms generally facing out onto the patio which was the main living area.
The traditional Moorish attire for a woman
One of the main squares just outside the old town

There was one more stop before we finally hit the windy watersport central of Tarifa.  Just a little way northwest of Tarifa (about 20km) is the village El Lentiscal and its beach Playa de Bolonia.  The main reason people would come to visit here is the site Baelo Claudia.  It’s an archaeological site with the remains of an old Roman town that’s free to visit for EU nationals (or €1.50 otherwise), and despite being a free attraction it’s been excavated to a very good standard with a good museum, and is worth the visit.  The town’s main source of economy came from tuna fishing; tuna migrate twice a year past this point, squeezing through the gap between Tarifa and Morocco on their way in and out of the Mediterranean to breed, so this is an ideal place for catching.  As well as the usual sites of a Roman town (temples, theatres, spas and the like), the remains of the old fish salting factories have been uncovered and you can see the square holes where the tuna would have been salted, as well as cylindrical shapes where assorted fish would be converted into a luxury fish paste seen as a delicacy.

Playa de Bolonia was a ridiculously peaceful spot compared to the resorts we’ve seen of late, and after seeing the ruins we couldn’t help ourselves but get sited up there for a couple of days (GPS: 36.08679 -5.76853).  It’s fairly undeveloped, with views of Africa to the south and a fine sand beach that sweeps up into a dramatic sand dune to the north (on which a golf school set up a temporary pitching course on Friday when we walked up it).  It was a great place to relax, with lovely views and good company to be found with another British van who was staying there.  Our parking spot was next to a small stream running into the sea, and during the second afternoon I heard a rustling noise outside the van which I assumed to be birds.  On the day we left, I closed the van door whilst going to find Matt (who had gone to chat), and heard the rustling noise once more.  I turned my head just in time to see not one, but a group of around six or seven turtles rushing into the water from what we’d previously thought was a plant.  Looking along the shore we spotted numerous other turtles along the edge of the stream; we’d been right next to a turtle nesting site for two days and hadn’t noticed!

The closest we're going to get to Africa... for now.

Halfway between Bolonia and Tarifa is the stretch of beach popular with wind- and kitesurfers, for which we’d been given GPS details by Haz and El.  We went for a look yesterday and found somewhere to park amongst various vans and cars with boards, kites and sails in their vicinity, but the water was empty.  No wind!  Matt investigated the area whilst I nipped online to check the wind forecast, and found predictions of calm skies all day, but today looked promising.  We decided we’d make better use of time catching up on laundry and visiting the town of Tarifa, where there’s a promenade that leads into the main area (where we found an amazing ice cream place on par with Italian gelato).

For laundry, there’s a little fuel station called TariFuel, which has a self-service launderette at reasonable prices (14kg wash and dry sets you back €8).  It also has a camper service point for €3 (pretty handy as there are no aires near Tarifa), but if you get over €50 of fuel you can choose between either a free service point use or a free jet wash.  We forgot to get the GPS, but you can find it by looking for the Dia supermarket and turning in there onto the industrial estate from the roundabout.

Beautiful graffiti covering the the side of a block of flats
The most detailed motorhome traffic sign we've seen so far
Africa as seen from Tarifa, only 20 km away
We’d also spotted another area near Tarifa beach with vans that was a less crowded area facing onto the beach, so went to try parking there.  After finally finding the right turnoff to access it, we came across a very rutted, bumpy road that had been messed up by tyres in the wet.  We drove in slowly, almost beaching in places, and on the final stretch a car from one of the caravans told us to follow them for the best route through.  We finally made it with van intact to the grass parking area (GPS: 36.06789 -5.68548), where nearly every van was Spanish; we must have been one of the few foreigners crazy enough to attempt the drive in.

This morning, the skies started off looking relatively calm, and we started to wonder if we were going to get any wind.  After an hour or so it started picking up a little, and we got Matt’s gear out with his bigger sail.  When the time came to rig the sail up the wind had picked up enough that we had to put it away and switch to a 6 metre, and by the time he went out we got some consistent wind for a few hours.  Finally, after no use in eight months, we can say that Matt’s windsurf gear is serving a purpose once more!

Kitesurfers outnumbered windsurfers by around a dozen to one

The sun is setting, someone is strumming a guitar nearby, and for now, we’re chilled.  Next on our itinerary:  Castellar de la Frontera, and Gibraltar.  Maybe we’ll even find the Morrisons there, where I hear you can get proper British bacon and sausages.

- Jo

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