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Almeria: Full of frontier spirit

With its mix of cargo, cacti and coves, Almeria is a vibrant port of call


WHERE?

In the south-east corner of Andalucia, where the Spanish and North African coasts fall into line and shadow each other as far as the Straits of Gibraltar. Almeria, the provincial capital and a key port since Moorish times, has a foot in both continents, with frequent air and sea connections to Morocco, and a ferry link to Algeria.

For most of the year, it's dry, dusty and sun-bleached - indeed, the interior contains the only desert region in Europe (much loved by film-makers seeking more accessible alternatives to the real Wild West). Once seen as a grimy backwater, the city has spruced itself up impressively, most recently for the 2005 Mediterranean Games.

Orientation comes easily from a long rocky outcrop a little to the west of the city centre, which has supported the forbidding Alcazaba fortress for more than 1,000 years. Like so many Andalucian monuments, the Moors built it and the Christians eventually captured and improved it. It opens 9am-8.30pm daily, except Monday, admission is free to EU citizens (take your passport). From the battlements, there are wonderful views of the arid mountains to the north; the city, the sea and the distant African coast to the south.

Both the regional and city tourist offices are central and easy to find, lying halfway along the two handsome, leafy streets that frame the city centre - the Parque de Nicolas Salmeron, with the sea on one side and a park on the other, and the recently re-landscaped Avenida de Federico Garcia Lorca, which runs at right angles to it. The main shopping streets lie inside the "V" created by the two. Everything you need to see is reachable on foot.

Almeria's hotels are very well priced, and for most of the year a tourist promotion enables you to buy a €50 (£35) voucher from any travel agent, entitling you to a room at any participating hotel with vacancies. It may not work in July or August, but at every other time it provides an inexpensive solution to your accommodation needs. And there are some excellent, family-run pensiones.

Heading the luxury list is the Gran Hotel (Avenida Reina Regente 8; 00 34 950 238 011; www.granhotelalmeria.com), well located for both shopping and the seafront. It has been a high-rise landmark since the 1960s. For a large, functional double room you pay around €150 (£105).

Near the cathedral, the AM chain owns two hotels which back on to each other and share a swimming pool and phone number: 00 34 950 234 999. Of the two, the Torreluz IV (Plaza Flores 5; www.amtorreluz.com) is more highly rated, but I liked the look of the AM Congress (Calle Tenor Iribarne 15; www.amhoteles.com), with its strikingly modern atrium, and prices of €65 (£45) for a double room.

La Perla (Plaza del Carmen 7; 00 34 950 238 877) is within walking distance of the Alcazaba. Despite extensive refurbishment it remains modestly priced: double rooms start at just over €50 (£35).

WHY?

Almeria feels like Europe's frontier town, with its palms and cacti and colourful cargoes of people and freight perpetually arriving and departing on the North African ferries. The city missed out on the first wave of package tourism that transformed Spain's southern shores in the 1960s. But new direct flights from the UK have sharply increased tourism recently, as British holidaymakers have sought something more challenging than the mainstream Costa del Sol destinations.

Yet it is still possible, even in high season, to rent a car at the airport and find a deserted beach within an hour. The climate is never very cold, which makes it a great winter destination. Almeria's university also contributes to a lively night-life.

WHAT?

After the Alcazaba, the city's key landmark is the cathedral, which lies in the heart of the "V" described above. Begun in 1524, two years after an earthquake destroyed the mosque that stood on the site, it was as much a bastion against piratical invasion as a defender of Christianity against the works of Satan. This explains the remarkably small windows, and the corner towers that once housed cannons to repel the Turkish and North Africans who controlled the seaways. Inside there's a stunning marble altar, and a fine collection of devotional paintings, including three by Alonso Cano, the 17th-century Granadan master. The cathedral opens 10am-5pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-1pm on Saturdays, admission €2/£1.40.

The city has many stately squares, the best of which - the Plaza de la Constitucion - is currently a bit of a building site, as is the plaza outside the cathedral: a sure sign of a city on the move, but frustrating if you're looking for the killer photo.

When you tire of the heat and noise, relief is not far away, in the shape of one of Andalucia's unsung treasures, the Cabo de Gata. Empty, barren hills drop down to a string of ravishing coves and beaches. Despite the almost year-round absence of rain, there's astonishing bio-diversity, with as many as 125 different species managing to adapt and survive, some of them putting down roots 30m deep.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

Almeria has a distinctly South American feel, and Martin Fierro (Carretera de Ronda; 00 34 950 276 853) reflects this, offering an uncompromisingly meaty menu, much of it imported from Argentina. The signature dish is fillet steak toasted on a wood fire. Portions are generous, and diners can choose from four set menus, ranging in price from €30-€39 (£21-£28).

Whet your appetite at the olive oil museum (free admission) before moving next door to Real (Calle Real 15; 00 34 950 280 243). The contrast between the classy upstairs dining room and the noisy, baking streets outside could hardly be greater. The kitchen is renowned for its venison, game and seafood, but at a price. Expect to pay in the region of €35 (£25) per head for a meal with wine. Closed on Sundays.

Why bother using restaurants when the bars serve free, nourishing tapas with your drink? It has to be alcoholic, though - you'll be charged an extra €1.20 (85p) or so, if you order a coffee or soft drink. Calle Padre Alfonso Torres, a side street near the Paseo de Almeria, has three watering holes, all worth a visit. Bodega El Ajoli at number 7, offers five different sherries from barrels stacked behind the bar. Complement a glass of fino with a plate of thinly-sliced ham, and add a baked potato if you need something more filling.

El Bodequilla (Plaza Marquez de Heredia, 8), across the road from the art college, is intimate to the point of being cramped, but the wide range of tapas on offer is worth the squeeze, plus good and reasonably priced wines to wash them down. There's more room in the evenings, when tables are laid on the palm-fringed pavement.

Almeria's role as a location double for the Wild West is celebrated at El Barril (Parque Nicolas Salmeron 7). Originally owned by the cameraman who filmed the dangerous bits of Where Eagles Dare, El Barril became a haunt for off-duty actors and film folk. Its walls are packed with signed portraits and posters of old-time movies. It's scruffy and the tapas are nothing to write home about, but it's full of life and colour.

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