The Complete Guide To: Costa De La Luz

Windsurfers adore the endless beaches of this wild, deserted coastline, and nature lovers flock to the bird-filled wetlands. Kate Simon is blinded by the light on Spain's unexplored shore
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

A NEW COSTA?

A NEW COSTA?

No, the Spanish have just been keeping it to themselves. "Costa" may conjure up a nightmare image of unrelenting burger bars and high-rise hotels. But the Costa de la Luz is very different; a landscape of wide, sandy beaches backed by dunes and pine forests, watched over by ancient pueblos blancos - white hill towns dating back to Moorish times.

The Costa de la Luz comprises Spain's southern Atlantic coast, stretching east from Ayamonte on the Portuguese border to Tarifa on the tip of the Iberian peninsula. Africa's Rif mountains look close enough to touch. It's a wild, elemental place, buffeted by boisterous seas and spirited winds. And the brilliant white light, from which the coast takes its name, is at times almost blinding.

The vast wetlands of the Coto Doñana National Park divide the coast in two. This area provides a vital pit-stop for thousands of birds travelling between Africa and Europe, across the Strait of Gibraltar, in spring and autumn (see box). There is no access through the park, though; you must travel around it, heading inland as far as Seville, to get from one part of the coast to the other.

NOT ONE COAST, BUT TWO?

To some extent. The western section runs from the banks of the river Guadalquivir to the Portuguese border at Ayamonte. The presence of the park and the remoteness of the coast's far-western reaches attract fewer foreign visitors and the tourism scene is smaller-scale, mainly catering for locals and Sevillanos escaping the heat of the city in summer.

But small doesn't always mean beautiful; the attractiveness of its seaside resorts is more variable than in the east, with brash Matalasañas being one in particular to avoid.

Also, there are some horrific blots on the landscape in the shape of the gas depots and oil refineries around the city of Huelva. And just inland the scene is no less depressing; in a sea of polythene, migrant workers from Africa and eastern Europe scratch out a living harvesting the strawberry crop.

Still, all is not lost. There are some great beaches, especially fringing the Coto Doñana and the blue-flagged stretches at Isla Cristina and Punta Umbria. Plus there's the curious Wild West-style town of El Rocio and the Lugares Colombinos, where Columbus planned and set off on his first voyage. But more of those later.

WHAT'S THE OTHER END LIKE?

Across the marshes, between Sanlucar de Barrameda and Tarifa, the atmosphere and landscape is more appealing. No heavy industry there, although wind farms are expanding fast between Vejer de la Frontera and Tarifa and becoming an eyesore. There is more life in these parts year-round, with vibrant local communities still engaged as much in fishing and agriculture as in tourism.

The towns and cities are more attractive, from charming, ancient Cadiz, one of the oldest cities in Europe, to the pristine white Moorish hill towns of Vejer de la Frontera and Medina Sidonia. Even the contemporary conurbations on the seashore are genuinely pleasant.

Also, you'll find many of the best beaches along this strip - Zahara de los Atunes, Los Canos de Meca and El Palmar to name just three. And there's a lively surf scene that attracts a young international crowd.

A SURF SCENE? THAT SOUNDS COOL

Yes, surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing... Over the past 20 years, the area has become one of Europe's hotspots for lovers of wind-propelled sports, with several important international competitions taking place there. The beaches around Tarifa, especially Playa Los Lances and Playa de Valdevaqueros, attract the windsurfers and kitesurfers. Surfing takes place right along the seashore from Tarifa to Cadiz, but the beach of El Palmar is a favourite.

Yet you need not be an expert to enjoy the scene (though if you do intend to get in the water you'd better be able enough to cope with the strong winds). You could just get the look; take a stroll around the main streets of Tarifa's new town and you'll find plenty of surf shops. Or just sit on the beaches and soak up the atmosphere, watching the rainbow colours of the sails fill the sky.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE BEACH, THEN?

Well, yes and no. The locals certainly like to spend as much time as possible on the sands and, in summer, often light up a barbecue for dinner or eat at one of the beachside chiringuitos. The fun doesn't usually end until after 9pm, when streams of traffic cause a virtual gridlock of the beach roads and the A48, the main national thoroughfare (so leave a bit earlier).

But you don't have to stray too far to find other diversions, particularly sites of historic interest. On the beach at Bolonia lies Baelo Claudia, the well-preserved remains of a Roman fish-salting factory which was the centre of production of the Romans' favourite fish sauce, garum, the tomato ketchup of its day. Open Tuesday to Saturday, June to September, 10am-8pm (until 7pm in spring and 6pm in winter); Sunday 10am-2pm throughout the year. EU citizens admitted free on production of a passport or ID card, otherwise admission costs €1.50 (£1.10).

At the western end of the coast, you'll find more history on the seashore at Lugares Colombinos. This is the overall name for the places where Christopher Columbus planned and set off on his explorations of the New World in 1492.

The La Rabida monastery (00 34 959 350 411) is where Columbus got his project up and running, the monks helping him to secure the patronage of the Spanish crown. It features a 14th-century Gothic Mudejar church where Captain Martín Alonso Pinzon - who sailed with Columbus - is buried, as well as a Columbus museum and murals by Daniel Vasquez. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-1pm and 4pm-6.15pm, admission €2.50 (£1.80).

On the water below, at Muelle de las Carabelas (00 34 959 530 597), float replicas of the three ships that made the voyage, La Pinta, La Niña and La Santa Maria, with an accompanying exhibition commemorating the epic voyage. The ships are open Tuesday-Friday, 10am-2pm and 5pm-9pm; admission to both the ships and exhibition is €3 (£2.10). And at nearby Palos de la Frontera you will find the point of departure, although the estuary is now silted up.

ANY LIVING HISTORY?

Well, you could join the million pilgrims who descend on the town of El Rocio at Whitsun. The weirdness of the Romeria del Rocio, Spain's biggest religious pilgrimage, is only matched by its truly bizarre venue, El Rocio.

A small village set on the edge of the Coto Doñana park, it looks like the set of a cowboy film, but is, in fact, the genuine article - the home of many Spanish pioneers who exported cowboy style to the Americas, not vice versa. Its wide sandy streets are frequented as much by locals on horseback as in cars, and the white wooden houses with verandahs each have their own hitching post.

At Whitsun, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, many arriving in decorated wagons or on foot, descend on the church, the Ermita del Rocio, in the centre of the village, to commemorate the discovery of an effigy of the Virgin Mary in the nearby woods in the 13th century. The atmosphere is more fiesta than solemn contemplation, climaxing in mass argy-bargy in the early hours of the Monday, when the 90 brotherhoods physically battle each other for the honour of carrying the virgin. Next Whitsun falls on 28 May 2006.

ANY OTHER EVENTS I SHOULD SEE?

Don't miss the horseraces on the beach at Sanlucar de Barrameda (00 34 956 366 110; www.carrerassanlucar.com) from 1-3 and 16-18 August, an event that began as a fun way of taking fish to market but is now an international event.

And there are plenty of fiestas. In fact, you'll probably find them hard to avoid. You're likely to come across a town fair at some point in your travels, whatever time of year you visit.

The Cadiz Carnival (00 34 956 807 061; www.carnavaldecadiz.com), held around Shrove Tuesday in February, is one of the best of its kind. Despite the festivities being banned by General Franco, the rebel port continued its clandestine revelries throughout his dictatorship. The tradition of wearing costumes is said to be copied from the Venice carnival, with which Cadiz did a lot of business during the 16th century. It's a great way to experience this beach city.

But the most celebrated fiesta in this part of Andalucia is the Feria del Caballo ( www.jerez2020.com). Taking place in the first week of May each year in Jerez, this is the country's most prestigious horse fair, and also includes bullfighting and flamenco events. In September, they throw a sherry festival - the Festival del Otoño (00 34 956 35 98 63; www.turismojerez.com) - to bring in the grape harvest. It runs from 4-23 September.

SHERRY?

Yes, please, with a little ice. You'll be relieved to hear that the kind your auntie serves at Christmas is not the genuine article, rather a version specially blended for our saccharine tastes.

The sherry triangle takes in Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. Jerez is the capital of sherry, producing the dry fino and medium-sweet oloroso from the Palamino grapes that thrive in the white chalky soil just outside the city. El Puerto also produces finos, as well as the dry amontillado. But Sanlucar, at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, is the only place in the world making the salty-fresh manzanilla, a style of fino. And it currently claims to be the region's top seller.

These ancient vineyards were planted either by the Greeks or the Phoenicians, nobody's sure, and developed by the Romans and the Moors. The truly inquisitive can take a tour of a bodega. One of the biggest in Jerez is Gonzalez Byass (00 34 956 35 70 00; www.gonzalezbyass.es). There, visitors not only learn about the complexities of the criaderas and soleras system but also enjoy a ride through the grounds on a dinky little train, passing by La Concha, a circular bodega said to be partly designed by Gustav Eiffel. Tours at 11.30am, 12.30pm, 1.30pm, 2pm, 3.30pm and 4.30pm, Monday-Saturday; admission €7 (£5).

AND TO EAT?

Unsurprisingly, a lot of fish. Tuna is a speciality in these parts, especially during the almadraba in the spring and summer. The local fishing fleets go out to sea to practise the ancient art of scooping up the fish in a complex system of nets as they pass by on the way to and from the Mediterranean. The favoured cut is the neck of the tuna: sweet and slightly oily, and it's best eaten in the seaside towns where the catch comes in, such as Barbate. At Conil, the Semana del Atun, from 6-12 June, celebrates the start of the tuna season. Contact the tourist office for details (00 34 956 440 500). Otherwise fried white fish is very popular, especially a plate drawn from the bottom of the fishing nets, which is more palatable than it sounds and usually includes baby sole and squid. Try any of the restaurants around Cadiz's fish market.

Shellfish is a speciality at Casa Balbino on the pretty Plaza de Cabildo in Sanlucar de Barrameda, and Los Caracoles on the beach at Bolonia.

Over in the west, the bodegas in Bullullos par del Condado, just off the A49 motorway from Seville to Huelva, offer an experience not to be missed. The main street is lined with these vast dining halls which offer long and varied menus of meat (bull is inevitably popular in these parts) and fish, with something to please everyone - except vegetarians. Follow the locals to find the favourites.

HOW DO I GET THERE, AND GET AROUND?

There are three convenient points of entry. For the eastern section of the coast, Jerez is the best-placed airport, with flights offered by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted.

Gibraltar is a good alternative to Jerez, served by Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) from Luton and Manchester, and GB Airways on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) from Gatwick and Heathrow.

Seville is well connected by road to the east and west. Ryanair flies to Seville from Stansted; GB Airways flies from Gatwick on behalf of BA; and Iberia (020-8222 8970; www.iberia.com) flies from Heathrow. Iberia also offers connections through Madrid from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester.

Getting around is tricky, without a car (or a bicycle). Trains are very thin on the ground, with a line south from Seville to Cadiz, and another west to Huelva. Buses run only sporadically.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

This isn't really the stuff of package holidays, you'll get more of a sense of the place through independent travel. But if you do want to book a package Thomson (0870 165 0079; www.thomson.com) offers one week at the Riu Canela Hotel in Isla Canela for £1,186 in early July, flying from Gatwick to Faro. The tour operator Spain at Heart (01373 814222; www.spainatheart.com) offers a comprehensive selection of villas in the area. Two weeks' self catering at Villa Mento in Canos de Meca costs £668 per person in July. The cost does not include flights, but Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Jerez for around £85 in July.

If you prefer to arrange everything yourself, lists of campsites and youth hostels are available from the Spanish tourist office in London (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk). For self-catering apartments and hotel rooms try www.costa-de-luz-holidays.com or www.lowcostbeds.com.

In the west of the region you can choose from one of two modern paradores - government-run hotels - at Ayamonte and Mazagon. The Parador de Mazagon is particularly pleasant, a low-rise resort set in a pine forest near the Coto Doñana, with rooms looking out over gardens to the sea. It has private access to the wide sandy beach below, one of the best on this stretch of coast. You can book in the UK through Keytel International (020-7616 0300; www.keytel.co.uk), or go on line to www.parador.es, with rates from £125 per room per day including breakfast and taxes.

In the east, there's a burgeoning, sophisticated scene, from funky hotels to contemporary guesthouses. The pick of the bunch include the hotels La Casa del Califa (00 34 956 44 77 30; www.vejer.com/califa; doubles from €62/£44) and Casa Cinco (00 34 956 45 50 29; www.hotelcasacinco.com; doubles from €86/£61) and the guest houses Aqui (00 34 956 450 790; www.aquivejer.com; doubles from €75/£54) and Escondrijo (00 34 956 447 438; www.escondrijo.com; doubles from €75/£53) in Vejer de la Frontera.

In Medina Sidonia, the hotel Casa de Medina (00 34 956 41 00 69; www.casademedina.com; doubles from €90/£64) is a good choice. In Tarifa, La Sacristia (00 34 956 681 759; www.lasacristia; doubles from €115/£82) and Dar Cilla (00 34 653 467 025; www.darcilla.com; doubles from €90/£64) are excellent options in town, while a few miles down the beach, the venerable Hurricane Hotel (00 34 956 684 919; www.hotelhurricane.com; doubles from €86/£61) continues to draw discerning visitors. All room rates are inclusive of breakfast.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

The website www.andalucia.com is a handy start. Once you arrive, the English-language magazine La Luz ( www.laluzmag.com) is a good source of information and events in Cadiz province; you can pick it up free at tourist offices and other outlets.

A TWITCHER'S PARADISE

One of Europe's top wetlands, the Coto Doñana is best known as a major staging post for birds migrating to and from Africa. But it is also a breeding ground and residence for many others, as well as the home for the rare Iberian lynx, among other animals, reptiles and plants.

These wetlands, which cover an area of 500sq km, are a stranded part of the delta of the river Guadalquivir, cut off by the formation over the centuries of a vast natural sandbar. In spring and autumn, the Coto Doñana becomes the scene of some of the best birdwatching in Europe, when thousands of birds converge on the marsh. Visitors can expect to see Great Spotted Cuckoos, Glossy Ibis, Spoonbills, Marsh Harriers, Great Flamingos and Golden Orioles to mention just a few. If you're really lucky, you might catch sight of a Spanish imperial eagle, which nest in the cork oak forests.

The marsh at the heart of the park is strictly protected. There are no main roads through it and to enter it you must take an official guided tour. But there is also good bird and animal-spotting in the publicly accessible areas surrounding the marshes, taking in the giant, shifting dunes behind the Playa de Castilla and their valleys, the corrales, the woodlands and grasslands beyond, known as the cotos and vera.

Four-hour tours are available at 8.30am and 3pm throughout the year, except Mondays in winter, from the visitors' centre at El Acebuche. Priced €19.50 (£14) per person, they must be booked in advance through the information centre (00 34 959 43 04 32). For more guided birdwatching tours of the park and on the Strait of Gibraltar, contact Andalucian Guides (00 34 956 43 23 16; www.andalucianguides.com).

Comments