The light fantastic

Cathy Packe takes a leisurely road trip along Spain's unspoilt Atlantic coast
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The Independent Travel

At the eastern end of Spain's south-west coast is Tarifa, an attractive town with bright, white buildings and a commanding position on the Straits of Gibraltar. It is the most southerly tip of the Iberian peninsula, almost north African in appearance and only 10 miles from Morocco. To the west 200 miles or so lies Ayamonte, looking typically Spanish with its tree-lined squares and tiled façades. The houses tumble down to a marina, with a natural boundary to the north provided by the Guadiana river, which separates Spain from Portugal.

At the eastern end of Spain's south-west coast is Tarifa, an attractive town with bright, white buildings and a commanding position on the Straits of Gibraltar. It is the most southerly tip of the Iberian peninsula, almost north African in appearance and only 10 miles from Morocco. To the west 200 miles or so lies Ayamonte, looking typically Spanish with its tree-lined squares and tiled façades. The houses tumble down to a marina, with a natural boundary to the north provided by the Guadiana river, which separates Spain from Portugal.

Between these two outposts is the Costa de la Luz, Spain's most southerly coast. Just around the corner from the far more densely-populated Costa del Sol, the coast of light is something of an afterthought in tourist terms, just beginning to come to life as windsurfing enthusiasts descend on Tarifa, Europe's premier windsurfing spot, and golfers drift down from the Algarve to try out the new courses opening up at the western end. But while much of the rest of the Spanish coast is edged with highways, it is still possible to drive along here at a gentler pace.

For now, the motorway bypasses the shore completely, linking Gibraltar and Algeciras with Jerez and Cadiz by the shortest, inland, route. This may be the reason why this part of the Costa de la Luz has managed so far to remain resolutely old-fashioned, a string of traditional, white-washed coastal villages in need of a few modern amenities. Pass through Barbate, Zahara de los Atunes or Conil de la Frontera between September and June and they will appear to be closed, a few streets of crumbling, often unoccupied, buildings beside a perfect sandy beach. Only in the summer season do the buildings burst into life; beach towels hang from balconies, shutters are opened to reveal lively cafés and restaurants and beaches buzz with the noise of holidaymakers escaping the urban heat.

Dominating this stretch of coast is Cape Trafalgar, a remote, wind-blown spot marked out by its lighthouse and as the place that gave its name to one of the greatest events in British history. Lord Nelson's fleet waited here for the Spanish navy to emerge from the harbour at Cadiz, the most important city on this coast some 30 miles north. It has expanded in the 300 years since the Battle of Trafalgar, but Nelson might still find parts of it familiar. The old city is surrounded by water on three sides, the fortified tip of a long strip of land jutting out into the Atlantic. Locals still promenade along the seafront, in the shade of the walls and passed the castle of Santa Catalina, built at the end of the 16th century.

There is evidence of more cordial relations between England and Spain at Sanlucar de Barrameda, the town that produces manzanilla, a dry sherry that gets its distinctive flavour from the salty winds blowing in from the ocean. Sanlucar and the nearby inland town of Jerez, are the focus of the ancient sherry industry, which received a boost in the 18th century when the British came here looking for something to drink as an alternative to French wine.

Sanlucar is popular with visitors eager to visit the bodegas, or sherry warehouses. But it is also one of the entrance points to Spain's largest national park. The Coto de Donana covers more than 500 square miles of marshland and dunes and is the habitat of hundreds of species of native and migrating birds. Visitors are welcome, but they are very strictly controlled and driving your own car through the park is not allowed. From Sanlucar there are daily boat trips along the Guadalquivir river, departing from the jetty near the bus station and stopping a couple of times inside the park. The park's four visitor centres are on the north side of the park and are the starting point for some well-marked walking trails and daily jeep tours that allow a glimpse, albeit a well-controlled one, of the region's varied wildlife.

Narrow roads skirt around Donana, turning off at sharp angles according to the curves of the river and the demands of the marshy terrain. It is almost impossible not to get tangled in the outskirts of Seville, Andalucia's largest city. But just as there seems to be no escape from its suburbs, the road dives south and west again, towards the small town of Almonte and the Condado wine region. Andalucia has never been one of the great Spanish wine regions, but the whites produced in the villages of Bollullos and La Palma del Condado are extremely drinkable.

The main street of Bollullos is lined with lively bodegas, selling plates of prawns, ham and cheese to nibble while sampling a glass or two of the local Privilegio del Condado.

From Almonte the road drops due south to one of the most curious villages in Spain. El Rocio looks as if it has been transplanted from the Wild West, with its three or four strips of dusty, single-storey houses planted on the sand, an unexpected island in an otherwise waterlogged landscape. There is sand where Tarmac might make a better road surface and where other towns might have a main square, El Rocio has a broad expanse of inland beach. It is no surprise to see that some of the locals find getting around easier on horseback. The place is dominated by a large, whitewashed church, which contains a statue of the Virgin of El Rocio. This is the focus of one of the country's most important religious festivals, a colourful pilgrimage held every year over the three days leading up to Pentecost. Pilgrims dressed in elaborate costumes follow decorated carts pulled by oxen. The romeria ends when the statue of the Virgin has been processioned through the streets.

From El Rocio the road continues along the coast, past dunes and through pine forests until it reaches the monastery of La Rabida, now all but swallowed up in the vast industrial sprawl that surrounds the port of Huelva. The monks of La Rabida listened to Christopher Columbus as he planned his voyages of exploration and they brought him to the attention of the Queen, who agreed to finance his trips. On the river below the monastery are life-sized reconstructions of the three ships in which he set sail across the Atlantic: Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina.

For years, the marshes that surround the approaches to Huelva and continue intermittently as far as the Portuguese frontier, held back the development of the final strip of glorious, uninterrupted sandy coast. Fifteen years ago, an impressive suspension bridge was built three miles inland, threatening to turn this part of the Costa de la Luz into a continuation of the Portuguese Algarve.

Inevitably, newly created holiday villages, such as El Portil, Islantilla and Isla Cristina, are popping up like mushrooms along the coast. But even this, with the influx of visitors that it brings in the summer months and on sunny weekends, has not so far been able to destroy the many charms of Spain's most undiscovered of coasts.

Journey To The Source: Cadiz Fish Market
By James Palmer

Cadiz fish market was where I discovered chorizo carabineros. These are the prawns of dreams: huge crustaceans that look as if their shells are about to burst with flesh the colour of Spanish chorizo sausage. The fishmonger was doling them out into paper cones for €9.99 (£7.10) a kilo.

There were nine of us staying at a friend's villa in Conil de la Frontera, a traditional Andalucian pueblo blanco overlooking the Atlantic, about a 50-minute drive south of Cadiz along the Costa de la Luz. Four of us had been dispatched to fetch lunch: langoustines, lobsters, crabs, tiger prawns, shrimps - bring shellfish, was the order.

A trip to Cadiz fish market, located in a grid of cobbled alleys in the old town, provided the solution. These cobbles (our friend with the villa and the local knowledge told us) were once used as ballast on ships returning from the Americas. During the 1700s Cadiz was Spain's gateway to America and held a virtual monopoly on the gold and silver trade across the pond.

Today, Cadiz is an industrialised port with high unemployment and a lasting reliance on the sea. The ocean laps right up to the sand-coloured walls of the old town, which sits on a promontory of rock, joined to Andalucia via a narrow isthmus and a busy highway. The high-sided buildings, some topped with domed watchtowers, are peeling and crumbling after centuries under the salty spray.

In the south-east of this characterful cluster lies the Mercado Central, on Plaza Libertad, with meats on one side, fresh fruit on the other and the popular fish stalls in the centre.

Moustachioed traders were cleaving hunks off huge tuna, swordfish and moray eels and laying out the smaller fish in goggle-eyed lines for the morning punters. We made our way past the gore and guts to the glistening piles of shellfish in plastic trays on the far side of the room, and returned to Conil triumphantly with five cornets full of the bizarre chorizo shellfish.

We sliced them down the middle and stuffed them with red peppers and garlic, then grilled them in their shells with butter; we fried up bowlfuls of croquetas, which one of our number had spent most of the previous day hand-rolling; we chopped up some chorizo sausage, tossed around a salad and devoured it all under the shade of a bright purple bougainvillea.

It was a delicious and well-earned lunch. That evening we were hungry for more so we headed back towards Cadiz en masse to seek out a freiduria, a fried fish shop, for which the region is famous. On the recommendation of our host, we turned off at El Puerto de Santa Maria, across the bay from Cadiz. By the promenade on La Ribera del Marisco is an enormous fish emporium, Romerijo's (0034 956 541 254; www.romerijo.com), which has plenty of outdoor seating and two fish counters facing each other. On one side, ladies in hair nets scoop boiled cockles, mussels, winkles, whelks and crab claws into cartuchos - paper cones; on the other side, the "fried" side, the variety of battered fish puts British chippies to shame.

Here, you can tuck into meaty hunks of dog fish, crispy chanquetes (tiny deep-fried fish, like whitebait), hake, sole, red mullet, squid, octopus, calamares, or tortillitas de camarones - shrimp fritters. You choose your catch at either of the counters and take it back to your table in a cone. The waitresses bring out the wine or, if you're in the mood, the local chilled fino or manzanilla sherry, salad, bread, a nutcracker for the crab claws and a bucket for your shells. This is industrial eating at its best and we filled up for less than €18 (£12.80) a head. But while the fried titbits went down a treat, they couldn't hold a torch to those juicy chorizo carabineros.



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