TRAVEL: Almeria

Michael Hewson watches sleeping cats lie in a drowsy corner of Spain

I've been watching it on and off for days now. As the blue starts to fade from the sky and the sand glows golden, I come back here and sit and observe. It's been days and it might have moved, and it might not. It's hard to say after a day of blissful nothing. I'm in a kind of tourist Year Zero where yesterday feels like another life, and soon I am distracted by the freshness of the air, the sounds of the birds, the beauty of looking at nothing very much.

I'm in the cape of the she-cat, the Cabo de Gata, a corner of southern Spain which is small and secret. Lying in the Andalusian province of Almera, caught between the Scalextric racetrack that is the Autovia de Mediterraneo and the sea, the Cabo de Gata is an area of sub-desert, plains and hills peppered by agave and prickly pear trees that gently falls down to some of the finest beaches on the Spanish coast.

For centuries, the area was mined - first by the Romans for silver and then in later years for gold and minerals. But if this brings to mind images of slag heaps and despoliation, think again. The Cabo de Gata is a place that just feels old and untouched. The inland villages are quiet and pretty but not in a snapshot way. The coastal villages still rely heavily on fishing and, of course, tourism.

In truth, there is not a square mile of Spain's Mediterranean coastline that has not been touched by tourists and the Cabo de Gata is no exception - but it is under strict control. It is true that in the summer the area is thick with visitors, mainly well-heeled French and Germans, but for the other 10 months of the year, it is a heavenly place with quiet streets and deserted beaches - and vistas that seem to stretch on for ever. It feels about 40 years behind the rest of the area.

What keeps the Cabo de Gata special is that in 1986 it became a national park. Spain, tired of watching its coastline disappear under concrete and neon, set tough new planning laws and now the cape is a protected area. It is home to many rare species of birds and plant life. Asparta, sisal and the palmetto, the only European palm tree, grow here and flamingos and storks visit from North Africa.

I bought the local guidebook, only 300 pesetas (pounds 1.60), and indispensable it is, too. It provides the best map of the area, makes suggestions for day-long walks and details some of the ecological work being carried out in the area. It also requests that you learn how to listen to nature and urges you to share your barbecue with others - and on its advice I decided to visit San Jose.

A small town, set back in a bay, with houses creeping up its hills, it is simply built and there is nothing here that isn't functional, even the cupolas on the roofs. This idea, a leftover from the Moors, makes San Jose seem even more exotic and removed. The cupolas are designed to deflect heat and this is very important because Cabo de Gata is the hottest part of coastal Spain. In high summer the temperature reaches the hundreds in the shade and throughout the year the area gets more than 3,000 hours of sunshine.

South of the town lies a dirt road that leads out to the kind of beaches most people only dream about. No shops, just golden sand and a turquoise sea that is warm all year round. The largest beach, Genovese, is in the shape of a half moon and is shallow - a giant, natural paddling pool.

On my last night I ventured inland in a car. The two villages of Sorbas and Ravernas lie in the middle of the desert - the landscape might seem familiar due to the Spaghetti Westerns that were shot here. The landscape is gulch-ridden, almost lunar. It is a place to see and then to leave, and so I headed towards what passes in these parts as the big city.

Almera in some respects has had its day. In the 11th century it was the most commercially vibrant city on the Iberian Peninsula, trading with the Phoenicians and boasting splendours to rival Granada. But there is scant evidence of this now. In the 18th century, just about everything of worth was sold off by the locals and if that was not enough, during the civil war the city was shelled from destroyers in the harbour.

Modern Almera, however, is not without its charms. As evening fell, I ordered a drink at a pavement cafe and wondered whether I had come across that most elusive place: real Spain.

Yet I needed to get back to San Jose and one particular beach there. I had been coming here every evening to witness the main tourist attraction on the cape: a huge pile of sand. The Duna Rampante de Monsul is a giant sand dune that changes its shape depending on the direction of the wind. I settled down in my favourite spot to watch and to wait. As I said, it might have moved and it might not

The closest airport to Almera with flights from the UK is Malaga.

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