By the waters edge in old town Tarifa, there is a walkway that leads out to a point in Tarifa. On the north side of the walkway lays the rough and windy Atlantic Ocean. Waves are crashing on to the beach. Less than 50 feet away on the south side lies the peaceful and much bluer Mediterranean Sea. Only the smallest of ripples can be seen. The beach to the immediate south of the walkway is backed with sunbathers. The contrast is striking. The difference is sharp and pretty amazing.
A great walk along the Atlantic Ocean can be had by walking north from the old city out of Tarifa. The boardwalk which is well maintained shifts from wood, to dirt. and concrete. You can either walk it or bike along it. North of town the boardwalk offers great views of the windsurfers. It can also be a means of finding a more secluded beach than the offerings in Tarifa proper. There are even a few bars and restaurants located along the boardwalk. As you walk farther north on the boardwalk you will pass animals grazing very close to the boardwalk as well as sites set out for viewing of windsurfers.
We used the boardwalk as a means of getting into town from our rural hotel. While the walk took just over one half hour each way it provided great exercise and an opportunity to breath some clean air and enjoy the Costa de la Luz.
As indicated earlier Tarifa is an immensely popular site for windsurfers. Folks from all over Europe come to Tarifa because of the quality of the windsurfing. The best locations for windsurfing are north of the town. There is good access via a boardwalk for those wanting to walk out and view the windsurfers. There are also several small viewing huts that have been constructed so as to watch the windsurfers and avoid the force of the full wind which apparently can be quite ferocious on some days.
This is a lovely way to spend a couple of hours as well as knowing that the money you have paid is going towards protecting some of the most beautiful creatures on earth.
It lasts about 3 hours with a half an hour talk on the work the company do before hand.
It costs 27 euros and I think it is well worth it. They also promise that if you dont see any whales then they will give you another trip out free of charge.
A TIP !!!! if you are even the slightest bit prone to sea sickness then either dont go or take something first - remember you are going out in a boat in one of the windiest seas in europe !!!
ANOTHER TIP - This gets very popular especially at weekends so make sure you book a few days in advance
In reading her Lonely Planet guide, Sue had noticed that the Hurricane Hotel (located just a few kilometres up the coast from Tarifa) is one of the "in-places" to visit or stay. As a result, we decided to stop there a day later after leaving Vejer de la Frontera and finishing a proper visit of the Roman ruins at Bolonia.
The hotel was conceived in the mid-1980s by an Australian who had arrived in Tarifa and played a large role in making the area so popular for surfing. Located practically on the N-340 highway, it is built in the Moorish style and features lush tropical gardens that reminded us of our days in Papua New Guinea - it even had Bird of Paradise flowers growing (the national bird of PNG). It has all the amenities one could require and you will pay for them with rates for its 33 rooms running at 80-140 E (double) and 140-260 E (suite). There is an overflow parking spot at the front for non-guests who just want to stop for a drink at their beachfront outdoor bar area - that would be us.
We did not feel 100% welcome, with various signs saying such and such was for hotel guests only - but we asked at the bar and they said it was OK. Judging from the cars in their parking lot, I think their clientele is fairly wealthy and I found the attitude of the bar tender and waiters to be a bit condescending - forcing me to drown my sorrows with a cold beer! Many guests had their dogs with them and they sat with them at their tables by the sandy beach. It was an interesting experience sitting there observing the goings-on and watching the ships go by in the Strait of Gibraltar, but not one of my all-time favourites.
After leaving the Hurricane Hotel we easily found cheaper accommodations in Tarifa and then set off the next morning for Torremolinos - after all, it was going to be New Years Eve 2009 and we hoped our old hostal there would be able to put us up!
It was just after 6 PM by the time we returned to Old Tarifa, spotting our grey station wagon parked in a small square off the maze of twisting streets - exactly where we had left it when we first entered town and had to search out our accommodations on foot. Along its right side is a narrow alley that led a couple of blocks and emerged almost directly at the Pension Correo accommodations we eventually stumbled upon.
We spent quite a bit of time wandering around in this old section of Tarifa which acquired its name sometime around the year 710 when the existing settlement was occupied by a Berber named Tarif Ben Malluk. It was never a very large place but a typical Moorish maze of streets sprang up over the next 500-years of Moorish rule and they are still there today. Luckily we had picked up a good tourist map which we constantly consulted as we made our way around the many interesting shops, stores, bars and alleyways - with lots of pedestrian traffic and a few cars making their way around mostly one-way streets.
When we returned after one night away, we chose a hostal located outside the city walls, so that time we had the pleasure of walking about four blocks to enter the Old city again, this time through the one remaining Moorish gate - the Almedina (2nd photo). Following the Christian conquest of the city in the early 1290s more walls and gates were built, but only one of those more modern gates still survives - Puerta de Jerez.
We were very happy to see the changeable sky over Tarifa as well as terrific wave action by both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea as we walked the narrow causeway to Isla de las Palomas - at least it was not raining like it had been a few hours earlier on the Mediterranean coast at Nerja!
Isla de las Palomas is a small island just off the coast but is close enough to shore that a narrow vehicle/pedestrian causeway connects it to Tarifa's harbour area. Because of its prominent position for watching shipping traffic passing through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, it has long been militarized and is presently off-limits to visitors because it is used as a place to process apprehended illegal immigrants from Africa. During the 1900s it was also used as a coastal defense battery, housing two Krupp 10-inch guns to deal with any seaborne attacks (the 2nd photo shows a now-vacant concrete gun enclosure while waves pound away).
The Mediterranean side of the causeway was not quite as active but its waves too were making quite sizeable splashes as they reached the causeway. A large sign mounted beside the causeway shows Tarifa's location in relation to the Strait of Gibraltar. Once reaching the island itself, we could not go any further so took a look back at the wild weather buffeting Tarifa before retracing our steps. The tiny distant surfer specks close to shore in that last photo give some idea of the size of the ocean waves.
As we set out on our first explorations of Tarifa, we very soon came upon one of the city's most obvious and famous attractions - the fortress Castillo de Guzmán el Bueno overlooking the harbour. It is reputed to have been first constructed by the Moors in 960 AD, changing hands between the Moors and Christians a number of times in battles for this strategic spot between Africa and Europe. Finally, in 1292 King Sancho IV of Leon and Castille captured and held it for the Christians. However, its most famous battle took place four years later in 1296 when Sancho's father, Don Alonso de Guzmán (1256–1309) successfully withstood one last Moorish attack, despite one of his other sons being captured and executed by the Moors when he refused to surrender the castle. For this act of defiance despite great personal loss, Guzmán became known as 'el Bueno' or 'the Good' for his patriotism.
The present castle is the result of further work on it in the 1700s by the British (who acquired Gibraltar and some nearby areas by treaty in 1717) and the last battle involving the fortifications came in 1812 when a combined British/Spanish garrison successfully resisted an attack by Napoleon's troops.
A statue of Sancho IV now sits outside the castle walls looking out over the Strait with the coast of Morocco visible in the distance.
We had plans to explore more than just Tarifa on the Atlantic coastline, so we were up and gone after our first night in town, headed further up the coast on the N-340 highway. The weather was still as wild looking as when we had arrived in the area, but we had not gone far before we were intrigued by the first 'walking' sand dunes that I had seen. For a closer look, we turned toward the point of land sticking out from coast, onto a narrow but smooth road leading out into a beautiful pine forest. Part-way through the forest, signs began to appear saying that this was a dead-end road and that only military vehicles could continue.
Taking the hint, we turned back to where the sand dunes were just about to over-run our little highway. The dunes along this coast are some of the largest in Europe and are a result of the 'Levante' wind that occurs due to high pressure over the Mediterranean Sea forcing wind out of the east toward the typical low pressure systems over the Atlantic Ocean. Compression of the air as it flows through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar gap between the mountains of Gibraltar/Spain on one side and Africa on the other results in very strong winds that actually march the sand dunes up hillsides and into the forests. Just like in Canada where wooden-slated snow fences are used to prevent snow from drifting over highways, in Spain the air turbulence the fences cause is used to slow down these moving dunes (1st and 4th photos).
After finishing up with our pine forest, we continued our way north on the A-340 which actually runs in a valley separated from the Atlantic coast by a small mountain range. We had not driven far before we came to another nice looking highway, the A-8202 that switchbacked its way up between two peaks as it took us over the mountain ridge for great views of the small beachside community of Bolonia.
It is located in a sweeping bay that ends in another sharp point of land jutting out into the ocean and the beach along there is one of the most popular in this part of Spain (2nd photo). Way off in the distance we could see another of those 'walking' dunes being driven up the hillside by the prevailing winds from the east. Tourist literature reports that there are a number of smaller secluded beaches along this stretch of coastline within walking distance from Bolonia, and that they are commonly used as 'naturist' beaches.
Bolonia itself is quite a hodge-podge of mostly dilapidated buildings with some of its sandy streets being pot-holed with puddles of water. We drove on through the community to the far end, where the coastal road seemed to peter out in a dead-end, so we turned around to head back the way we had entered (3rd photo). While driving through town we did manage to check out what we were really looking for - the 2000 year old ruins of the Roman town of Baelo Claudia . The site has a beaufiful interpretive centre and amazing relics of Roman architecture (4th photo) but, not learning our lesson in Seville a week earlier, we forgot that attractions are closed on Mondays! Not to worry, we continued on up the coast to spend the night in pretty Vejar de la Frontera before returning to Bolonia the next day for a proper look at the ruins (see my Off The Beaten Path tips for the details).
This harbourfront area of Tarifa seems to be quite a historic spot. After watching the ferry depart for Africa, we continued our walk past this very interesting looking building with the appearance of some sort of old defensive tower.
This castle-like building, known as Santa Catalina, was actually built not that long ago - in 1929 to serve as a weather centre for shipping in the area. However, its role changed drastically only a few years later with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. General Franscisco Franco and his forces that eventually won the war took it over for military purposes by converting it into an ammunition storage facility and also outfitted it with concrete bunkers for defensive purposes. The various slits and doorways at ground level are remnants of those military days before it was allowed to revert back to a weather station in the 1950s (and subsequently retired around 2000).
Over the years Santa Catalina with its distinctive shape has become quite a symbol of Tarifa, so plans are now afoot to rehabilitate the structure to make it more accessible by tourists.
After leaving the castle, a low rumbling sound from the harbour drew our attention to one of the twin-pontoon catamaran ferries that was in the process of leaving for the next trip to Tangier, Morocco - only a 35 minute ride when travelling at its top speed of 42 knots (just under 80 kph or 50 mph). The 'Tarifa Jet' was built in Tasmania in 1997 and, at 86 m in length and 26 m wide, it can carry a load of 800 passengers, 175 cars and 4 trucks. It is operated by the FRS Group which runs several ferry services in Europe.
It was interesting to watch it slowly ease its way past the tall 'Sacred Heart of Jesus' statue that marks the end of the breakwater separating the small harbour from the Mediterranean Sea. Because the narrow Strait of Gibraltar between Europe and Africa provides a magnet for illegal immigrants from Africa arriving in Spain, the authorities have their hands full dealing with them all as they arrive on these shores. The statue faces toward Africa, maybe as if to welcome the incoming pilgrims as they seek a better life in Spain. Once clear of Tarifa harbour the 'jet' gradually increased speed as its four powerful engines, with a combined output of 38,000 HP, really started to work!
Near the castle is a statue of Don Alonso Perez de Guzman (also known as Guzman el Bueno “the good”.) He was born in 1256 and in later years was given the charge of Tarifa after it was taken from the Moors. He defended Tarifa and the castle when the Moors tried to take it back, even at the expense of his son’s life.
Inside the passenger terminal is a small café and toilets and not a lot else. Departure procedures to take the ferry to Tangier is fairly simple. You will be asked to have your passport (which has 6 months validity) open at the photo/ ID page. In most instances they were chatting to someone else and not even looking when they waved you through. Don’t try and take photos in this area.
Not quite merging with the old buildings of Tarifa are the more modern designs of shops and houses which sadly lack the character of their predecessors. A lot of apartments have been added to Tarifa to cater for the influx of surfers which swam into the area during the seasonal months.