Whisper it quietly, but there’s a costa in Spain where the waiters don’t speak English. They’re not so good at German, either, and it’s hard to find anything Anglo-Saxon on their menus. But if you’re prepared to sample their freshly caught fish dishes, and what’s more, order them in Spanish, they’ll reward you with a gentle courtesy not always evident on costas elsewhere in Spain.
On this costa the sun always shines, the heat is dry and the sea is clear. Miles and miles of golden sands fade into glimmering, white seaside villages, as the surf surges and, inland, the mountains form a beguiling, hazy mass. There are no high-rise hotels, no burger bars, no jet-skis, hardly any golf courses and just a few tourists. The wind can blow ferociously but it’s a warm, African wind. The blue sky is implacable, always there, always light. Artists throughout the centuries have been drawn to this costa, compelled to stay because of its extraordinary, year-round sun-drenched glow. This is the Costa de la Luz, and it’s Spain’s best-kept secret.
Not the Costa del Sol
The Costa de la Luz – the Coast of Light – stretches from Algeciras, an industrial town west of Gibraltar, past Cadiz and on to the border with Portugal. It is part of Andalucia, the region of bullfights, flamenco and sherry. East of Gibraltar is the Costa del Sol, also in Andalucia, one of the most built-up tourist centres in the world.
There are those who like the faceless concrete blocks, hordes of English youths on stag nights and grey sands of the Costa del Sol. Some 300,000 British people are thought to have set up home there. It’s warm, it’s sunny, the seas are calm and relatively clean. Inland there is the quaint hillside village of Mijas, and Malaga has a rough and ready charm. But even its advocates would stop short of saying that the Costa del Sol was in any way ‘the real Spain.’
A few miles to the west, though, as the road drops down the Sierra del Cabrito to Tarifa, the landscape changes dramatically and, with it, the people. Suddenly the sands are golden and, if they’re not deserted in the summer – when Spaniards from nearby Seville (Sevillanos) and Cadiz (Gaditanos) arrive in swarms – there’s always space. Often, in fact, the beaches are deserted. And the overwhelming presence of Spaniards on holiday makes for an experience wholly opposite to that of the Costa del Sol.
It can be a bit windy
Tarifa is the first town on the Costa de la Luz proper, heading west from Algeciras. It’s heralded by an array of windmills high on the hills above, sadly not of Don Quixote vintage but still mesmerising in their modernity. As the road winds its way down to the town, another strange sight unfolds. It seems as if a multi-coloured quilt has been laid over the sea as it meets the beach. The colours shift and swap places, dip down and reappear from nowhere. This bizarre canopy is formed by the sails of kite-surfers.
Kite-surfing is the latest craze to hit the wind-rich town of Tarifa, for long regarded as one of the best windsurfing sports in the world. Its adrenalin junkies have discovered that if you attach a large kite to a harness and jump on a surfboard with foot-straps, you can, well, fly. Watching the kite-surfers jump metres in the air and drift with the wind is intoxicating but also educative, because it gives a clue to the comparative lack of tourist development on the Costa de la Luz.
The region around Tarifa is battered for much of the year by two winds – the levante (from the east) and the poniente (from the west). The winds are warm, but perhaps their ferocity has proved a disincentive to further exploration of the coast by those arriving from the east. Tarifa itself is an attractive town of crumbling Moorish walls and the Castillo de Guzman (from where there are excellent views across to the Rif mountains of Morocco), and has seen a huge boom as windsurfing grew in popularity.
But there aren’t many windsurfers beyond Tarifa. Perhaps, then, the wind doesn’t blow so hard further along the coast?
Cool and calm in Conil de la Frontera
An hour’s drive west along the N340 from Tarifa, the statistics for Conil de la Frontera set the scene. This Andalusian fishing village has some 18,000 inhabitants, the most sunshine in Spain (over 3,000 hours), miles of soft, golden sand and 362 pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes. It’s hot – temperatures of around 35c are common in July and August, and even in winter it’s regularly 20c – but the heat is dry. And there’s hardly any wind.
For years, Spaniards have known of Conil and the villages near it on the Costa de la Luz. They arrive in droves from Madrid, Seville and Cadiz in August, but their numbers add to the vibrancy of Conil’s rambling centre, creating a traditional Spanish feel. Flamenco until dawn is common, children stay up (almost) as late as their parents, there is a thriving community of local artists, and the market beside the walls of the old Moorish castle in the town centre is full of hand-crafted fabrics and trinkets, many from Morocco.
Conil’s beach is lapped by a gentle Atlantic in the summer, a rather more powerful one for the rest of year. It’s a surfer’s mecca, with perfect waves forming over the sandbars up and down the beach, but especially well on Conil beach where the Rio Salado meets the sea, and just a few miles south at nearby El Palmar.
Those who prefer a gentler sea, not to mention privacy, can find it near Conil’s harbour. Here, towards the end of Conil’s main beach, small cliffs rise and delicate, nearly inaccessible coves have been formed. The sea is still and clear, warmed invitingly by the Gulf stream. If you can find the coves, which are near the Fuento del Gallo and Roche Viejo areas, you’ll note that nudity is standard. In truth, though, there is so much space all along the Costa de la Luz that if nude sunbathing is your thing, there’s never a problem.
Kiss me, Hardy
Heading south-east from Conil, through El Palmar, the road winds its way to Zahara de los Atunes. Zahara is a small fishing village blessed with a six-mile beach, every bit as beautiful as that of Conil. If it is on the brink of development, at least there is comfort in the knowledge that Spanish property law in the area prevents the emergence of the high-rise hotels that have so blighted much of the coast of Spain. Again, its visitors are chiefly Spaniards, though the legacy of a long-since departed German hippy colony both contributes to its laid-back ambience and still makes it a popular destination for Germans.
Zahara is a perfect place from which to visit Cabo de Trafalgar (Cape Trafalgar). Did Lord Nelson really implore a kiss as he lay dying in the arms of Hardy? There are no clues but plenty of desolate charm as you stand on the spit of land forming the cape, gazing at the treacherous rocks beneath the lighthouse and imagining the decisive battle of the Napoleonic wars. Reported in The Times on 7th November 1805, joy at the defeat of Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish alliance – and, consequently, his dream of controlling the seas – was tempered by the knowledge of Nelson’s death.
Inland and around the next village, Los Canos de Meca, there are verdant pinewoods designated as part of the Parque Natural de Acantilado. This is fabulous walking country, as the pine groves absorb and deflect the heat and every path seems to lead to a view of the Atlantic. On a clear day, the Rif Mountains are visible, and, indeed, there are many places on the Costa de la Luz from which a day trip to Morocco can be made. But if you haven’t the time or prefer simply to remain in Spain, there is much of Morocco in the splendid hilltop town of Vejer de la Frontera, whose white walls can be seen from the road leading to Zahara.
A White Town by the Sea
Andalucia is famed for its pueblos blancos, the ‘White Towns’ perched on limestone spurs surrounded by a vast landscape of mountains, stretching away to rolling, seemingly denuded hills. Ronda, Gaucin, Arcos de la Frontera, Alcala de los Gazules – visiting these and the many other white towns can comprise a project in itself. Most, though, are inland, and not easily compatible with a beach-based holiday. But the Costa de la Luz has its own, very worthy competitor to the likes of Ronda.
Vejer de la Frontera is less than half an hour from the coast, and is as stunning an example of a Moorish citadel as you could wish to find. It is best approached from the east, where as the road turns a corner its white walls and dramatic hilltop position are suddenly unveiled.
Vejer was a fortress in Phoenician and Carthaginian times, and became an agricultural centre for the Moors during their occupation of Granada. The town now has many reminders of its Moorish past. It is easy to get lost as you wander the labyrinthine streets of the old walled quarter, which, of course, is part of the charm. For this maze has much to recommend it: the church of Divino Salvador, whose interior mixes Gothic and Mudejar, the Castillo, the original Moorish gates, and the delightful Plaza de Espana, to which all avenues seem to lead and where there are numerous cafes and restaurants at which to wile away the day.
More modern, please?
If it’s all too easy to feel taken back in time in Vejer, the Costa de la Luz offers a sparkling model of a modern seaside town further along the coast to Cadiz, in the form of Sancti Petri. Populated largely by commuters to sealocked Cadiz, the outskirts to the west and north of Sancti Petri are unappealing, with row upon row of identikit houses in a bewildering system of identical roads.
But Sancti Petri itself is the one place where the secret’s out, and where the Costa de la Luz sees visitors not merely from Madrid and Seville. It is everything that the Costa del Sol could have been. An elegant paseo maritimo fronts the town and yet despite its recent transformation from fishing community to tourist-centred trade, the atmosphere remains low-key and tranquil, thanks again to the restrictions on the size and type of development along the Costa de la Luz. There is a golf course, designed by Severiano Ballesteros, and whale and dolphin watching trips run almost hourly from the beach.
There is also, and this is not part of its attraction, a shopping mall. Set outside Sancti Petri itself, the mall has everything that shopping malls around the world have. And as such, it is as far from Spain as the inevitable fast-food restaurants nearby.
Keep it real
The great problem of tourism is how to preserve everything that we love about a country, at the same time as visiting it and enjoying its difference, its vibrancy, its culture. So far, qualms about Sancti Petri aside, the Costa de la Luz has weathered the storm of commercialism and survives much as it always has – a place of profound natural beauty burnished by endless sun, caressed and battered in equal degree by a warm, rich Atlantic.
The seafood in its restaurants is fresh, its people are the epitome of friendliness. A stay on the Costa de la Luz can yield visits to inland Andalucia – the white towns of Medina Sidonia and Alcala de los Azules are relatively near – and, of course, Cadiz, that incandescent ‘scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass’, as Laurie Lee had it.
But in visiting the Costa de la Luz, don’t expect burger bars and high-rise hotels. And do learn some Spanish. Let’s leave the Costa de la Luz as it is.