It was while watching a tall, pale Russian man at work that I realised I was in love. It had been a typically spectacular day on the Costa de la Luz in August. We had spent hours on the Playa de los Bateles, building sandcastles with the children under the endless blue skies and, in my case, surfing some nice three foot beach break waves near the mouth of the Rio Salado. As a lurid, red sun dropped over the ocean to the west, as if on the tip of Cadiz, we wandered into town for food, drink and our nightly tour of the beguiling market in the middle of Conil de la Frontera.
As we arrived in the Plaza Santa Catalina, in the town’s Moorish centre, I caught sight of rows of tables laid out in an orderly fashion, to form a square. On chairs next to the tables sat an eclectic bunch – young boys and girls of no more than 10, some intense teenagers, professorial 30 and 40 year olds and one or two anxious-looking septuagenarians. Some clutched notebooks, which they were reviewing carefully, others had a look of resignation all the more profound for the fact that it appeared on such fresh, healthy faces.
In their midst, walking imperiously from table to table, was Russian Grand Master Oleg Korneev. Pale he might have been, but with an unusually robust frame – more gymnast than chess player – Korneev’s presence was a touch more intimidatory than that of his opponents. No wonder, perhaps. In this, an exhibition chess match, Korneev was hardly breaking sweat. Fresh from his July victory at the Benasque Open, Korneev had swept into town to play 25 of Conil’s chess aficionados. Game they might have been, but they were no match for a man once ranked in the world’s top 100.
And yet there was a delight about the evening that I have only rarely encountered, anywhere. The Plaza Santa Catalina had never seemed more intoxicating, with its stalls of mostly Moroccan traders selling all manner of trinkets, children running around free of any worries, and adjacent restaurant tables packed with relaxed, happy customers. From time to time people would come and look at the chess. They would see yet another of Korneev’s opponents resign, they would watch as hands were shaken with each and every vanquished player courteously thanking Korneev. It was all so perfectly tranquil, so quintessentially Spanish, that it struck me that it could only be happening in Conil, and that I would be coming back here time and again.
As it was, this was our second visit to Conil de la Frontera, a small seaside town of 16,000 inhabitants on the Costa de la Luz, midway between Tarifa to the east and Cadiz to the west. The town is most famous for its beaches, with over 10 miles of pristine white sand stretching as far as the eye can see and washed by the warm waters of the Atlantic. Conil’s ‘fame’ is, in reality, something of a misnomer. For though it can boast having over 3,000 hours of sunshine a year – more than anywhere else in Spain – it remains largely undiscovered by all but the Spanish.
This, for a Hispanophile, is what makes it extra special. Though Conil might double its population in the summer months, the arrivistes are predominantly from Seville and Madrid. A holiday in Conil means that you are unlikely to meet another Englishman, though the place has for some years been popular with Germans. In common with Tarifa along the coast, discerning and adventurous German hippies discovered the Costa de la Luz some 20 years or so ago. Their legacy is a laid-back vibe, one predicated on a love of the good life rather than endless lager and satellite television.
The town sits on a small hill overlooking the Atlantic, accessible via the Cadiz to Malaga N-340. Whichever way Conil is approached, there is a typically wild Andalusian feel to the landscape, as parched and often empty fields stretch away to the mountains some 10 miles inland. The driving of the majority of Spaniards on the N-340 is nothing short of insane, but take care, don’t be tempted to get involved in any kind of race, and you should find yourself driving down the hill into the centre of the town. Park the car, stretch your legs and have a coffee. Within minutes you will have embraced life in Conil, and the journey will have been worth it.
The beauty of Conil is that it remains a typical Andalusian fishing village, with a maze of white houses, alleyways and stone steps that all somehow lead to the sea. And if the sea is their ultimate destination, each route seems to involve a compulsory detour through the Plaza Santa Catalina. No surprise, since it is the hub of the town’s activity, with numerous market stalls nestling underneath the walls of the old Moorish castle. Adjacent is the Torre de Guzman, which once gave its name to the town and still forms the principal emblem in the shield of Conil. Built in the 14th century by Don Alonso Perez de Guzman el Bueno (‘The Good’), the tower was restored in 1992. The views from the top, out over the Atlantic and inland to the mountains, are superb, and if you can catch a sunset from the tower, your life will, for a moment at least, seem complete.
Just the other side of the small square in which the Torre de Guzman stands is a fascinating, if perhaps typically low-key, museum, the Museo de Raices Conilenas. Inside are scenes from life in Conil of old, with rooms of fishermens’ houses as they would have been some 200 years ago faithfully recreated with original furniture, cutlery and pottery. There are black and white photographs of men hauling boats down to the ocean that offer a glimpse of another world, one still – it seems - within reach in Conil.
The atmosphere of undisturbed tranquillity is all the more profound in the beautiful Parroquia de Santa Catalina (Parish Church of Santa Catalina), further up in the town, next to the local library and town hall, on the Plaza de la Constitucion. The church was built in the 16th century by order of the dukes of Medina Sidonia (a ‘white town’ some hour’s drive inland), who were then ‘Masters of the Village of Conil.’ Inside is an image of the Virgin Victoria, patron saint of the Friars Minors, and a crucifixion likely to be from the 17th century and linked to the school of maestro Martinez Montanes of that era. A more modern place in which worries can be unburdened is the Laboratorio de Analisis Clinicos, at No. 10, Plaza de Espana, itself a remarkable if understated anomaly for a town whose residents seem to have it all.
Heading back down towards the beach, there is the Mercado de Arte on the Plaza Puerta de la Villa, an art market put together two years ago by local artists and craftspeople whose express aim is to preserve Conil’s artistic heritage. Children can draw and paint on a table laid out with crayons, brushes and paper, and can take advantage of an impromtu lesson from one of the resident artists. The artwork is perhaps not of Cork Street quality, but intriguing nevertheless. Likewise, work exhibited in the Sala de Exposiciones, on the Avenida de la Playa, near the market. Here more established artists have shows throughout the summer. Nearby, art shop Zanana always has some top quality furniture and craftwork, often imported from Morocco, and on the Calle Cadiz there are plenty of shops selling fine jewellery, scarves and necklaces, again often with an African influence.
Conil has any number of bars to quench the thirst induced by its summer temperatures of at least 35C, with its restaurants generally specialising in seafood. The food at La Posada, down a side street from the Mercado de Arte, was particularly good but probably the best meal to be had is at La Carbona, on Carril de la Fuente. An evening meal at La Cabona left us replete for the following day, but eager to get back for more of the same.
The beaches, though, are perhaps Conil’s raison d’etre. They are clean and spacious, the water is warm and the people friendly. If you don’t like the waves thrown up by the Atlantic, you can drive out of Conil to the west and drop down into one of the sheltered coves at Fuente del Gallo. The shape of the bay, and protuberance of Conil’s harbour, means that the sea at the coves – much-loved by naturalists – is rarely ever more than a little ruffled. And if the surf is your thing, the break at Rio Salado, on Playa de los Batales, is usually uncrowded, while along the coast at El Palmar the conditions are more consistent – if, for that reason, popular.
Throughout the summer, Conil’s night-life holds its own with more well-known resorts. There is a programme of events – live music, flamenco, theatre – in the square underneath the Torre de Guzman, all held outdoors and somehow all the more appealing for the light breeze that comes as the night wears on.
On the evening of the chess exhibition, Oleg Korneev’s victims could console themselves with the Frank Sinatra numbers sung by Ana Forero and her four-piece jazz and blues band. And the next day, they knew that there would be yet more sunshine, that the sea would be warm, that life would go on in the same unhurried, peaceful way that it always has in Conil de la Frontera. If anyone says that falling in love should not be connected to tall, pale Russian men, I have just the answer: go to Conil and head for the Laboratorio de Analisis Clinicos. It will all make sense.