Algeciras is often spoken about as the ugly spot of Andalusia. Industrial. Crime-ridden. Barren.
You won’t find it featuring highly in travel guides and it is often seen as just a transient port of call between Spain and Morocco. Algeciras is in the autonomous region of Cádiz, it is the last stop on the train line from Madrid and overshadowed by its stunning neighbour, Tarifa to the south-west.
I first heard of this supposedly unremarkable town when I was studying A level History, with reference to the Algeciras Conference of 1906, held to discuss the future of Morocco.
Intrigued to see why this place is both disregarded and heralded, I spent three days in the Algeciras zone, visiting a friend who lives there. The Campo de Gibraltar encompasses the following areas:
- Los Barrios
- La Línea de la Concepción
- Castellar de la Frontera
- Jimena de la Frontera
- San Roque
With my knowledgeable friend to show me round, our first stop was at one of Algeciras’ surprisingly beautiful beaches. The ugly reputation is largely undeserved, once you look past the grey dusty streets and shutter-drawn windows.
Playa de Getares looks like a typical beach of the Cádiz province- golden, almost white powdery sand, dotted with a cheerful parasols of every colour. The most striking element however is the fact that just across the Bahía de Algeciras, the rock of Gibraltar looms over the strait. Ever a contentious presence for the Spanish, British and others, it sadly serves as a reminder of borders and division.
The British author Laurie Lee wrote about and immortalised his travels mostly by foot in his autobiographical work A Rose for Winter. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of travel writing I have ever had the pleasure to read and would recommend it to all. It is short at only around 100-120 pages and it brings to life every place and person he encounters.
On Gibraltar, he writes:
“The lights of Gibraltar poured out of the sky like a heap of diamonds on the flat dark sea.”
That is just purely gorgeous writing to me. Someone who adores both Spain and travel writing couldn’t not be captivated by this.
The most beautiful beach in Algeciras for me personally is the Playa de El Rinconcillo. It is a contrast of white sand, palm trees and cool beachside bars serving G&Ts and cachimbas, with the looming industrialism ever present on the water. It looks oddly archaic and futuristic at the same time, even slightly dystopian somehow.
Cargo ships and cruise ships, some marked by their home destinations such as Morocco or Algeria, make their way across the strait carrying food, clothing and people alike from Africa to Europe.
It goes without saying that this gateway comes with its fair share of crime, in fact it is notorious for it. Namely, the arrivals of el contrabando.
In A Rose for Winter, Laurie Lee continues:
“Across the bay stood rich Gibraltar. Across the Straits the free port of Tangiers. For the forbidden goods they had to offer, Spain was starved. So the yachts and fishing-boats ran to and fro on the dark nights, and Algeciras was their clearing-house. Watches, fountain-pens, nylons, cigarettes, sweets, cocoa and canned meats: here, in this town, I could buy them any day, untaxed and hot from the smugglers’ hands.”
The boats seem to pass by so peacefully that one could easily forget the dodgy deals that take place but despite the beauty of its beaches, the sense of Algeciras’ underworld of crime is omnipresent.
Moving away from the centre of Algeciras, my friend took me to see a pueblo called Castellar de la Frontera (listed above at the top of this article). A reasonably winding ascent through the Algeciran hills lifts you to this petite, pequeño, little gem.
It can sometimes feel like once you’ve seen a couple of Andalusian white-washed villages, you’ve seen them all. This one took me by surprise however, something about it that was difficult to place… it was around 6pm when we arrived when the scorching heat was starting to give way to a cooler, higher altitude temperature. The air was still and there was hardly any noise, except for the odd murmurings of locals standing in their doorways, watching us pass by with fleeting curiosity.
There was a sleepy vibe to the place, best represented by this cat:
We then stumbled upon an old taberna, where we wanted to have a drink but we had no coins on us and it didn’t look at all like a place that would have a card machine…
A cheerful man with a welcoming smile suddenly appeared and invited us in. He confirmed our suspicions that no, there was no card machine, but he wanted to invite us to a drink on the house anyway. His name was Hans, a multilingual Dane who had ended up there after a lifetime of globetrotting. Over a can of cerveza , we chatted for an hour about how we had all ended up in Spain, with Hans regaling us with his wild and wonderful anecdotes.
This was La Posada XVI:
(Plaza la Posada, 4, Castellar de la Frontera, 11350)
Hans invited us to have a look around the inn with such familiar trust as if we had known him for years. We walked around the guest rooms and I fell in love! One day I WILL return here and stay for a couple of nights. Its rustic bohemian decor with stunning views captured my heart, I took photos to inspire the decor of my future house:
We said our thank yous and goodbyes and went for one last wander through this beautiful little village. Flamenco houses are known as peñas and sure enough as with most Andalusian villages, we saw one of them too. The doors were open but nobody appeared to be inside. It was hard to imagine the peace of the sun-washed late afternoon being broken by the thundering of flamenco later that night..
So hopefully these pictures and these brief descriptions of some of the places I visited in Algeciras will be enough to convince you that this is a region of Andalusia not to be overlooked! There is something very real and edgy about the region but that is part of its charm. It is not pijo like other parts of the region and it is bestowed with white sandy beaches and breathtaking views as good as the rest of them!
Next time, break the triangle route of Sevilla-Granada-Malaga and try somewhere you might just be pleasantly surprised with.
It only seems apt to end this blog entry by borrowing yet more of Laurie Lee’s nostalgia on Algeciras:
“I remember the fishing boats at dawn bringing in tunny from the Azores, the markets full of melons and butterflies, the international freaks drinking themselves into multi-lingual stupors, the sly yachts running gold to Tangier…
Let me know about your thoughts, experienced and memories of Algeciras in the comments below!
- All words quoted from Laurie Lee’s works are copyrighted. All rights reserved by the Laurie Lee estate ©
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