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Blown away by the Costa de la Luz

I reached Zahara, it was windy, a little colonial style resort town with cafes lining one side of the street, menus glued down on the tabletops, which was either a clue about the general weather conditions – or perhaps their customers. Opposite the cafes were lines of clumsily parked cars, as if their owners had been in a hurry to get somewhere when they pulled up, which didn’t seem likely, as there was nowhere in Zahara that seemed to warrant any urgent attention. The most notable thing about the town, aside from the wind, was the lack of people – perhaps it was just that sort of place, you breezed in then breezed out, along with the sand and the tumbleweed, like a mid west dustbowl backwater from a David Lynch film. The odd waiter scurried past with some shopping, making the impression of being late for work, an old man stood on a street corner forgetting what day it was, and a couple of women partook in the completely pointless task of sweeping off their steps, in the timeless continental tradition of busily doing nothing. With the wind averaging force six they weren’t fooling anybody.

I wandered down the town’s network of dusty backstreets, narrow with high cracked walls on either side, there was an echo of the spaghetti western’s of Sergio Leonne; all that was needed was the clack clack of the coffin makers hammer interrupting the whistling wind. As I strolled glancing in the rear of shops and cafes displaying unwashed plates and pans and food left overs, the wind began to pick up, bringing sand tunnelling down the narrow corridors between the buildings. The grains ricocheted off walls and paving like hundreds of microscopic bobsleighs, which repeatedly flung themselves into my face during their helter skelter flight. It wasn’t pleasant, and nor Zahara that day; sun, sea, surf and sand…..check, only the sand was hurtling through the air at great speed – which was why the beach was empty.

Leaving Zahara to the wind and the ghosts of Thomas Mann and Eli Wallach, I followed the rugged coastline on one side of the road, and rows of rather unromantic, clinical looking windmills on the other; they were tall, thin uprights with broad propellers at the top. Aesthetically far away from Don Quixote’s rustic specimens. The winding road climbed and then fell, climbed and fell again. I drove on past the turn off for Tarifa, with the plan to pick up some supplies in Gibraltar before spending a few nights there. Onwards to the Rock, the little bit of Empire stuck onto the tip of Spain.

My first thoughts on seeing Gibraltar was how little I actually knew about the place, pretty familiar in general knowledge yet on closer examination something of an enigma. To die hard imperialists it was a symbolic last bastion of British influence and obviously a strategic prize in military terms. It had monkeys, numerous cravat wearing retired Brits and blimpish gin soaked ex officers, doing their bit by propping up the economy and the local bars on their army pensions. Lots of the Spanish wanted the Rock back. Britain captured Gibraltar from the Spanish in 1704, its unique position at the narrow gateway to the Mediterranean was even more important then. Spain has consistently pressed for the return of the territory and, in a diplomatic impasse lasting from 1969 to 1985 she closed her border with the colony. When visiting the Rock for the first time, nothing quite prepares you for the experience, especially arriving from Spain, or any other country where the absence of things like queuing and waiting to be introduced to someone before addressing them is a feature of daily life. For in Gibraltar these two typically British habits are in evidence, and they come as something of a surprise in a warm climate. The queuing begins as you approach the border from Spain, a reminder that you are, odd as it seems, entering Britain at this point. Well, a kind of Britain. The thoroughness of the Spanish customs officials was a reminder that Gibraltar is a duty free zone with the concomitant fact of smuggling. Driving over the tiny runway I was reminded of James Bond action scenes.

One of the Rock’s big tourist attractions is it’s wild monkey population, the Barbary Apes. You can take a cable car up the mountain and check them out at close hand. Paul Theroux’s view was that differentiating the apes from the homo sapien inhabitants of Gibraltar was tricky; some of the locals are interesting specimens, talking a fusion of Spanish and English, and most of the time very quickly. Many of them drive around on scooters , also at great speed. They live in an environment that is one long high street of pubs, British building society branches, London-look bobbies and red telephone boxes. Here, in a small, concentrated patch of what was arguably foreign soil, was everything about the U.K that many don’t like – and head off to Spain to avoid, a selection box of southern England parked up at the bottom of Spain.

Notable Gibraltarians
Levy Attias – starred in seventies comedy series ‘Mind Your Language.’

Gibraltar seemed to me that day, a prime example of national bad taste; give us some consistently nice weather, cheap fags and booze and what do we do? Create a modern heritage exhibition of the worst of Britain. I heard myself saying aloud, ‘Just give it back.’ It’s naturally not that simple, as I believe your average Gibraltarian is quite content with their Spanglish status. On the bright side I did find the best English bookstore since leaving home. On Gibraltar, I was able to catch up on U.K news, and was able to stock up on duty free – so not all bad!

Overall Gibraltar left me feeling uncomfortable; it was a place that didn’t belong where it was, at least not politically and socially, and there seemed little prospect that it ever would. I went to Safeway to stock up on food, and it was this destination that was the most depressing aspect of the Rock visit; the dingy, tired looking food aisles had a pitiable piss poor selection of produce, no comparison whatever with the colour and variety found in the Spanish supermarkets, eg Carrefour. I paid gloomily at the check out and exited with that Sunday evening feeling – the prospect of returning to work hanging over your spirits. I hastily made my way back to Spain to wash the bad taste of Britain away. At the border the official threw everything at me, turning my van inside and out; they obviously wanted to make sure I wasn’t smuggling in the teinted Gibraltar atmosphere to their sunny Espana!

In Tarifa, things were better, much better. Tarifa is the home of the Alchemist, from whence he sets off on his travels into North Africa. The place like the story was full of charm, its Moorish foundations were clearly visible and overlaid with a hippy, surf shack beauty. All year the Poniente blows in, making the place a magnet for Australians and Hawaiians alike, and the surf capital of Europe. The North African proximity sends a dark pulsing beat through Tarifa, suffusing the tides and the people, travellers, locals all. The ragged sprawl of little shops and cafes, carry all you need for surfing, the boards, the fashions, and everyone is beautiful; tanned, lean, sexy in a guilt free, wholesome, return to Eden purity. Tarifa is where the wind, that had followed me all along the Costa de la Luz, finally arrives home.

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