Europe,  Spain

Tarifa to Cadiz – a fascinating stretch of coastline

After Gibraltar, we headed down to Tarifa, at the southernmost tip of the European mainland. Here is the point where two continents (Europe and Africa) and two seas (the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean) all meet. As you stand at the harbour in Tarifa, it is incredible how close Africa seems! One of the best views across the water is from a tower that is part of the old castle walls (you will find it overlooking the eastern harbour wall). It was pretty hazy the day we were there and so it was just a dark outline in the distance, but still so close. From here you can get the ferry to Tangier in Morocco, a journey of only an hour.

Tarifa - looking across to Africa
It was a hazy day, but you can still make out the hills of Africa in the distance. They looked so close! A tiled picture on a wall gave the names of the places across the Straits of Gibraltar.


The old town of Tarifa is all narrow lanes and whitewashed houses, with interesting courtyards and delightful public squares. It was once heavily fortified and the remains of its Moorish castle still stand imposingly by the port. Right at the edge of the harbour there is a statue of Jesus, a reminder perhaps to anyone arriving here that this is a staunchly catholic country.

Tarifa - Castillo de Guzmán Calle Armargura
Left: the peaceful Calle Armargura with its tiled benches Right: Beautiful yellow spring flowers blanket the slopes below the Moorish Castillo del Guzmán that dates from the 13th century.
Tarifa - Plaza Santa Maria, Iglesia San Mateo
The lovely frog fountain in Plaza Santa Maria, the 16th century Gothic church of San Mateo and typical whitewashed houses and cobbled street in the old town area of Tarifa
Tarifa - market fish tuna
The market in Tarifa – the painting in the wall is a reminder of the heritage of tuna fishing in this area.

I was surprised to learn that this part of southern Spain is actually further south than both Algiers and Tunis in North Africa. Don’t believe me? Have a look at a map!

Wind and water sports

After a few hours exploring Tarifa, we set off to drive further along the coast to see some of the glorious beaches in this area. This whole section of coastline is often very windy and has become a huge centre for surfing and wind sports. We saw lots of surfers, windsurfers and kite surfers enjoying their chosen sport on some beautiful, windswept, totally natural beaches. The sand is soft and golden again here, after the darker sand of much of the Costa del Sol and the beaches are backed by dunes and Mediterranean pines with very little or no development anywhere. And of course, at this time of year we had them all virtually to ourselves!


Straits of Gibraltar

The Straits of Gibraltar really fascinated me. I remembered reading at the aquarium in La Rochelle that millions of years ago when the straits opened up, there was the greatest waterfall in history: 14 million cubic metres of water per second flowed in from the Atlantic for a century, filling the area we now know as the Mediterranean with water but lowering the world’s ocean levels by 12cm.

The straits are home to a rich variety of both permanent and migratory marine species. At certain times of the year you can take boat trips out to see whales and dolphins as they cross between the Mediterranean the Atlantic Ocean. Tuna also pass through the straits twice a year to spawn in the Mediterranean and then return to the Atlantic.


The tuna here are still caught by a traditional method known as Almadraba, a method that has hardly changed for thousands of years, having been used by both the Phoenicians and then the Romans for fishing tuna in these same waters.

The Almadraba consists of a complex labyrinth of nets more than 30 metres deep, located 3km from the coast. It is designed to guide the tuna into a trap from which they cannot escape. The central part of the trap, known as “el capo” (the snowflake) is a huge net that the fishermen hoist up when they have a catch, called la Levantá del Atún (the Raising of the Tuna). I watched a video of how it works and the whole thing looks quite brutal, as the fish flail around when they find themselves raised up almost out of the water. It is also quite physical for the fishermen, as they get down into the net and hoist the enormous tuna out onto their boats.

Straits of Gibraltar - Almadraba
Diagram showing how the Almadraba works – this ancient technique has been used for the last 3000 years to fish for tuna in the Gibraltar Straits

The only Almadraba left in Spain are along this short stretch of the southern coast – in Barbate, Conil, Zahara de los Atunes and Tarifa. Here they carry out the whole process, from fishing to canning. Of course, today as with many other varieties of fish, the number of tuna has declined, a problem which is blamed on over-fishing by efficient, high-tech fishing boats and the fishing of tuna that haven’t yet fertilised their eggs. The fishermen here are subject to quotas like everyone else, but they protest that their method has been sustainable for the last 3000 years and that it remains so today. However, I read that the tradition of the Almadraba is under threat because fishermen can make more money if they don’t raise the fish, but instead divert them off to farms or ‘ranches’ where they fatten them up and then sell them on the Asian market, particularly Japan. Farmed fish contain a higher concentration of body fat, and Japanese consumers apparently like this more.

Baelo Claudia

The Roman town of Baelo Claudia is located in Bolonia, about 22 miles northwest of Tarifa. It covers about 13 hectares and was set out in a formal grid pattern. The site has only been partially excavated, but you can see the remains of the forum, shops and homes as well as part of the three aqueducts that supplied the town. The Romans certainly conquered Spain in a big way: we have seen countless remains everywhere we have been here. Like Empuries that we visited in the north east of the country, Baelo Claudia is once again in a beautiful natural setting, right next to the sea – the Romans knew a great location when they saw one!

Tarifa - Baelo Claudia Roman town Bolonia
Part of the remains of the Roman settlement of Baelo Claudia, situated right next to the beach in Bolonia, near Tarifa.

Of course, Baelo Claudia was such a prosperous town because of the plentiful fish available in the waters nearby. As well as catching and salting the fish, the Romans here also produced a kind of savoury paste called garum, which was made from the remains of fish like tuna and sturgeon. It was highly prized during the period and was exported from here all over the Roman Empire.

Tarifa - Baelo Claudia Bolonia beach sand dunes sunset
Baelo Claudia (top), the Roman settlement situated next to Bolonia beach (middle). A beautiful sunset across the Straits of Gibraltar (bottom)

Cape Trafalgar

The next day we drove out to Cape Trafalgar, keen to teach the girls (and learn more ourselves) about the Battle of Trafalgar. In actual fact, the Battle took place a long way off the coast, but there is still a lighthouse here and a plaque commemorating the battle.

The lighthouse and beautiful unspoilt beaches at Cape Trafalgar

I knew, as I think most people do, that Admiral Lord Nelson had won The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but what I didn’t know was how he won and why the outcome of the battle was significant.

The reason that Nelson was victorious against the French and Spanish fleet wasn’t because he had a superior fleet: he only had 27 ships against their 33. He won because of the tactics he used, which totally confused his enemy and gave him the upper hand. Nelson saw the French and Spanish fleet spread out in a curved line before him, but instead of turning his ships parallel to them and the two sides firing at each other across the divide, he formed his fleet into two ‘columns’ and approached perpendicular to his enemy. This meant that the bows of the leading ships took the brunt of the fire as they approached and couldn’t fire at the enemy themselves (the guns being on the side of the ship) until they got right among them. BUT, he was able to push straight into the enemy lines: his ship, the Victory, passed right under the stern of the French flagship and was able to hit the enemy hard, on both sides from very close range. The French commander, Villeneuve, was left stranded on a crippled ship and the enemy was left leaderless and totally confused. Nelson and his fleet took advantage of this confusion and did exactly what he had set out to do: they annihilated the French and Spanish fleet. Nelson himself was hit during the battle and died about half an hour before it finished, but knowing that he had won.

Battle of Trafalgar
Nelson’s fleet (green) surprised the combined French and Spanish fleet (blue and yellow) by attacking in two columns, perpendicular to their curved line of ships

The outcome of the battle was so significant because for years, Napoleon and the French had been trying to get into a position where they could invade Britain, and this defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar cemented Britain’s control over the seas and put an end to Napoleon’s plans.

M did some research for us about Admiral Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar and here are some facts she found out about him:

  • Nelson was born in Norfolk on 29th September 1758 and died on 21st October 1805 during the Battle of Trafalgar. He was 47 years old.
  • He was a very sickly baby – his parents had him baptised early because they thought he might die.
  • He was seasick throughout his entire life.
  • Prior to the Battle of Trafalgar he had already lost an arm. He apparently had it removed with only the light of a lantern to see by and without the use of an anaesthetic. (I never knew this, but next time you are in London, have a look up at his statue on the top of the column in Trafalgar Square and you may be able to make out that there is no arm in the right hand sleeve of his jacket).
  • Nelson had already fought (and defeated) Napoleon before – at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
  • 8500 men were wounded and died at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Like further along near Tarifa, the coastline around Cape Trafalgar was totally unspoilt and natural.  Here the waves crashing onto the shore are from the Atlantic and they have quite some power.  Once again we had them completely to ourselves and spent a good few hours enjoying the sunshine and watching the patterns made by the waves and the foam as it rushed up the beach.


I have read that both Tarifa and Cadiz are very Moroccan in the style of their architecture. I have never been to Morocco, but I loved the pretty white and mustard-yellow buildings and the narrow cobbled streets in both towns.

Cadiz is much bigger than Tarifa and is located on a narrow spur of land, connected to the mainland by an even narrower isthmus with beautiful beaches along one side and a road and railway line in the other. It is apparently the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe. The city’s skyline is dominated by its beautiful yellow domed cathedral, which glows in the evening sunlight. The huge main square, Plaza de San Juan de Dios, has been the centre of economic activity since the 16th century. Columbus sailed from Cadiz on his second and fourth voyages to the Americas and as a result, the town’s fortunes began to boom. In the 18th century, three quarters of the trade between Spain and the Americas passed through Cadiz and it became the richest and most cosmopolitan city in Spain. It must’ve been an exciting place to live. I could just imagine the people living here who would’ve been able to buy all manner of exotic products and food at the market, all of it brought in by ship from overseas.

Cadiz - cathedral and typical streets in old town
Top: the skyline of Cadiz is dominated by its cathedral with its yellow dome Bottom: the square in front of the cathedral and a lovely tree-lined street in the old town

Food wise, Cadiz is famous for its seafood. The spectacular market was full of stalls selling the most incredible variety of seafood I have ever seen in one place. Some of the stalls had dramatic swordfish heads on them alongside the huge steaks of the fish itself. There were stalls selling fresh tuna, so red that you could’ve mistaken it for beef, and lots of other fish, big and small. Most people were having their fish filleted and skinned for them as they waited and we were transfixed watching the skilled way in which the stallholders handled the fish, making the job look so easy. One man sliced tuna for a customer using a huge long knife that looked as though it melted through the flesh. And I saw something that I haven’t seen for years – fish roe. My mum used to get herring roe from the fishmonger when I was a child: she would dip them in flour, fry them in butter and eat then on toast. Here they had bright orange whiting roe as well as paler hake roe and people were buying them by the kilo! Had we not been leaving shortly for Ronda, we would almost certainly have bought something from the market for our tea.

Cadiz - fish market
Some of the tuna on sale at the fish market was so red you could’ve mistaken it for beef. Some of the stalls had huge swordfish heads on display alongside the fish and seafood
Cadiz - fish market (2) huge variety
I have never seen such a variety of fish and seafood on sale in one place before. It was fascinating to watch the skill of the stallholders as they filleted and skinned the fish.

Cadiz (and Andalusia in general) is also famous for its fried fish – pescaito frito – in which fish or seafood is rolled in chickpea and wheat flour and then deep friend in olive oil until it forms a light, golden crust. I love our homegrown fish and chips in the UK, but there is something so light and tasty about this Spanish version that is truly heavenly! We sampled some for our tea, along with some delicious prawns in garlic oil. Then, as we headed back towards our apartment, we heard some music and peeked through a crack in an open doorway to see someone practicing flamenco, another tradition of this region.

We sampled some of Cadiz’s famous pescaito frito at the Freiduria Taberna Maria for our tea: the crispy chickpea and wheat flour crust on the fish was delicious and so light

We would’ve loved to stay longer in this interesting city, but our next night’s accommodation was booked, and we needed to set off for Ronda.


  • Liz Wetherby

    Tell M thanks for her research on Lord Nelson. I did not know he was seasick, or that he had lost an arm – especially under those circumstances! What an exceptional man he must have been!!! And Sarah, your pictures of the fish market make my mouth water. It all looks so delicious! Thanks also for the wonderful pictures of the sea across to Africa. This is such a fabulous adventure!!

    • Sarah

      Thanks Liz, this is such a great learning experience for all of us, including all you armchair travellers. We are glad to have you with us! Xx

    • Sarah

      Thanks Mum! Glad you’re enjoying reading the blogs – I am certainly enjoying writing them and am learning so much everywhere we go. Xx