Trust me on this one.
Fly to Malaga, pick up your hire car and drive west. Go along the Costa del Sol, with its jumble of concrete high-rises and golf courses – a testament to the greed and corruption that has ravaged the area since the 1970s. Pass the millionaires’ playpen that is Marbella, keep going beyond Gilbratar, and enter a different world.
Clinging to the southernmost tip of Europe, a mere breath away from Africa, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, you’ll find Tarifa.
Settled by the Romans and occupied by the Moors, Tarifa is a perfect cross-hatch of East and West. Its winding whitewashed streets and Moroccan archways feel decidedly Arabic. While the abundance of wine and the quality of the jamón feel decidedly Spanish.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect place. The Old Town is a gem, neatly wrapped in a wall dating back from the 13th Century, crowned by a Caliphal castle built in AD960. Its narrow lanes are lined with white houses, each concealing a jewel of a courtyard, shielded from the African sun – where cool palms throw jagged shadows across ornate tiles.
In the evening, little plazas come alive with the hum of people enjoying aperitivos. Head to El Lola, order a glass of ice-cold white wine and join the party. If they don’t have any tables, lean against a warm, sun-baked wall and soak it all in.
The food is some of the best I’ve had in Spain. My favorite (so far at least) is Bar Los Melli. If the tables outside are busy, fight for a place at the bar. If you’re lucky you’ll get a spot in full view of the kitchen, where you can watch the woman of the house calmly prepare dish after dish of pure joy. The jamón is an absolute must, as are the alcachofas al la plancha (grilled artichokes). Dig into the homemade albondigas (meatballs) if you’re still hungry.
And I haven’t even started on the beaches yet.
Broad and windswept, Tarifa’s beaches have become a kitesurfing mecca. Brightly coloured kites lazily sway over the horizon, below which novice enthusiasts wrestle against gusts of wind and get tangled up with one another. Every so often a pro emerges from the throng, skimming across the water towards Africa, with nonchalant ease.
Whether or not you spend the day on the beach mastering the Art of the Kite, it is worth settling yourself at a chiringuito (beach bar) for an hour or so. From here you can watch the exertions on the beach in total comfort. And in the late afternoon you can soak up the jubilant atmosphere of people who’ve spent all day in the sea being vigorous. Chiringuito Agua is a good spot, as is Waves, both on Playa de los Lances.
Not every beach is the dominion of kitesurfers. About 20 minute’s drive west of Tarifa is Playa Bolonia, a stunning beach, which regularly makes it onto the list of Spain’s best. It is also home to Baelo Claudia, some important Roman archaeological excavations, which you can gaze at while tucking into a plate of fresh sardines or tortilla de camarones at one of the beach-side restaurants.
Alternatively lunch on grilled gambones (king prawns) at El Mirlo, a family-run restaurant on a cliff overlooking playa Paloma Baja.
So that’s Tarifa life. Spend the morning poking about in shops among the narrow streets of the Old Town. Head to one of the beaches for a few hours of kitesurfing or sunbathing. Lunch on fresh fish, enjoy a sundowner with fellow surfers, and then head back into town for wonderful food, great wine and no end of party opportunities.
I think I want to live there.
Before I close I must say something about breakfast. Beyond the walls of the Old Town, Tarifa is a seaside sprawl of surf shops, shabby apartment blocks (made acceptable by excellent graffiti) and kite schools. It is also home to Café Azul. Opposite the Puerta de Jerez, this beautiful little blue and white café churns out what is unanimously agreed to be the best breakfast in town, if not Andalucía. Go there. Order a fig and almond milkshake and basically anything on the menu.