When we wake our small window is an uninformative opaque screen of condensation. It gradually clarifies to reveal the very narrow lane where we live and the one shaft of sunlight that reaches in at that hour of the morning. The misted glass clears at the same rate as my morning head and without the aid of a coffee.
On mornings when the sunlight is there and when a craned neck reveals blue sky it seems a shame to be headed to Algeciras for work. Sad to be leaving all the prettiness behind for a day in the industrial sprawl.
I’ve heard Algeciras described as a scruffy port town, a nothing, a bore and in one instance – in a national British broadsheet no less – as a dreadful place. It is a salty port city that is pretty much as far down as you can get in Europe without leaving. Only the villages of Pelayo, El Cuartõn and the town of Tarifa are further south and then only by a few kilometres. It’s also pretty much as far down the scale as you can get in terms of attractions and, some would say, attractiveness.
When I arrived I had already written the place off as somewhere I might have to work but certainly not anywhere I would like to spend any of my own time. It is Spain without the Alhambra, without an Alcazar, without a promenade by the beach, without any of the tackier attractions of the Costa’s – the pumping clubs and beachy bars, bikinis, Bacardis and Black Russians – without a range of snowy sierra, without a Roman aquaduct, without an eye-popping cathedral.
It is Spain without.
Which of course makes it incredibly interesting – a peek through the window at Spain in repose; no make-up, brushing her hair. For all the shabby trappings of a port that are present here, the Iberian attitude to life and to shared spaces is intact. The national love affair with fountains is played out in a series of plazas, surrounded by bars and cafes that spill onto the street in the afternoons. Apartment blocks are separated by shady squares with benches and foliage that brings nearby Africa to mind.
In fact, as well as providing a look at a more private Spain this city is a window to yet another world. Signs in Arabic as well as English, backstreet teterias, a market place with vendors of halal meat, preserved fruit, tagines and orange blossom water; a thriving Moroccan community as well as the constant traffic of Moroccans on their way elsewhere as migrant workers. Africa doesn’t begin at its north coast – the process starts here.
Anyway, when it comes to beauty Algecirans are amongst the lucky ones: we stayed in a house in County Wicklow in Ireland once, K and I – if you’ve been to Ireland you’ll probably have seen similar country homes; modest, new built and without charm. This one had large picture windows that I will never forget; views of the almost sheer valley side – the bracken, pine forest and shale slopes of the Wicklow mountains, cracked with rivulets and waterfalls. I will always remember that house for what you could see from inside, looking out.
That’s Algeciras. The city is surrounded on all sides by protected Parque Natural; mountains, rivers, a bracing coastline that includes Gibraltar’s rocky outcrop and more pueblos blancos than you could possibly eat. Just a few miles down the road the Costa de la Luz begins with Tarifa and stretches to Cãdiz and beyond like a pane of glass at the country’s southern end, letting the light in.
We take another country walk outside Tarifa, this time at La Peña in the Cãdiz direction, and on our way we stop by a cafe in town for breakfast. Through the little window into the kitchen we are greeted by Deng who had been studying Spanish with us and it feels good to be recognised. A connection. Out in La Peña we walk a country lane for a few hours, earning the years first flush of sunburn and navigating our way through a menagerie.
There are black Iberico pigs, sheep, horses, cattle, donkeys and foul. They cross the road in front of us, behind us, laze around in the sun. No walls or fences in sight. K is thrilled that a baby donkey – perhaps a foal but more likely a colt – is happy to say hello and be petted. In fact all of the animals are near tame; relaxed and content to be close with the exception of the sheep.
Stupid sheep. We hear geese and see migrating storks overhead in a large flock. The migration seems poignant for obvious reasons even if we are just a tiny flock of two.
There is a little jewellery shop on our street. Its window has been calling out to K who finds it difficult to just keep walking. Later in town we go there because she wants to pick out a pendant. The shop owner compliments her on her English.
“But I thought you were German?”, she says. We explain that we have come here from Ireland and I return the compliment.
“I’m French but my husband is English so we speak English”, she explains with a – you guessed it – Gallic shrug.
I remark that Tarifa seems to have woken up from its winter sleep and she attributes the weekend’s buzz to the bank holiday.
“Now is the good time. It has been too quiet and by the time July and August come around there will be too many people. This time now, the next few months, is when Tarifa is perfect and should be enjoyed”.
As we leave the shop her “see you around” feels like friendship, her observation like an imperative and we resolve to make the most of the March, April and May of her recommendation.
A precious window in time.