There is some evidence, or so they say, that Tarifa is as old as Cádiz. When you consider that Cádiz is a front runner for the western world’s oldest city, that would make this little town on the southern tip of the Costa de la Luz pretty old. Phoenician, to add a little precision; or even pre-Phoenician.
The town I’m looking at now though, from up on the roof, as it sprawls around me in all directions, is largely an eighteenth century creation.
On my left, where we hang our washing, is Calle Castelar and the stately building opposite ours. From street level it looks like a bank but I think it must have been a merchant’s house; a glimpse can be had of a verdant inner courtyard. It is no doubt divided into private apartments these days and someone has laid out a magnificent patio and conservatory on the roof. I could lazily leap the narrow gap between it and our roof, so tightly are the streets and alleys squeezed between buildings in the casco.
Behind it, the heights of old Tarifa. Like a cubist painting roofs sit on roofs beneath a clutter of solar panels, water tanks and laundry lines. The whole thing tumbles down as my gaze shifts rightward. In the distance some newer apartment blocks and the green hills that separate us from Algeciras.
In front of me an array of roof terraces similar to ours but a little lower down; prime hunting ground for the voyeur in other people’s lives. A rubberised paint is popular in this damp part of the world for proofing roofs from rain. It seems to come in red and green, so from above the white town is in fact comprised of those two colours.
The odd cat stretches out on a sun-warmed surface. On top of a building very close to ours someone appears to have built a stairway to heaven; a set of steps that end in mid-air. To the right of that rises the bell tower of San Mateo. Ochre and off white and built on the site of the former mosque; Tarifa was an Arab town.
In front of the tower a gap between the buildings where Calle de Sancho IV “El Bravo” runs through the centre of the old town. The houses that line it are the most handsome and sizable, several of them boasting exteriors tiled in a glossy range of colours – from patterned, to yellow, to pink. Beyond it, to the south, I can make out a corner of Jebel Musa beneath a bank of cloud.
The coast is over there so the uniform hodge podge of shabby rooftops is punctuated by breeze-blown palm trees. The tallest of them rise from the Plaza de Santa Maria, which Tarifeños call the square of the little frog. It is the oldest part of town, probably – the old medina. Today it is home to the ayuntamiento and I can see its clock tower from here.
A little more to the right, the turrets of the castillo. Like every castillo worth its salt, this one has a story. When, in 1295, The Moors attacked in the hope of reclaiming their former outpost, Tarifa was defended from the castle by one Guzman el Bueno. The Moors captured his son and held the child up as Guzman looked down on them from the octagonal tower. They threatened to kill the boy if he didn’t surrender. He drew his own dagger and threw it down to them. Here, do it with this, he said, and they did.
So the Moors never won Tarifa back and another tale of heroic sacrifice was added to the chronicles of Christian versus Moor. The Guzmans, incidentally, went on to become one of Spain’s richest families. Not so long ago, one of them was rooting around in the family archives and uncovered a bit of evidence that would startle the Christian triumphalists of this peninsula; it seems Guzman himself may well have been Muslim, fighting on the “christian” side on the basis of family loyalties and self-interest . Funny old world.
Further to the right again; my favourite cinema, the hotel which should never have been built, the old city walls that run along the Alameda – Tarifa’s main public space; a venue for the town’s events and lined with restaurants and more palms. Beyond all that is the sea and Tangier.
And now if I turn to my right I’ve come full circle, looking up towards the old Jerez gate and the higher reaches of the casco. We’re taking a new place soon on the other side of the gate, in the newer part of town. We will have more space and less damp. I will have an office and we will be able to accommodate guests without embarrassed blushes and apologies. We will have a private little patio and a lemon tree in the garden, and we will have evenings in the summer heat without the noise from that infernal bar.
All good then. We are getting out of this rather dank little flat with its five small rooms. Two of them are windowless. The balcony is merely decorative, the roof terrace communal. The water pressure is poor and last year mould grew on the walls. Climbing four sets of stairs from the street to the front door gets old fairly quickly. There’s a musty smell to the kitchen cupboards. In winter it’s colder inside than it is on the street.
What could I possibly miss about it? What will I remember when I’m sitting on my new patio in my own backyard, plucking a lemon from the tree for dinner? It’s hard to think of anything but up on the roof the answer becomes very clear indeed; this.
I’ll miss this.Follow @RobinJGraham