It’s easy to forget when you’re walking the narrow streets of the old town – hemmed in by the city walls – that you’re out on a headland here. Further up the coast and looking back in this direction it becomes obvious; Spain tapers to a fine point in Tarifa, a slender town that reaches out into the Strait like a white needle reversed. Reversed because it’s the eye of the needle that stretches seaward and not the point – at the very tip of the headland there is a thickening where a causeway divides the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and joins the town with the Isla de Tarifa, a round and rocky former island that since it was joined to the mainland in the early 19th century has qualified as the most southerly point of the European continent.
The island is military and out of bounds. Walkers are welcome on the causeway – which, with the winds around here, is an act of bravery in itself at times – but no further. The island at the far end is gated and walled in with Napoleonic and British fortifications. It’s been tantalising me since I came to this town almost three years ago – a secret Tarifa has been keeping. When a tourist stands at the meeting point of the two seas and reads the ceramic plaque that tells them they’ve reached Europe’s southern extremity, they haven’t. They can see it in the form of the lighthouse that stands on the island’s southern coast but they’re still about a kilometre away. Which is to say, of course, I’m still about a kilometre away.
It’s been bugging me.
So when L, our friend and intercambio, announced a couple of weeks ago that the walking group he’s a member of had secured permission to get onto the island for a visit and that there were places available, I jumped on it. A visit to the tourist office to submit our photo id for military inspection and we were all signed up.
I say military – the island is in fact administrated by the Guardia Civil, the army having vacated in 2001 with the abolition of compulsory national service. Many Cádiz men of a certain age will have done their stint here but for us and L, who is madrileño, it has always been a mystery. Like any old sod of turf around here it is of course steeped in history – a place of sacrifice for the Phoenicians, the Romans may also have had a camp here but perhaps most interestingly, it is probably where a Berber scouting party led by one Tarif Ibn Malluk, who would give his name to the town, landed a year before the Arab invasion of the peninsula.
These days the island is the jewel in the crown of the Natural Park of the Strait, presumably because nobody can trample all over it; it’s covered in limonium, a hardy, ground-hugging and endangered shrub perfectly designed for local winds and a rare fern, also endangered. Bird life is monitored here. As we wander along its rock shore though, it’s the bones that strike us. The ground is littered with them, maybe three inches in length and too thick for bird bones. We never do figure out what they are as we explore the coves and rock shelves. It adds to the mystery.
The lighthouse is the tallest structure, white and raised to its current height in 1854. After that it’s the gun batteries, the monolithic semi-circles built here by British engineers in the 19th century; they are sturdy and dark, unused but in good condition. There are bunkers – eccentrically moulded concrete mounds that look like asturian brañas till you get up close. It’s a wild place with a windswept, Atlantic feel to it and nothing at all like any scenes that the words ‘southern Europe’ might conjure. Despite its ancient history its the 19th century that has left the largest physical impression.
Not the most evocative though. It’s the island’s more recent past that resonates most; at its centre lies the compound of living quarters for the soldiers who would have done their service here. Barracks and a canteen, tiled out in andalusian style just as the bars of the old town are at the far end of the causeway. Before the kite surfers came to Tarifa it was these young men, brought here from all over the country, who gave the town’s economy a much needed shot in the arm, shopping in the shops, eating in the bars and cafeterías, taking the local girls out, marrying them sometimes – there are families in town that came from such unions.
The buildings are abandoned now, crumbling and acquiring a patina of decay – peeling paint and chipped rendering, the interior spaces strewn with debris, the windows glassless cavities and the doors gone, requisitioned no doubt for some second purpose. For P, the group leader who did his service here, it must be strange to see the place is this state. Even for us it isn’t difficult to populate the place, in our mind’s eye, with the bustle of barrack life. The dorms, the athletics track, the little square replete with fountain – an avatar of the plazuelas these men would have known back home.
On the other side of an open space, on a part of the island we will not be visiting, another compound – the island’s current purpose is carried out over there behind high fences and beyond the reach of the curious. “Moors” still end up on this island, just as they first did thirteen centuries ago. These days they are picked up by the Spanish authorities – out on the Strait in some pathetic dinghy or in some coastal cove, thinking they’ve made it – and they are detained here: men, usually of sub-saharan origin in a desperate break for Europe and a new life.
Quite the reversal of fortune when held up agains the Arab and Berber invasion that in a way began right here, but fitting also, I suppose, that these men get to see this place before moving on, the water on one side of them and Iberia on the other as they nestle between the barracks, batteries and bunkers that so many have built to fortify this place: to protect Spain, to subdue it, to dominate the Straits that divide it from another world.
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