Published in the Sunday Tribune
She was a few months pregnant when the idea struck. “Let’s go to Spain.”
For a holiday? “For a few months. In the spring. While it’s still cold here. While I’m on maternity leave.”
“But what about my job?” I asked. And then I stopped. I don’t have a job.
“You can work from there. Do some travel articles. Bring some work with you. Write that novel.”
And so the plan took root: as soon as we were on our feet as new parents (say, around six months in), we would take off to some quiet spot in Southern Spain, where the living would be cheap enough to allow us slow down a little. So simple. All that remained was to organise it. Which we failed to do.
Just before Easter, we compromised. We would go for a couple of weeks’ holidays and, if we found an apartment in a place we liked, and could afford to stay longer, we’d rent it for a month or two. We chose a small, coastal town called Tarifa because a) we hadn’t really heard of it, b) it was on the coast, but apparently not over-developed, and c) I knew of a story I could do there, which would get me started.
A week later, I found myself failing to squeeze our buggy into the boot of a taxi to Dublin airport. This was a sign, I thought. The buggy was dumped, and we set off with minimal luggage: just the baby, car seat, nappy bag, my computer, camera and sound gear, a bag of books, and 28 kilos in one enormous suitcase on wheels.
Tarifa is two hours west of Malaga airport, beyond Gibraltar, towards Cadiz. It is at the heart of the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light), a stretch of fine beaches and quaint towns that, by comparison with the neighbouring Costa del Sol (to the east), and the Portuguese Algarve (to the west), is unspoilt and authentic. It is Europe’s southernmost point, and the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet. (You can swim in either.) And it is 12 km across the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa – the Moroccan coast is as visible as Howth is from Bray Head.
There is a price to pay for this unique location, and there are hints as to what it might be as you approach Tarifa on the coastal road. You see the massive blades slowly cutting the sky, and then the tall white stalks below them start to emerge from the surprisingly lush landscape – small clusters of windmills at first, and then lines and lines of them, like sentinels.
Tarifeños talk of the wind the way we talk of the rain. They get up in the morning, sniff, and spend the rest of the day declaring and revising their forecasts. The basic materials are relatively simple, though: there are two winds, the Poniente (westerly; the word means “place where the sun sets”) and the Levante (easterly, meaning where the sun rises). One is warmer and stronger, and better for windsurfing. The other is colder, weaker, and better for kitesurfing. Or perhaps it’s the other way round. Either way, it’s windy.
The wind can be cutting, but when it’s warm, it makes the little one laugh like she’s being tickled. Step out of the wind, and the sun is strong. But what is most reviving is, simply, the light. It bounces off the white walls, flickers on the sea, seeps into the apartment and, finally, soaks into your skin.
The windmills are not the only thing on the landscape and in the sky that owe their presence to the wind. Hundreds of tiny coloured sails float like dancing balloons above the coastline. Tarifa has become a Mecca for kite-surfers, and they leave their mark not only on the beaches, but on the streetscape, which is testament to their particular brand of boutique bohemia. The town is dotted with bars announcing themselves with thumping music and signs proclaiming “wi-fi”, and between them are small shops with names like “Etnik” selling a mixture of surf gear and North African artisan goods. The occasional German, sand-caked camper van, parked down a street near the beach, suggests a bohemian lifestyle that is somewhat less boutique.
Ubiquitous, however, are the “inmobiliarias”, the estate agents. There are dozens of them, most in one-room offices that open straight onto the narrow streets. Their windows are full of ads for apartments in the “casco histórico”, the historic quarter, or old town, priced from €200,000 to €500,000. The prices are ludicrously high, bearing no relation to the indigenous economy. Closed doors and papered up windows at some of these offices suggest that the market agrees. New developments are being discounted and, though advertised prices remain high, those that are selling are doing so significantly below asking price.
We found a small apartment for the first week for €40 per night, and started viewing other places. We saw a tiny apartment “en primera línea del mar” (fronting onto the beach), a few spacious ones in functional residential blocks in the modern town, and cramped but characterful ones in the old town, all for between €450 to €700 per month. (These were the prices advertised locally: I suspect it would have been difficult to access this market from home, where we would likely have been directed towards the more expensive tourist rentals.) All would have been adequate: the town is small, so beach and old town are invariably within walking distance.
But then we found it: a large, creaky old apartment in the old town, opposite the local market. We stepped out onto the roof, and found ourselves looking over the warren of streets and clutter of rooftops to the sea, ships passing through the Strait, and the Moroccan coast beyond. (I have been typing on the laptop looking out at this as the sun fades.) Five hundred euro a month. We realised we were staying. The question would become, would we bother going back.
The routine since is pretty simple. Maybe a run or walk on the beach in the morning. Coffee and croissant in a local café, or fruit from the market and coffee on the roof. I work, R and the little one wander. The place is small, and wandering quickly brings you round in circles. R soon found herself recognising people she had passed earlier. It took her about two days to make some friends – with babies in common.
We’re trying to be vaguely thrifty, so we restrict ourselves to eating out just once a day (well, not including breakfast). But when you can get a small glass of beer or wine and a tapa for €2, it’s difficult to take your money seriously. The trick is to go where the locals go: the food is better, prices cheaper, and there’s less likely to be a bunch of flip-flop-wearing twenty-somethings checking their email on their laptops.
It’s perfectly normal to see young children and babies in bars and restaurants late at night. Sometimes, if a restaurant is quiet, a waitress will take the little one off us and carry her around while we eat. Everyone assumes she’s a boy, because she doesn’t have her ears pierced.
We stumbled into Juan Luis’s “mesón” (a traditional restaurant) one night, and found ourselves in an elegant courtyard festooned with bullfighting paraphernalia. A tourist trap? We sat down, tentatively.
“I’ll just bring you some fine jamón”, said Juan Luis. He reappeared with a large plate of jamón ibérico, top-quality cured ham, an expensive delicacy. This is a well-known trick in the tourist centres of Spain – bring the customer oversize portions of expensive tapas, as if they were on the house, and later hit them with a hefty bill. (It’s easy to fall for, as most restaurants will give you a small tapa on the house while you order.)
“And you’ll have a nice red wine?” He brought a bottle of Ribera del Duero.
The jamón was good (the little one agreed, sucking on it inquisitively), as was the wine. While we mused over them, he reappeared.
“This is a little paté de jamón”, he said.
Alongside that, he produced a third dish. “And this is a speciality of ours”, he said. The dish contained slices of baked ham, smeared in a clear white fat, as if buttered with it. “The fat is good for the heart”, he said, proudly.
I asked about the menu. There was none, Juan Luis said. It seemed rude to ask about the prices.
The main course arrived: pork chops (wonderfully tender).
With them, a plate of chips – cooked in eggs, like a light omelette, layered through with… bacon.
Then a great cheese, a semi-cured Manchego. There was something distinctive about it. I asked Juan Luis.
“It’s infused with jamón.”
He brought a local desert wine with it – a bottle, not glasses.
Eventually, the bill.
Forty-eight euro. For two. And good for the heart, as well.
Outside, tourists were lolling about the cobblestone streets looking at the menus in foreign-run pizzerias and restaurants serving internationalist “fusion” cuisine. There was plenty of English to be heard in the streets, and banging music from some of the bars.
Pass through Tarifa on a day trip and you might dismiss it as a refuge for Northern Europeans with dreadlocks. There is plenty of tat on sale, poor meals to be had, and bad value, like anywhere on the Spanish coast. But you don’t have to stay long, or wander far off the tourist-beaten track, to find Juan Luis, and others like him.
Back to the novel. Though I might just need a summer here to get it finished.