So I met this guy… he’s pretty much perfect (!) and just when life couldn’t get any better I find out his family have an apartment on the south coast of Spain and he wants to take me there. How did I get so lucky!? His place is in Barbate, a small town in the region of Cadiz.
We caught the ferry (the correct one this time) from Morocco to Tarifa which is an hours bus ride from Barbate. Tarifa is a charming little town with plenty of streets to get lost in and has a somewhat hippie vibe. It is popular with kite surfers and I can see why – it was so windy! We spent a good hour wandering around followed by a couple beers at a beach bar and a lightly fried fish tapa in the main square. Once the sun had set we jumped on the last bus to Barbate.
Barbate is popular with Spanish city dwellers with many having a holiday home here. It’s a world away from the likes of the Costa del Sol and similar places us Brits would associate with the south of Spain. There are no high-rises, three floors is the max, and there is certainly no English or Irish bars. Good local food dominates the area with the speciality being tuna. The best tuna in the world in fact.
Everyone thinks the best tuna comes from Japan but little know the real story behind the worlds most prestigious cuts of tuna. Fishermen here spear eight-foot tuna head-on in a 3,000-year-old (sustainable!) Phoenician trap-fishing technique called La Almadraba. Back in the day the tuna was covered in salt to keep it good for long periods. Today the entire fish is frozen down to an incredible -60 within two hours of being caught making it the freshest in the world. The filleting and slicing of the tuna happens soon after by workers in protective suits to allow them to prepare the tuna whilst keeping it at -60c. Around 80% of the tuna is exported to Japan and a Japanease fishing boat even resides in these waters to ensure they get the best cuts.
Fishing is the main industry here and the restaurants and local market certainly reflect that. There’s an abundance of fresh fruit and vegtables too and it was at the market where I tasted the best strawberries I’ve ever laid my lips on. It’s so cheap! A bag of the best tomatos from Conil (a local village), avo, strawberries, bananas, an apple and nìsperos (a small orange fruit) cost about £5.
The local market is one of Barbate’s best assets and is a fantastic place to people watch. We enjoyed our morning cortardo at a bar just outside with fresh churros from the churro man, shop #41 in the market. I’ve never tasted churros in Spain and I don’t think much of them in the UK but these, THESE were the most delicious lightest freshest churros ever. Not bad for 80p a bag.
The weather was a bit iffy so after some shopping we caught a bus to Vejer de la Frontera, a nearby hilltop town. We strolled the streets but it was very empty as it was still low season and most local eateries don’t open until 8pm. We had some beers and tapas at a few nice places before catching a taxi home. A gorgeous historic town I would happily visit again.
The weather didn’t improve too much the following morning but we never let the weather dampen our mood or stop us from doing the things we love. After another typically Spanish lazy morning we set off for an afternoon walk (it was 5pm which is considered early afternoon in Spain!). Instead of following the path through the natural park we opted for the coastal route on questionable “paths” in the sand. After a while the cliff dropped off and we were left with no where to go.
I spotted the actual path above us. Not wanting to turn back, we climbed upwards. It was thick bush and we bashed our way through in pain thanks to only recently changing into shorts and t-shirts. We couldn’t help but laugh at the situation of having no option than to crawl straight through thorn bushes. We arrived at the path all cut and grazed. Our sense of adventure had gotten the best of us but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
We followed the Sendero de los Acantilados (a coastal route though the Natural Park) to Los Caños de Meca, a small coastal town just up the coast. It was a little chilly so we chickened out on a swim in the sea. The place was a ghost town with nothing open until possibly the weekend. We grabbed two beers and some crisps from the local newsagents and made our way to Trafalger Cap for the most perfect sunset underneath the lighthouse. A gyrocopter treated us to a performance or swirls and dives just infront of us. We were bitterly cold so as soon as the sun had disappeared we went in search of wine and tapas before catching a taxi home. Back in Barbate, we picked up some fish eggs before heading inside, which if I hadn’t have had those wines, I’m not sure I would have eaten.
The next day was our first day of good weather and what better way to spend it than on the beach. We enjoyed a cortardo and churros from the market and picked up some more strawberries. We enjoyed plenty of small beers and olives in the beachfront eateries. We also made a visit to the best tuna shop in town for a cut of some of the finest. Dinner was at Barbate’s most prestigious restaurant, El Campero, which was lovely but it was slightly short of our high expectations. The night ended with a cocktail and shisha overlooking the sea. Bliss.
Our tuna defrosted just in time for Saturday lunch and because it was of such good quality, we sliced the entire thing and ate it raw on our balcony looking out to sea. The apartment was lovely and in a prime location right on the beach. Within the four days we were there Carlos managed to break the bed, the shutter blinds and very nearly, his toes.
The wind had picked up again. Not letting the weather deter us from our plans, Marco went in search for a solution. He came back with some rather nifty British engineering and managed to find a wind breaker, quite possibly the first one ever purchased in Barbate. We got a few looks from walkers by who were admiring our shield and probably thinking that we were absolutely balmy being on the beach in 40kmph winds.
Marco’s father suggested we pop into the local Flamenco Association, Peña Flamenca Niño Barbate, to see if it was open for a drink as it is an interesting building. It was just up the road so we took a walk there before dinner (10pm) and were surprised to find an event going on. In all the years Marco and his parents have been coming to Barbate they have never been lucky enough to catch a live flamenco show. We were just in time so took a standing place at the bar and ordered the coldest beers I’ve ever tasted. The show was being performed for the Flamenco Association, which is mainly made up of Barbate’s elderly residents.
The tapas that came from the kitchen looked divine so I asked Marco if we could order one. The fresh fish in a fresh ciabatta was so tasty we ordered two more, this time tostadas with jamon and manchego cheese and another with tuna on. These were some of the best quality tapas I’ve had in Spain and I was shocked to see that they were just £1-£1.50 each! The show was spectacular, so dramatic with a tremendous amount of passion. Three guys were onstage, a singer, a clapper and a guitarist.
A flamenco dancer appeared at the end. I commented to Marco that she was so angry. They were all so angry! He explained to me the story behind flamenco and that is it about heartbreak and suffering. Sounds horrible right? It wasn’t, it was really very good and I’m so glad I experienced a real performance rather than one put on for tourists.
For a seaside town that’s often overlooked, Barbate has lots going for it. I really enjoyed my time here, so much so, we are going again in a couple of weeks. Marco has already returned once and assured me many more restaurants have opened and there is now kayaks and SUP for hire on the beach. I can’t wait to get back for my daily churros, a walk in the sand, a swim in the sea and the best tuna on earth. I’ll keep you posted about what’s new on my next visit.