Madrid - How often are we warned, as travellers, not to revisit destinations where previously we have experienced magic.
This injunction was on my mind as I drank coffee and crunched on a smoked ham baguette in Vejer de la Frontera, waiting for the bus that would take me to the Andalucian fishing village of Zahara.
I had been there on a “working” holiday two years before and had been captivated, particularly late one damp and foggy night when I tramped through the courtyard of the derelict Castillo de las Almedrabas and along deserted back streets until I found a quiet bodega.
There was a fire in the grate and a bottle of Jameson whiskey behind the bar. Having been there a few days, I knew not to engage the owner in conversation. His was not the surliness common among Spaniards towards tourists but rather the caution of a villager towards an outsider.
Thirty minutes later, having paid less than e6 for a double whiskey as well as a Cruzcampo beer, I went back out into the night.
Feral cats scattered before me into the fog. Chapel bells tolled as I passed the Church of our Lady of Mount Carmel. In that melancholic midnight moment, I knew I would come back.
Until I climbed off the bus at Vejer, I had seen just enough to rekindle the charm. I’d flown in to Málaga and taken public transport down the Costa del Sol past Torremolinos, Marbella and Estepona to Algeçiras.
The so-called Coast of the Sun is depressing: faux-Moorish and Tuscan cluster housing built around golf courses no one seems to use, while Algeçiras is your typical grimy Mediterranean port city.
Andalucian buses, by the way, are an experience: they’re clean and generally run to timetable but are crowded, loud and ribald, much like our minibus taxis.
Out of Algeçiras , the bus begins to climb and Andalucía starts to bare its soul. It’s poor and stark but exposed in exquisite colours given intensity and depth by the warm late-autumn sun.
Not for nothing is this area of southern Spain called the Costa de la Luz, the Coast of Light.
It could just as easily be called the Coast of Wind because the countryside teems with wind-turbines stretching to the horizons, looking like herds of migrating wildebeest.
Andalucía, the home of bullfighting and flamenco, is the second largest of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities and is divided into eight provinces: Almería, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaén, Málaga and Seville.
Don’t go there if you want an all-frills package holiday where you will be fawned over every minute of the day, but rather if you prefer a relaxed and relatively inexpensive European end-of-year getaway in a temperate climate.
The first stop on the way to Vejer is Tarifa, a commercial holiday resort where the architecture is genuinely Moorish, especially in the walled “Old Town” whose cobbled streets and small squares feature a host of unpretentious pubs and restaurants.
Tarifa is the closest point between Europe and Africa – ferries depart hourly to Tangier in Morocco, a distance of just 14km – and is overshadowed by the Castillo Guzmán el Bueno, the castle of “Guzman the Good”.
Built in 960AD, its primary claim to fame is that its occupants repulsed Napoleon’s siege in 1812, prompting the emperor to march off to Russia in an ill-considered hissy fit.
Tarifa is world famous for its wind- and kite-surfing. The town, pretty as it is, is merely a sideshow to the main attraction.
The final bus of my southward journey takes me from Vejer first through Barbate and, 9km later, across a brackish river into Zahara.
Zahara de los Atunes (Zahara of the tuna, to give the place its full name) is home to no more than 1 500 people.
But in July and August, says restaurateur and head of the local chamber of commerce Gaspar Castro, the number swells to around 40 000 as the town explodes with raucous life.
About 95 percent of the visitors are from northern Spain – Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Bilbao … and they come for fiesta.
“All they do is eat, drink and go to the beach.”
Zahara is two villages rather than one. At some stage during the past 10 years, property developers built sprawling Marbella-esque monstrosities between Zahara proper and Atlanterra so that, in peak season, they lose their individual identities.
For 10 months of the year, however, the 4 000 apartments are home to just 400 people.
Although the bluefin tuna-fishing industry has waned over the years, the fish is pivotal to Zahara’s culture and existence.
According to a local publication, “the arrival of the first fish is celebrated in Zahara almost as a festival.
“The news travels from mouth to mouth … the almedraba (as the local trap-net fishing method is called) has been successful and it’s time for the ronqueo, the butchering of the tuna.
“The carving of a tuna fish weighing hundreds of kilos in just a few minutes, as though it were no bigger than an anchovy, is a spectacle to behold.
“It is also an ancient art that sends a clear signal that this is the land of the tuna fish.”
Last year, 38 of the town’s 85 restaurants created a signature tuna dish. Together, they sold 55 000 dishes in one weekend.
“It’s good for business but not that good – we can’t give them our best service,” said Castro.
Though he would like to have the holiday season spread over four months from May, he recommends that people visit in October and November.
“The water is warm, the weather is nice and it’s really cheap.”
Wherever you go at the end of the year, you’ll see Se Alquila signs affixed to houses and apartments. It means “for rent” and visitors who are in the market for a great value-for-money, self-catering holiday are spoiled for choice in terms of price and quality.
They will pay half of what those in peak season would fork out for accommodation, according to a local.
You can rent a furnished, luxury five-bedroom villa, which can accommodate 12, for about R27 000 a week or a three-bedroom beachfront penthouse for less than R6 000 a week.
Source accommodation through Zahara- based property rental companies such as Sol Inmobiliaria.
If hotels are your thing, I recommend the Pozo del Duque, so named because it was built on the site of the original well (pozo) of the feudal land owners, the dukes of Medina Sidonia.
Run by the husband and wife team of Eduardo Benitez and Saskia Gotz, the hotel is central, reasonably priced, modern and friendly.
Do not expect its a la carte restaurant to be open at year-end – the same can be said for any of the other hotels in the area.
Nonetheless, about a dozen of Zahara’s top restaurants and several of its bars remain open during the end-of-year low season because food plays an important part in local life.
Aside from seafood, this region of Andalucía is renowned for its beef and pork.
The beef is called retinto and the animals are robust and free-ranging. In contrast to the breed’s appearance and that of its range, the meat is fine-grained and tender.
Pork prevails as sausage and cured hams, the most notable of the latter being jamón serrano (from white pigs) and the more expensive jamón ibérico from the black Iberian pig.
Regional cheeses are fairly good, too. “Street” food is cheap and extremely tasty.
You need to be somewhat adventurous in your ordering, though, as waiters might not be able to explain chocos, ortigas, puntillitas, mejillones rellenos, acedias, berenjenas or a myriad other dishes to your satisfaction.
A word of advice; don’t eat in deserted restaurants. I learned why locals shun these after a delicious albóndigas (meatball) soup made its way in a rush through my system just seven minutes after I’d settled the bill.
I spent 10 days in Zahara the second time I went.
After a few days, I felt myself transforming from tourist into something more Spanish.
I would spend hours walking along the eight-kilometre-long beach or exploring the village and countryside before taking a siesta.
I’d get up for a few sundowners at the pool before heading for the “old town” for dinner and a crawl of the bodegas.
I even became something of a regular at one pub; I was tolerated after I cheered when Manchester City’s David Silva – playing for Spain that night – scored.
After that, my Cruzcampo dumpy only had to reach panic level (three centimetres from bottom) before it was replenished.
As I waited for the midday bus that would return me to Málaga, I recalled my fears of disappointment before my arrival.
Yes, I was disappointed – but only because the magic and romance of the place had not diminished and I’d had no one with whom to share it. - Saturday Star