Unspoilt Spanish beauty in Tarifa

The laid-back port town bears strong traces of Arab civilisation.

Tarifa is known as the "windsurf capital" of Europe. Getty Images
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Tarifa dangles like a tiny pendant from the southernmost tip of the Spanish coast. It's almost an island, hanging on to Spain by a thin thread of land. Crossing the Gibraltar Strait from Morocco, the final tip of Europe emerges, leaving African territory behind as the ferry ploughs between two continents. Tarifa holds Europe above her head while North Africa is so close that from Tarifa's port, I can still see Morocco's Rif mountains drawing a jagged skyline only 14 kilometres away.

Tarifa is Spanish territory, yet the town bears traces of Arab civilisations that left indelible footprints on Iberia, centuries ago. The Muslim victory over Andalusia, which continued for centuries, began in 710 CE in this tiny town, 100 kilometres from Cadiz and 200 from Seville.

Tarif Ibn Malik gave the town its name. This powerful Berber warrior led the initial invasion under the notorious Muslim conqueror of North Africa, Musa Ibn Noussair, taking much the same route as I am now, across the Gibraltar Strait, the circumstances being admittedly rather different. Many towns still bear names of Arabic origin in Andalusia. Yet it was this pinhead-sized town of Tarifa, welcoming travellers into Southern Spain, that first saw some 400 men and 100 horses embark from Maghreb before pushing through the region to take Cordoba, Granada and Seville.

Throughout the town, I spot countless signs of the colossal Muslim presence. Tarifa is still centred around a perfectly preserved medina. Its thick white walls keep me cool as I follow narrow, ambling passages housing curious shops and classic Spanish cafe-restaurants. It is pristine; every corner is well swept, every whitewashed wall scrubbed, every flower-adorned window spic and span.

This is not one of those maze-like medinas where I find myself hopelessly lost in a sweating panic. It's just not that big and certainly not that chaotic. Streets are generally the realm of pedestrians (the odd motorcycle or car manages to barge through intermittently) and I enjoy sitting and sampling strong Spanish coffee and tapas as much as I do strolling and exploring the clothing boutiques and Moorish marketplace.

Finally I seek out the Islamic quarter. It's introduced by a traditional Spanish tiled sign, reading Puerto de la Almedina. Climbing the little stairway, I pass the Almedina Café (grabbing a Moroccan mint tea on my way) and there it is: a perfectly formed, geometrically organised Moorish square. It's a peaceful space to sit, perfumed by orange trees and roses and shaded by palms and bougainvillea. A star-shaped fountain of arabesque zellij tinkles in the centre. A recently restored Arabic-style building stands proudly beneath its minaret on one side of the square, ready to serve as the new exhibition hall and library, while the Police Station (so elegant that you'd never know it) stands tall on the south side.

Twenty years ago, Tarifa was little more than a ghost town and I'd have been hard pushed to find a good hotel here, as Marta Genero, co-owner of the hotel apartments Koala Tarifa, recalls. "Back then it was very difficult to make a living here," she tells me. "It was the territory of a few fishermen and the military. Apart from a month or two of the year, there was nobody and nothing. Any tourists who came were mostly into wind or water sports.

"Now, people come to visit the ancient town," Marta explains. "When we arrived in Tarifa, we started a small designer shop selling clothes and so on, and also offered internet access. We saw a gap in the market and it worked out. We realised that more visitors would come to Tarifa and decided to start work on the hotel. We sold the shop, spent a few years renovating this house and created these apartments."

Koala Tarifa offers several flats under the 300-year-old roof of an Andalusian townhouse. Authentic features are preserved: rare, original stone tiles pave the floor while the whitewashed walls reveal bare areas of genuine brickwork here and there, with sparse, arresting decoration providing modern contrast to the traditional features of the original building.

The port of Tarifa is no longer a military area and almost all the fishermen have deserted. The honk of ship horns, however, is a reminder that the port is still alive. It sits a few paces away from the main pedestrianised, cafe-cloaked square, lounging at the medina's west door, where I take many a well-earned coffee break. Ferries, just like the one I took, arrive throughout the day from Morocco, only an hour's sail away. Visits to Tangiers (and back) are effortlessly arranged. There is a discrete yet constant police watch - they were ready to search any of us leaving the ferry - since the problem of illegal immigrants from Africa persists.

A fortress keeps watch over the port. Now named Castillo Guzman El Bueno this 10th-century citadel was built to order under the caliph Abderrahman III - perhaps around Roman ruins. Construction of the castle initiated a transformation of Tarifa, from military defence point to a genuine urban centre. It was closed for years for refurbishment but recently opened to the public and showcases traces of past civilisations.

Beaches here are of the pick and mix variety - on calm, summery days you can languish on picture perfect sands, dipping in and out temperate waters as you please. In winter it may be a little chilly for swimming, although still allows for exceptionally beautiful walks. Be warned, though - windspeeds pick up admirably thanks to the funnel effect of the Gibraltar Strait. Tarifa is nicknamed the "windsurf capital" of Europe. It's a kitesurfer's fantasy island. On a scorching July day, I take to the Punta Paloma beach, only to find a patchwork of billowing fabrics filling the sky as kitesurfers invade the waters. "There are literally hundreds of us out there," grins Hicham Berrada, an amateur kitesurfer from Mohammedia, Morocco. "I had to weave my way through to find a place - the atmosphere's brilliant. You can rely on the wind to be perfect in Tarifa- conditions are almost always good."

It was the wind that first brought Juan-Sebastian Vicente Franqueira to Tarifa. He fell for the town and eight years ago founded his hotel, La Estrella de Tarifa (the star of Tarifa). This comfy place in the medina is clothed top-to-toe in Moroccan decoration. From floor tiles to lamp fittings to bed covers, each room alludes to the Maghreb. It houses a compact, stylish apartment with walls of windows overlooking the medina. I take in the most wonderful view, peeping at neighbours' roof terraces and carrying out an aerial inspection of the streets below. The entire place is painted blue and white, reflecting on an age when Muslim Spain was united with North Africa to form the Barbary States.

While Tarifa continues to witness a rise in visitor numbers, it's a far cry from the cement forests and sunburned masses that have blighted the Spanish Costa del Sol, and any such future invasions look unlikely. "New environment laws protect our coastline from here until Portugal," explains Bjorn Petersen, the co-owner of Koala Tarifa. "In many parts, no construction is allowed 200 metres inland from the waterfront."

He adds: "The natural cork tree park, Los Alcornocales, begins here in Tarifa, which protects our area from future real estate speculation. So it looks like Tarifa will stay as it is." I thank Tarifa for being such an easy place to be. As I step back on to the ferry, I can't help but whisper "long may it stay this way".