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February 22, 2008
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Cabo de Gata - Weekend Report

Relaxing beachside on a secret slice of Andalucia's coast.

Las Negras, Almería Province, Spain.
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Spain 2008, but it could be 1950, and I’m quite literally at the end of the road. Having struggled over 20 kilometres of barren hills and burnt-out plains, the ribbon of ageing asphalt expires unceremoniously by the door of the modest restaurant, on the edge of the shore. A few hundred yards on an immense wall of black rock, the Cerro Negro, looms uncompromisingly from the sea. There is a way over the top. But it’s five hours on foot over steep, shelter-less mule trails to the next hamlet.

Sitting on the sun-soaked terrace, I take in the view after grilled sardines and a jug of nameless vino tinto. In front, the Med sparkles on its best behaviour, an even deeper blue than the electric sky. To my right, the local fishing fleet lies drawn up on the shingle - perhaps a dozen bleached skiffs of splintering wood and peeling paint. A net is stretched across some old crates to dry while a hound snoozes in a corner of shade. Plain whitewashed buildings tumble to halt on the brink of the beach – fishing cottages, boat sheds and the fishermen’s concrete-floored bar. A couple of old boys are sitting out front under the shade of a striped awning, eyes closed, digesting their beers. It’s siesta hour in the blink-and-you’ll miss-it village of Las Negras and nothing stirs.

For information on organising your own weekend on Cabo de Gata's desert beaches click here.

Cabo de Gata Natural Park

One of a string of tiny fishing villages, Las Negras lies deep in Andalucia’s little-known Cabo de Gata Natural Park., a destination newly accessible through scheduled flights to nearby Almería. Compared to the Costa del Sol to the west and Costa Blanca to the north, Cabo de Gata’s isolation and abundant solitude seem almost magical. But the explanation – water, or rather lack of it - couldn’t be more prosaic. When the cement mixers were grinding out tower-block hotels from Benidorm to Torremolinos, it was Cabo de Gata’s exceptional aridity that kept the developers at bay. Shielded by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, the region is the driest in Europe, in places receiving only six inches of precipitation a year (much condensing as morning dew). Little surprise therefore that Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and 1970s property speculators alike chose to give this stretch of coast a miss. Today, water can be produced—at a price—by hi-tech desalination plants. But thankfully the Cabo de Gata region won legal protection in 1987 and since then new building has been strictly regulated.

Beaches for nomads

The Cabo de Gata’s land-that-time-forgot otherworldliness has enchanted me since I arrived. But it isn’t the reason I originally planned to come. From the little I’d been able to find out in the UK, the coast’s string of perfect, sandy beaches sounded something rather special. And so they prove: pristine; often backed by not so much as a single building, just the grass, the hills and the quiet.. Sampling one of the best, I take a side turning a few minutes out of Las Negras signed ‘El Playazo’. I bounce and shake down a narrow concrete track for a couple of kilometres, through a North African landscape of date groves, prickly pears, low adobe houses and the odd straying goat. Then I come out on a sweeping curve of golden sand. On a sandstone bluff a squat stone castle keeps timeless vigil for marauding corsairs. At its foot, a huddle of fisherman’s sheds and drying tackle cling to the waterline like limpets to a rock. Typically for the area, there’s twenty people, at most, spread along almost a kilometre of beach.

Ranged on the foreshore are a handful of motley vehicles: a couple of rusting Transits, a small truck that looks equipped to cross Africa and two ancient camper vans. For all the Cabo de Gata’s lack of mainstream profile, its year-round sunshine, unspoilt nature and undemanding local bureaucracy (and police) have spread its fame across the New Age grapevine. Like a kinder, gentler echo of Mad Max, latter-day nomads from across Europe and beyond drift through, stopping to camp out for a few days—or years—before eventually moving on.

Cala Chica

Happily, though, it’s no longer compulsory to live out of the back of a van, and in the evening I return to Las Negras and my room at the chic little Cala Chica Hotel. Built in 2004 and a short stroll up the hill from the sea, Cala Chica’s minimalist lines, secluded pool and contemporary interiors wouldn’t be out of place in Barcelona or Madrid. Perhaps the only thing that would raise metropolitan eyebrows would be the friendliness of the welcome - with nothing too much trouble and a late-night refill of wine on the house when the bar closed early for the night.

San José and the Cape

If Las Negras sounds just a little too boondocks for taste, there are more options in San José, Cabo de Gata’s diminutive ‘capital’. I drive there the next day, along a road running through stony hills and empty valleys. When it arrives, San José proves a pleasantly low-key place hovering midway between large village and small family resort. I stop for along lunch at one of the side-by-side alfresco fish restaurants by the entrance to the marina, but with little to detain me I’m ready for the final few kilometres down to the cape that gives its name to the whole area.

Breasting a rise on the southern edge of town, tarmac gives way to washboard gravel but I’m encouraged to persevere by a vista of yet another perfect scalloped bay, this one backed by a huge bowl of Mediterranean maquis scrub and absolute peace. On either side of the track, unblinking expanses of desiccated grass and serrated yuccas ripple under the withering sun. Closing off the view, a twisted range of steep volcanic hills curls round to intersect the coast. Land and sea come together in a soaring headland of precipitate cliffs topped by the tiny pimple of an old pirate watchtower: Cabo de Gata, my objective.

The boundless Mediterranean

The last steep climb is blocked to vehicles, so I’m forced to make the ascent on foot. Pulling over, the silence lies so intense I can hear the rocks fry. Thirty minutes later and I’m at the top. The effort’s worth it, for I’m rewarded by breathtaking views. Behind me, San José and the other villages are hidden by folds in the hills. Without habitation in sight, the empty coastline slips away majestic and stark. Ahead, the view is even grander - the Mediterranean a boundless pool of golden-bronze, backlit by the setting sun. Within living memory, great chunks of the Spanish coast were as high and fierce and empty as this. But apart from this unexpected and precious fragment, it’s almost all gone. Instead, hotels, bars and wall-to-wall shopping have brought jobs to many, and cheap sun to many more - but at a price. Almost miraculously, Cabo de Gata gives a unique chance to travel back in time to an older, wilder Spanish Mediterranean and temporarily at least, erase that loss.

For information on organising your own weekend on Cabo de Gata's desert beaches click here.
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