Landing in Madrid is no easy feat. From the east coast USA, you typically arrive at Terminal 4 in the wee hours of the Spanish morning, fraught with jetlag, stiff and dehydrated. It is roughly a 25-minute walk through the terminal, through customs, one train ride and finally baggage claim. And if I am to be completely honest, it is often another 30-minute wait to get your bags. But the struggle ends there. As soon as you make your way into Madrid via taxi, Uber or train, the city is awake with the smells of coffee, oranges and chocolate. Store fronts and cafes are throwing up their rickety metal shutters, the Spanish sun is warm and rising and the zen of a southern European city is intuiting its daily purpose. As bleary-eyed and tired as we are, it is precisely here that our journey really begins.
Doug and I are not staying in Madrid this trip. We killed a few hours at my in-laws (my ex-mother-in-law, that is, whom I love dearly and who made us coffees and tostadas with jamón), we said goodbye to my son who would be studying here, and we hopped on a train from Atocha to Algeciras: first destination Tarifa.
Tarifa is the southern most tip of mainland Europe and the closest point to North Africa. It is essentially a pueblo blanco–a white village–though untraditionally it doesn’t sit on a hillside. It instead hugs the coast of the Straight of Gibraltar. Its current claim to fame is windsurfing. Because of two competing winds, (the “Levante” is the stronger eastern winds that occur more often in fall and spring, and the Poniente, is the western winds that tend to occur all day, every day, but are milder in comparison), Tarifa is known as the windiest city in Europe and a great place to surf.
But, for us, Tarifa is not about surfing, or wind. It is our jumping off point to Morocco. It is the first stop of a 15-day itinerary and a place we can rest and recharge a couple days before heading to Tangier.
◎Flight from PHL to MAD (6.5 hours, about $800 each)
◎Taxi from Barajas airport to Atocha train station (25 minutes; about 35 euros)
◎High speed train (AVE) from Atocha station, Madrid to Algeciras (about 5.5 hours; 35-100 euros one way, depending on season) Buy tickets at least a day or two in advance.
◎2nd Taxi from Algeciras train station to Tarifa (about 20 minutes; 25 euros)
◎Lodging: Apartamentos Caravane, Calle San Casiano, 5, 11380 Tarifa, Cádiz, Spain (approximately $150 for two nights) *This apartment is walking distance to port. It has a fabulous rooftop terrace and it’s immaculate.
We arrived in Tarifa after dark. An intricate maze of narrow whitewashed streets, glowing amber from the street lights led us to Calle San Casiano. Once we found the address we entered the code to unlock the box, which held our room key. Up two flights of stairs, luggage in, and us back out.
We were ravenous, so, we headed back out into the Tarifa glow and had dinner at Meson Siglo XIX, which is also a beautiful boutique hotel. Maybe because we were so starved and so exhausted the food tasted amazing. Then again, food is amazing even in the crappiest of places in Spain. Olives, bread, lamb chops, paté de Iberico, dry Ribera del Duero, my new favorite wine. Divine. We didn’t do much else. We circled around a few streets. The cafes and terraces were packed with locals and tourists. But, we could barely keep our eyes open. We hauled our tired bodies back up two flights and crashed. I figured that we spent about 25 hours of travel from door to door; 37 hours no sleep. Shortly after those brain-zapping calculations, I slipped into la la land. A cool sea breeze blew in through our tiny window, and we were both out within minutes. I love this place.
I’m writing this back in the room. Afternoon. Seagulls. Blue skies. The smell of fried fish. Hot, sun soaked terraza.
I had a coffee in the morning in the lounge of La Sacristía, possibly my favorite little cafe here, inside or out. I found myself chatting briefly with a Croatian and the Spanish barista who served me a double cafe solo. The Croatian said, rather proudly, “The catholic religion is making a coming back.” I think he though he’d get a positive response but the barista shot back, “I hope not. Here the Catholics are the political right and it’s no good.” Many in Spain are worried about the rise of right-wing conservatism here, namely the political party VOX. It’s only been about 40 years since Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco died and the country became a democracy. I sipped my coffee and tried instead to soak in the indulgent interior. No politics from here on out. Human connection only.
We spent the day meandering around, keeping purchases super light, despite a myriad amount of arts, crafts and fashion shops that continually lured me in. The thing is, we have far to go and I’m hoping to buy most stuff in Morocco.
We walked around the fortress walls and found a rocky alcove with a ruined house on the beach, below the cliffs. A gypsy woman was basking on a rock by the sea.
We spent time in the room after and a little time on the azotea, the rooftop, and then headed back out to print out our ferry tickets.
We had a cerveza and a trocito de tortilla at La Caracola, then a late dinner at 10pm (early by Spanish standards) at Bar el Frances. It was packed and we soon found out why. The food was amazing. I had salmorejo (a thicker version of gazpacho with the addition of chopped hard boiled egg and jamón), bread, olives, and albondigas. Losing five pounds before this trip was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. Hello, weight gain! I can’t even imagine how much food my body will be able to devour over the next couple weeks in Morocco. We shall see.
Tomorrow morning, we will pack our bags, roll them down cobblestone streets to the port and head to Tangier. A dream come true. And as I write one last time on the rooftop here, I try to lodge in my brain the sound of the gulls and the feel of the sun. How long will these memories last before they turn to dust?
Paul Bowles wrote, “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Morocco makes me nervous. I don’t know what to expect. But, I keep thinking, Morocco will tell you Tracy, what is real and what is imagined. What belongs to you and what doesn’t.