Spain's Gateway to Morocco: Algeciras
By Jakob Jelling
Stretching nearly to Gibraltar, Algeciras has long been an important port in Spain. It's a popular crossroads for Moroccan workers on the way to and from France, Holland, and Belgium. Partly for this reason, there's a strong Arab flavor to the city; many signs are in Arabic, and you'll find excellent tea shops specializing in Moroccan mint teas. It's not a pretty city, but it's an almost fiercely individual one with a unique and vibrant personality. The restaurants here tend to be both excellent and inexpensive, and many have perfect views of the Rock of Gibraltar. And if you stroll the streets, you'll find a number of quiet parks and plazas out of sight of the bustling city.
The most attractive part of Algeciras, however, is that there are eight ferry crossings every day to Tangier and Morocco -- Casablanca, anyone? It's also the place to catch a train to Ronda, traversing some of the loveliest and most varied terrain in Andalucia, going through the Pueblos Blancos and the surrounding area.
No doubt due to its deep port and its location, so close to Africa, Algeciras was the first Spanish town taken by the Moors in 711. It was later retaken by Alfonso XI of Castile in 1344, but destroyed by the Moors in 1368 and not rebuilt until 1760, 56 years after it had been refounded by Spanish refugees from Gibraltar. As a result, it doesn't have architecture of the same antiquity as many of the cities in Andalucia.
Nevertheless, Algeciras has class. Kings, queens, and statesmen like Churchill and Roosevelt have stayed at its Hotel Reina Cristina. And though visiting dignitaries today are more likely to fly over than stay in Algeciras, its tourist industry is growing.
What to Do
Algeciras has 23 kilometers of beach, and though some are given over to industrial use, there are still several very nice ones such as the Rinconcillo, San Garcia, and Getares. The Church of Nuestra Senora de la Palma and the Capilla de Nuestra Senora de Europa are nice to visit, thought they aren't as venerable or remarkable as many similar structures in other Andalucian towns. You can also hike through Los Alcornocales, an extensive and beautiful nature reserve nearby.
Like most Andalucian towns, Algeciras has excellent festivals, and holds them frequently. (In Andalucia, more than 3000 fiestas are celebrated each year!) The main festivals in Algeciras are the Arrastre de Latas, or Three Kings, the Fiesta de Los Reyes, Las Adas, La Chorizada, Carnival, and Tosantos (All Saints Day).
The Arrastre de Latas is when the children drag cans and pots through the streets to banish the "Giant of Botafuegos," who tries to cover the sky with gray clouds, obscuring the star from the Three Kings. The cloud is banished so that the children here might receive their gifts.Later, at the Fiesta de Los Reyes, the Three Kings bring Christmas gifts to the children, scattering sweets.
During Carnival, you can celebrate three days of music and fun with Algeciras as the Goddess of the Carnival and her Nymphs declare days of pleasure. And on All Saints Day (November 1), fiestas called Tosantos celebrate the saints with harvest fruits, nuts, and sugarcane.
Where To Stay
Besides the very nice Hotel Reina Cristina, you can stay in a variety of bed-and-breakfasts in Algeciras and neighboring small villages. One excellent choice is Monte de la Torre in Los Barrios, an Edwardian house with a thousand acres of cork oak forest to roam, mature gardens to enjoy, and the picturesque sight of grazing Retinto, a long-horned red cattle.