July 14, 2015
Yesterday we finally took the plunge, so to speak, and passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. There’ve been two sides to the experience of traveling down the Atlantic coast of Spain – one has been trying to absorb the setting and its history, and the other has been dealing with the challenges of navigating in deeply unfamiliar waters. Ok, well, there’s been some eating and drinking too…
The history part is always present. Cadiz, where we spent three days wandering the old city, may be the oldest city in Europe – an area where Neanderthals lived in and decorated caves, Greeks and Phoenicians visited, trading pottery for silver, tin and gold. In fact, Phoenicians most likely founded the city, perhaps 3,000 years ago, long before the Romans established their posts along this stretch of coastline.
We spent hours in the Museum of Cadiz, situated on one of the lovely, tree covered (and parrot infested) plazas in the center of town. A great archeological record, and a lot of 18th and 19th century painting, and a small section of contemporary art. Despite the amazing depth of the exhibits from early human to Roman times, and then the Spanish history reflected in the paintings, there are some gaps. No mention of the long Moorish preeminence in southern Spain – Al-Andalus – and in Cadiz in particular, except for one giant, wall-sized painting of “Spaniards” butchering “Moors” in the “battle for Cadiz.” Also, you would never know that Spain had a civil war in the 1930s, or a president named Franco…
But the city is a joy to explore on foot – long, narrow, shady streets lined with two and three story buildings, opening into green plazas, all surrounded by old stone walls and the sea. Food and drink are interesting, top quality and inexpensive, and it is possible to adjust to the idea that nothing is open between about 3:30 to 8:30.
We left Cadiz on Sunday to sail to Barbate, down the coast about 40 miles, where we planned to scope out the weather in the Straits before making our move. That leg of the trip took us right past Cabo Trafalgar, where the sea rolls over the bones of thousands. Not Admiral Nelson’s, though. His body was packed in a barrel of brandy and shipped back to London for burial at Westminster Cathedral.
Barbate turned out to be kind of a loss. It used to be called “Barbete de Franco” although the “de Franco” part has been carefully scrubbed from everything over the last decade or so. It’s a newish vacation town built on the edge of a swamp, complete with annoying no-see-ums and crappy internet access. So, we took a look at the information we had and decided to go for it the next morning.
For those of us familiar with Northwest waters, the Straits of Gibraltar are navigationally a lot like the Straits of Juan de Fuca, except shorter. There are strong currents, frequent strong, even violent winds, and plenty of fog in the summer. The differences are that the Straits over here have truly massive amounts of traffic, and that they used to be the edge of the known world, then the pinch point that controlled access to and from the Mediterranean. Tarifa, at the narrowest point, is one of the windiest spots in the world. We sailed past its old stone fortifications (and it’s frighteningly fast, huge high-speed ferries to North Africa) in a very moderate, for Tarifa, 15 to 20 knots of wind on the nose, but with 2 knots of current behind us.
We had left Barbate on radar, in pea soup fog, but it cleared up a half hour after we felt our way out of the harbor. We felt done with that, despite very clear warnings to the contrary. They were right, as it turned out. Three or four miles from Tarifa we were back in the soup, with maybe 25 yards visibility. Here was another occasion we regretted not having an AIS transmission. But it was fine, just a little nervous-making to sail into Gibraltar Bay, a very busy harbor with many AIS-identified tankers and cargo ships making blips on the radar, along with buoys, rocks and non-AIS identified boats.
Luckily, as we got further into the bay, and as one of the big high-speed ferries was rocketing towards us through the fog (we could see them on the radar), the fog lifted, and there was the rock! It’s a truly impressive sight, a little like the pictures you may have seen, although most of the photos I knew omitted the tall minaret of the mosque that is the dominant feature of Point Europa. The Barbary apes have not yet been visible through the binoculars, a bitter disappointment.
We’re moored on the Spanish side of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, which is undefended these days, although you have to show a passport to cross it, unlike most borders in Europe. We’ll spend some time here, clean up the boat, and we hope to rent a car to visit Granada and Cordoba, maybe the very old city of Ronda too. We continue to be shocked by how inexpensive the marinas are.
We’ll keep you posted.