Tuna town

The last time we were in Barbate I was in a bad mood. We’d just spent four overpriced nights stuck in the Andalucia-government owned marina in Mazagon due to poor weather conditions, followed by two nights in a similar government owned marina in Cadiz. These soulless, overpriced concrete hells were run with typical government bureaucracy and inflexibility, still charging summer prices even though they had reverted to winter service. They had no Wifi, the showers and toilets in Mazagon had limited opening hours, and there was no consideration given to the odd hours that sailors arrive and depart, dictated to by tides and weather conditions.

So when we arrived in Barbate to yet another government-run marina, I was already predisposed to dislike the place. Its first impressions didn’t help. It had the same rough un-finished concrete box buildings, and was situated far outside town. The Guardia Civil boat had taken up the reception pontoon but when we took up a temporary berth in the marina, the gate leading up to the reception was locked and Julian had to climb over it. We moved twice more around the half-empty marina before we were settled on a rickety tiny pontoon that the marina staff were happy for us to be on. The next morning when we tried to refuel before our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, the fuel station was closed and, despite it being within office opening hours, we waited almost half an hour for someone to answer our repeated phone and VHF radio calls, and send someone around to fill our tank.

Our one evening in Barbate involved walking through a desolate industrial wasteland to find the nearest supermarket. We couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.

But what a difference seven and a half months makes! Friends in Aguadulce told us they really liked Barbate and, for us, it proved a convenient stopping off point between Spanish-owned Ceuta on the northern tip of Morocco and the Rio Guadiana on the Spain-Portugal border.

DSCI0334This time we arrived from the south, sailing past long long sandy beaches, low-lying Barbate and the countryside beyond looking exceptionally beautiful, all lush green fields and extensive pine forests. We only planned to stay one night, but a broken toilet and marina fees exactly half the price of what we were expecting convinced us to stay for two nights before attempting an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana.

After the cold showers of Marina Smir, the luxury of a huge shower room with endless hot water won me over. The all-female marina staff were exceptionally friendly when Lily, Katie and I went to sign in (via the reception pontoon this time). (In general, I find female marina staff give us better berths and better service when I bring the girls to the office. Small children seem to melt hearts). While the girls and I showered I also did a load of laundry at the very inexpensive marina launderette. Luxury unbound!

DSCI0322The next morning the girls and I vacated the boat, leaving Julian to fix the broken toilet. I decided to put our friend’s high praise of Barbate to the test. It was a Friday morning and the industrial wasteland of the Saturday evening of seven months ago was now the thriving heart of the town’s tuna fishery. Fishermen worked in groups to spread out and repair huge tuna nets; the ice-making complex was whirring away; and the processing factories were bustling. The whole area was busy with people walking, driving fork-lifts, vans and lorries, work-men repainting the walls and railings, the fisherman’s cafe lively and loud with fisherman having their morning coffee. The shop attached to one of the processing factories sold an unimaginable range of tuna products, all beyond our price range.

DSCI0324The last time we had been here we immediately turned left for the supermarket when we came out of the marina area, where a dodgy-looking shack sold cigarettes and magazines and a lone bar looked like something out of the wild west. What we hadn’t realised at the time was if we had turned right the biggest, sandiest beach imaginable is RIGHT THERE, hidden from view by the marina wall. Wow! I’ve been on some nice beaches in my time, and this one is right up there with the best. Fine-grained golden sand that is hard-packed close to the water’s edge making it perfect for long walks and sand art!

DSCI0327We had an inexpensive second breakfast of coffee, juice and tostada made from delicious bread at a seaside cafe, where we wrote postcards. The waiter gave us directions to the post office and we set off through town. And what a revelation: a thriving bustling town with people walking about, small locally-owned shops selling just about anything one could want. As well as butchers, bakers and clothes shops, there were haberdashers, dress-makers, hardware shops, sweet shops. Although the marina doesn’t offer Wifi, there is free Wifi all over town, provided by the town council! I sat in Plaza Ajuntamiento – a leafy square in front of the stately if somewhat run down town hall – while the girls played at a playground that featured a proper climbing wall!

DSCI0333Everyone was friendly, both to us and to each other. I lost count of the number of times I saw people slapping friends on the back, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. Lily and Katie got their fair share of head rubbing and cheek pinching and being called ‘Guapa’ by abuelas and abuelos we passed on the street. They haven’t had that since we were in Galicia last year. A real sense of camaraderie and community pervaded.

At a delightful sweet shop the girls each picked out their ten favourite sweets and when we went to pay, the very friendly shop keeper gave them each a freshly made bag of popcorn! We bought a picnic lunch and headed down to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. It was too cold to swim, but perfect for running about, making huge sand drawings on the hard-packed sand, and playing in the sand dunes that have been created by the presence of that big marina wall!

On the way home we dropped into the Parque Natural La Breña y Marismas del Barbate visitor centre. This small facility provided a wealth of information about the geology and natural history of the region from Cabo de Trafalgar to the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as a history and anthropology of tuna fishing in the region, which dates back at least to the Phoenicians 3000 years ago. The displays were all interactive, and Lily and Katie were able to watch videos of their choosing, read simple but informative text, and see and ‘feel’ the whole region in small scale. I particularly enjoyed watching a video of tuna fishing, showing the fishermen using a centuries-old technique of first corralling the tuna with very complex nets and then corralling them with multiple boats. When the tuna are surrounded, some fishermen actually get into the net with the wildly thrashing fish – some tuna 1.5 metres or more in length – and toss the live tuna up into the boats of their waiting colleagues.

The people of Barbate must be the healthiest in Spain. People of all ages are constantly walking around the marina, throughout the fishery complex, dressed in walking and gym gear. Men and women, from 17 to 87, all out walking. And the streets of the town were full of people walking, carrying their groceries, going about their business. It’s like the town’s been hit by a fitness epidemic. I wondered if this health-kick combined with the group organisation necessitated by the form of fishing practiced have led to such a friendly and happy community of people. Now there’s a research project!

Lily, Katie and I spent nine hours out and about in Barbate and every minute of it was a joy. It just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a place on our first, and limited, impressions!

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