If anywhere could be seen as a ‘safe bet’ for moving to Spain right now, it’s the Campo de Gibraltar. It has all the benefits of bordering a British Overseas Territory where the economy is booming and the natives speak English – plus, the sun still shines! Photography © www.CadizTurismo.com
It’s the ‘gateway to Spain’s Atlantic coast’, the ‘Land’s End’ of the Iberian Peninsula, a crossroads between two continents and the flight path of choice for millions of migratory birds. Too bad most visitors’ abiding memory of the Campo de Gibraltar is sweltering in a traffic tailback at The Rock border…
Like a charter flight passenger wedged between two fat ladies, it gets squeezed out by its big Costa sisters who claim all the best attractions for themselves. The Costa del Sol bags Sotogrande (home of princes, polo and Ryder Cup golf); the Costa de la Luz touts Tarifa (Europe’s wind and kite-surfing capital); and they both fight it out with the Province of Cádiz over the white villages. But all these attractions belong to the Campo de Gibraltar, too, a ‘comarca’ of seven Spanish towns akin to a British county. Formed from the original 4,070 Spanish inhabitants of Gibraltar who fled when the British took over in the 18th century, frontier shenanigans have kept this unusual corner of Spain in the world spotlight, almost to the exclusion of all else. But it’s about so much more than feuding fishermen, tobacco trafficking and Marmite from Morrisons.
That frontier spirit has flourished here since the 7th century, when many small mountain villages were in the line of fire as Moors battled Christians. Some (like Jimena and Castellar) still hang onto their ‘de la frontera’ suffixes, along with the hilltop fortresses that have withstood such interesting times. Trafficking is also nothing new. You can still catch the scenic Smuggler’s Express from Algeciras (the last train in Spain to be electrified, which now runs to Granada) where contraband goods from Gibraltar were regular traded through the carriage windows during its slow chug through the mountains. Bandits also worked the terrain and tales of chivalrous highwaymen abound. You can relive the experience with Bandoleros Tours – if you’re into S&M or don’t mind paying to be held up at flintlock pistol-point by brigands on horseback and lead, hands tied, to their hideout for lunch!
The real wow factor of the Campo de Gibraltar is its coastline, unviolated by the development that has marred much of the Costa del Sol: an almost virgin, 50km-strip running parallel to the Gibraltar Strait, past the legendary Pillars of Hercules (the ‘views of Africa and Gibraltar’ much touted by real estate agents) to where the Atlantic crashes into the Mediterranean. On a clear day Morocco, 14km across the Strait, seems swimmable. Dolphins and killer whales disport in the deep and sand dune-fringed beaches the texture of ground almonds make the Costa del Sol’s man-made playas look sad. Diving the wrecks of sunken galleons, watching the spume of sperm whales off Africa or fighting blue fin tuna from a bosun’s chair are among the adrenalin-rush highs.
The coastline forms Europe’s most southerly natural park and it has A-List attractions:
The other natural park – Alcornocales, the last Mediterranean rainforest – is an out-of- Africa safari without guides: 1,700km2 of cork oak forest inhabited by wild boar, otter, red deer, exotic fire salamander, rare midwife toads – you might even spot a wildcat or the tufted ears of an endangered Iberian lynx.
The Costas may be largely man-made but Mother Nature can take most of the credit for the Campo de Gibraltar!
This is Spain off the beaten track, travelled by goatherds and donkey carts, grazed by fighting bulls and dotted with wayside ventas hung with the hocks of black foot pigs. In sleepy white hilltop pueblos, the village elders still play dominoes and drink anis in the plaza. And, atop every electricity pylon, there’s the surreal sight of white storks nesting on rickety scaffolds – five-star accommodation provided by the government to prevent these valued residents from being roasted to a crisp.
Sometimes you have to look beyond the obvious to find the picture postcard: the pretty squares peeping out from the grey façade of Algeciras’s dour industrial port city; the wild marshlands cowering behind the Cepsa oil refineries at San Roque; the fabulous photographs of Gibraltar by night you can only get from La Linea.
Thanks to The Rock’s thriving finance, gaming and IT industries, neighbouring Campo de Gibraltar is becoming less of a tourist destination and more of a home for European expats moving to Spain to start a new life. And this historically strategic region will only grow in importance now that Algeciras, and not Málaga, will be the hub for the new railway corridor linking Spain with Europe.
Flying into the spanking new Gibraltar airport terminal (eerily devoid of passengers at other times) is a joy. (Unlike the current, politically-driven Gib-to-Spain border queues which will hopefully be only a temporary problem.) EU citizens don’t need a work permit in Gib but, for families, Spain’s still the better base (over 7,000 frontier workers think so). Rock property is pricey and rarely comes with a garden – you can pay six figures for a well-located high rise. There’s a respected international school in Sotogrande while Spain’s state education system seems to benefit younger kids who integrate well and become unpaid interpreters for Mum & Dad in no time at all!
All with the added reassurance of having Gibraltar on your doorstep where you can bank British and get advice in English. For those seriously considering taking off for Spain, the Campo de Gibraltar offers a softer landing.