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Exploring Algeciras, Andalucia, Spain

There seems to be very little written about Algeciras, four lines in the 'Spain Travel Guide', and not much anywhere else, which is a pity. It is not just a place to pass on the way to Cadiz or Seville, it does have a certain charm and more of a history than you might think.

High above Algeciras, on the Cabrito pass, is the enigmatic 'Hand and Ball' sculpture designed by Todd Slaughter symbolising the meeting point of two continents and cultures. A beacon for all sailors entering or leaving the Mediterranean, it emphasises Spain's determination to keep the Mediterranean open to all and the Port Authority of Algeciras Bay's ambitions to keep on developing the area. When the wind howls through The Strait the ball rotates at a maximum speed of 6 revolutions per minute and lends its own eerie cry to that of the gulls above.

On the far side of the bay stands Gibraltar. When Franco closed its border with Spain the city enjoyed massive investment to create work for those who had until then been employed on The Rock and to break the area's financial dependence on a foreign power.

Algeciras, the most southerly port in Europe, the busiest in Spain with a throughput in 2004 of 65 million tonnes, at a strategic point between the Atlantic and Mediterranean and a natural harbour, has a long history that is largely undocumented. Leaving supposition relating to its links with Carteia (near San Roque) and Julia Traducta (Tarifa) aside, the first proper documentation of a settlement on the site of present day Algeciras would appear to date back to 1279. In 1998, during reconstruction work in the centre of Algeciras a 100 metre length of fortified wall, complete with moat, four flanking towers, a fine ornate brick bridge and a complicated series of trap courtyards and doors was uncovered. These are part of the fortified villa known as Al Binya, built by Abu Yusuf Yaqub between 1279 and 1285. The defences were good enough to withstand sieges by Alfonso X and Fernando IV between 1342 and 1344. Eventually taken by the Christian kings it was then destroyed by Mohamed V at the end of the 14th Century. That would probably have been the end of Algeciras if, in 1704, Britain had not taken Gibraltar and the old site was repopulated by part of the deposed population.

It has only been a modern port since the first wooden quay was erected on the Rio de la Miel in 1884. Modest expansion took place, fishing and passenger transport over The Strait being the only independent source of income, until 1964 when the oil refinery and steel mills were built after which Algeciras never looked back.

Catering for thousands of migrant workers from Morocco many of the signs are in Arabic as well as Spanish and many parts of this city could just as easily be in Casablanca or Fez such is their influence. The mint tea served in the many traditional tea shops is as authentic as any you will find over the water.

Algeciras cannot be described as a pretty city, it has few historically interesting buildings, its roads are a nightmare, or at least its drivers are, behind the commercial centre there is an ugly, untidy urban sprawl, but it has a certain fascination and no shortage of life, in fact a visit can be good fun. Once off the main roads you will find tree lined squares and small parks and any number of restaurants and bars. The easiest way to get into the city is to follow the Puerto signs off the N340 and then the centro cuidad signs, just before the port park in the huge open-air car park.

A visit to the Municipal market, the Mercado de Abastos where EC rules have only just been applied can only be described as an educational experience. The octagonal building itself is a very modern looking creation and was built, surprisingly, in 1935. Unidentifiable lumps of meat in brightly coloured lard are fished out of plastic containers, wrapped in last week's Sur and carted off in string bags by darkly veiled ladies wearing yellow slippers. Piles of huge mussels, complete with barnacles and seaweed, fresh out of the bay, sell for a couple of euros per kilo. These are delicious by the way but take your own plastic bag, the ink used on newspapers does not enhance their flavour. Fresh vegetables straight out of the allotments behind the city are piled high and are apparently sold by volume since there is no evidence of anything ever being weighed. There is no way to be discreet in this place; everybody converses at the tops of their voices, a cacophony of Arabic, French and Spanish. No matter how bad your Spanish the vendors all seem to understand what you want although I am still wondering how I purchased what looks like a bunch of twigs and, more importantly, what I should do with them. Nearby is the fish market where the local catch is sold.

If you are looking for a pair of shoes, or any leather goods come to that, then you must look around Algeciras. Every other shop seems to sell leather items, many from Morocco. By the time the same goods arrive in the UK they will be twice the price. The main shopping streets are behind and parallel to the road you took to get into the city. Leave the car park, cross the road and just go up one of the side streets opposite.

Sitting in one of the tea shops overlooking the port and Algeciras Bay (or Gibraltar Bay depending on your nationality), enjoying a glass of mint tea and watching the bustle of the port is perhaps time to reflect on the battle that took place in the bay on the 8th July 1801. This was one of the few times the French, helped by Spanish shore batteries and gunboats, beat the English fleet. Honour was restored on the 12th July when we returned the compliments as the French fleet sailed to Cadiz.

As ever in a new place a visit to the small Municipal museum is worthwhile. Be warned though it is open only Monday to Friday and observes a siesta. The exhibits relating to Algeciras concentrate on the period between 1704 and the present day.