Cursed by sailors for centuries the fish traps that proliferate along the Atlantic coast from Conil de la Frontera to Tarifa have long been a hazard to navigation particularly in the days of sailing ships when the prevalent south westerly wind made this stretch of coast a lee shore.
The fish traps, called ‘almedraba’, the word derives from Andalucian Moorish and means ‘a place to hit and fight’, were developed during the Moorish period and helped Conil, Barbate, Zahara and Tarifa become wealthy towns from the sale of the bluefish tuna caught in the nets.
Bluefish tuna live in the Eastern Atlantic and return to their breeding grounds in the western and central Mediterranean every year during spring. Up to 20 years old, weighing up to 500kg and able to swim at over 70 kilometres per hour they are not easy prey. The almedraba are designed especially for this fish.
A series of nets, a kilometre or more long, force the tuna from deep water into a ‘chute’ out of which they emerge into the ‘copo’, the final part of the net. They are encouraged along by two boats using more nets to shepherd the fish. On the bottom of the copo is another net and surrounding the copo are several substantial fishing boats. When the copo is full of tuna the net is raised by the men on these boats until the net is just a metre or so beneath the surface of the water and full of, by now, frantic tuna. The men jump into the net and harpoon the tuna, casting them into the boats. The positioning of the almedraba was determined by taking bearings of the stone towers built on the shore. There are five in Conil, two next to the Torre de Castilnovo just south of the town, two at Cape Roche to the north and one at the Atalaya viewing point in the town itself.
The Torre de Castilnovo was built in the 16th century and was used as a watchtower and for storing the tuna traps. It housed a Governor until the 1st November 1755 when a tsunami hit Conil. After the wave receded only the foot of the tower remained. The tsunami was generated by a Richter scale 9 earthquake 200 kilometres off Cape St Vincent. The same earthquake and tsunami reduced Lisbon to rubble.
So rewarding was the tuna season that the Dukes of Medina Sidonia, who owned Conil de la Frontera, came down to the coast to personally supervise and, presumably, make sure that they received their monetary share of the catch. They were accommodated in the castle, of which only Guzman Tower remains, that was built during the 14th century by Alfonso Perez de Guzman “el Bueno”. It was this same Alfonso who, in 1296 , threw a dagger from the walls of Tarifa to the Moors besieging the town so that they could use it to slit the throat of his (Alfonos’s) son, whom they had taken hostage, rather than surrender Tarifa. I cannot imagine what his wife said, I doubt the words “el Bueno” came into the conversation.
Between 1540 and 1560 the then Duke of Medina Sidonia built the 7,500 square metre tuna fish factory, La Chanca. It was used for salting the fish and storing the boats and fishing gear. This building has been restored and is now a tuna fishing museum and a library. Business boomed and in 1580 the Duke built The Ducal House just outside the walls of the town to house the merchants that came to buy the tuna.
To this day Conil de la Frontera relies on its tuna season although overfishing by offshore purse seiners has made it less profitable than it was and GPS has replaced the need for bearings from the towers. It is not surprising that the town shows all the signs of prosperity. The fisherman’s cottages at the north end of the town are all renovated, painted white and now have all modern amenities. A tourist guide candidly points out that the houses now have all the services inside apart from a few that still depend on ‘wells of a primitive character’. Charming to observe, not so attractive if you are the one going to the well every day. The streets here are literally an arms width wide and follow the original mediaeval street plan.
The centre of the town also shows signs of care, the streets are clean and full of restaurants, cafes and bars. Not surprisingly fish in all its multifarious forms is dish of the day. Competition is so great amongst the restaurants that prices and quality are very reasonable, many display individual and unique menus.
Dotted between the eating establishments are souvenir shops but not your normal run of the mill souvenir shops, these sell handmade jewellery, quirky crafts, retro designer ladies clothes shops and, Julie’s favourite, a handmade cake shop.
During the summer months Conil is a seaside resort. There are a few expats but they are vastly outnumbered by the Spanish and little wonder. The paseo separates the town from a wide expanse of low sand dunes covered in native grasses and plants and a wide expanse of fine beach before you arrive at the crisp blue waves that roll in from the Atlantic.