Clear skies and brilliant sunshine are guaranteed in Almeria, southern Spain – and that’s official. Why else would Europe’s most powerful telescope, as well as one of the country’s most important solar energy plants, be sited in this Mediterranean province?
With more than 3100 hours of annual sunshine (that’s 8.5 hours per day, before you get the calculator out), it’s also not surprising that much of Spain’s flower and garden produce comes from this lovely coastal region, protected from any northerly winds by the Sierra de Gador mountains.
The southern Costas are usually thought of as a busy, boisterous playground by the Mediterranean. But unlike many of the southern sunspots, the smaller resort of Roquetas de Mar is relatively quiet, and life here moves at a slower – some might say more Spanish – pace.
Walk on just past the port, into the old town, and you will find a large market which rambles through the shopping streets for three weeks out of four every month. Both old town and the harbour area are places, too, for an evening stroll, taking perhaps a glass of wine and sampling (often free) tapas in one of the many bars.
The old centre of the town boasts several places worth a visit, including the seventeenth-century church of Our Lady of the Rosary (Nuestra Señora del Rosario), the Arab watchtower of Cerrillos, and the castle of Roquetas, which is open daily; admission is free.
There’s more to shopping than just market stalls, though. The new shopping area of Gran Plaza, near the new Las Salinas development, is one of the biggest in Andalucia.
The salt lagoons which the area is named for begin at Las Marinas, just a couple of miles south of Roquetas, and you can see flamingos and other water birds here almost year-round.
But the largest bird population is to be found to the east of Almeria town, on the arid, and totally unspoilt, coast of the Cabo del Gato-Nijar nature park. With very little annual rainfall, few villages and virtually no farmland, the coast may seem desolate, but it is particularly popular with walkers and nature lovers.
At the furthest south-eastern tip is the Cabo de Gata lighthouse, marking the end of Andalucia’s largest coastal nature park. There’s an excellent viewpoint (mirador) here where you can view seabirds including cormorants, gannet, razorbills and gulls.
The peaks of the Cabo de Gata mountains fall sharply to the shoreline, creating dramatic cliffs where fish eagles nest, and which tower over tiny small hidden coves with white sand beaches. The crystal-clear water off the peninsula are a magnet for keen anglers and windsurfers, as well as a very popular location for underwater photography.
The large lagoon and wetland of the Salinas de Acosta also attracts bird watchers, with its large population of flamingos, heron and wading birds, and the remains of the old salt industry can still be found along the whole coastal region.
Inland, Almeria has an almost lunar landscape of desert, sandstone and dry riverbeds – which is why it has long been used as a location for film-makers. Indeed, the ‘spaghetti Western’ could perhaps have been re-named the ‘paella Western’, as you will discover if you visit Yucca City, just outside of Tabernas, which was used as the set for A Fistful of Dollars. (The Peter O’Toole classic, Lawrence of Arabia was also shot here, with the Spanish hinterland substituting for the Middle Eastern desert). The old film sets are still here, among the cactus and meseta scrub.
Almeria province is also famous for its ‘troglodite’ villages, where many homes echo the North African method of escaping from the searing heat by being formed as part cave-dwellings, dug into the soft, sand-coloured cliffs. Locals prize these homes which provide natural insulation from the desert-like summer temperatures.
The cave homes or casas-cueva, as they are known, often have chimney-like skylights to provide interior ventilation and lighting, but their facades mimic normal homes, with windows and tiled roofs.
The arid hills contain another interesting site, though it is not open to visitors – the EU solar energy research centre. Although you may not be able to get inside, you can from a distance see the rows of heliostat mirrors capturing solar energy, and other devices being tested to see which can best harness this natural source of free energy. It may not thrill everyone as the most beautiful sight in the world, but you’ll appreciate what it’s trying to do when you get back to the air-conditioning in your hotel bedroom.