Tarifa—the southernmost point in Europe

Tarifa is an enigma. This probably has something to do with its position separating two major continents by only 16 km (10–11 miles). As such, it has been strategically located, as one cultural group after another has moved north or south to gain control. Today, though, it is mainly a place for vacations and catching the ferry to Tanger. Long sandy beaches and persistent winds make this place a Mecca for families on holiday and windsurfers. The current “surfer dude” culture belies a history of war and conquest.

The town was allegedly named for Tariq ibn Ziyad—the governor of Tanger (Tangier) who led a group of Berbers from Northern Africa into southern Spain. He was the “advance guard” for Muslim (so-called Moorish) conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711. On the nearer side of history is the Castillo de Guzmán that, although built during the time of the Moors, is now named for the reconquista hero Guzmán el Bueno (the Good) who contributed to taking back this part of Spain in the 13th century. The “reconquista” refers to the period when Roman Catholic Christians “reconquered” Spain from the  Moors in the 13th to 15th centuries. The view below is looking northeast over Tarifa. The Castle of  Guzmán is on the right side of the photo; the sea is farther to the right.


From a tower of the castle it is possible to look across the strait to Africa. It was not too clear on the day of our visit, but on the photo below it is possible to see the rocks that have been named the Pillars of Hercules (ferry boat for scale). The other rock pillars are located on the north side, at Gibraltar, which is farther east and not visible at Tarifa.


Below is a map of the strait (estrecho) of Gibraltar. Tarifa is the point of land sticking south into the strait; you can see how it is the southernmost point in Europe! Marruecos=Morocco


A breakwater has been built to connect the mainland of Tarifa with La Isla de las Palomas (the island of pigeons) where an old fortress still stands. This island is really the southernmost point. It felt emotional to stand on the breakwater between two major water bodies that I appear to be touching in the photo below—the Atlantic Ocean (on the right) and the Mediterranean Sea (on the left).


On the island is the southernmost rock outcrop in Europe and it is a doozy! The next two photos may only be of interest to geologists, but I must include them. The first photo is an overview of the rock sequence. At the bottom is some standard-issue sedimentary sandstone that was formed in the deep ocean by cascading turbidity flows. These sandstone beds were then compressed and uplifted and eroded before the next sedimentary layers were deposited. Jay’s head is located at the contact between the two types of sedimentary rocks. This contact is called an angular unconformity—there is time missing and the underlying layers are tilting whereas the uppermost layers are flat.


The overlying sedimentary rock is a calcareous conglomerate. It’s all of the rock wall above Jay’s head. To create the fortress wall, they just  smoothed the rock  “in situ”, which is why the uppermost part of it is so vertical. A closeup of the conglomerate is shown below.


In all my years as a sedimentary geologist, I’ve never seen a rock quite like this (there is always something new in the world!). The large clasts are pieces of the underlying sandstone which had been uplifted and eroded by that time (a sign said the calcareous rock is 5–10 million years old). The sediment around the large clasts contains LOTS of fossils as well as rounded quartz pebbles. Although not visible in the photo, the layers are all cross beds 10–30 cm high, which means they were deposited in a coastal zone where waves created large moving ripples. We know this coast had steep cliffs, the only way the large sandstone clasts could roll into the sea and be preserved. We also know the coast was located in a tropical latitude, the only way that so many organisms could extract calcium carbonate to make their shells. In the photo, Jay is pointing to oyster and barnacle shells. The unusual part is the mix of so many different sediment types. Isn’t it amazing how much you can interpret about Earth’s history just by staring at a rock wall for an hour!

But enough nerding out on geology. The next blog will be after we’ve taken the ferry to Tanger and continued south by train to Fes (both in Morocco). We’re going to find out more about the Muslim groups that had such a large influence on southern Spain.


4 comments on “Tarifa—the southernmost point in Europe

  1. fred & dog says:

    This is great! Keep “nerding out” on the geology, we like it!

    • reiko says:

      Hi Karen. Your writing, map and photos triggered some old memories. I once went to Helgoland in the North Sea, a very small island, made of a single red sedimentary rock. Such a fragile looking place. There I saw in distance, when the sky let a little light in in dense fog, beyond the deep and dark water, the western tip of ghostly Denmark. Crossing water to step into another culture always fascinates me. I traveled to Seville but never went south enough to cross the straits of Gibraltar. And there you are now! I heard from my friends that Morocco was one of the most fascinating countries to visit. I am so anxious to read your next blog! Thank you!

  2. reiko says:

    My apologies, fred & dog. I clicked your Reply by mistake!

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