The second edition of the “Guía secreta de Algeciras” (“Secret Guide to Algeciras”) has been designed to resemble a traveller’s log book. It has been published by the tourism department of the City Council of Algeciras and follows on from the successful first edition.
It tells us about the first mosque built in Europe, a clocktower which is older and more precise than the Big Ben, a medieval gunpowder magazine and the “miraculous” tomb of an unknown soldier among many other hidden sites waiting to be discovered.
This curious guide has been designed to look like an ancient traveller’s notebook, filled with hand-written notes, pencil sketches, clipped-on polaroid photos, stamps, tickets and even fragments of a map. Although this guide is primarily for tourists and visitors, the notebook is also intended to be used by locals to rediscover, and in some cases discover, secret corners of Algeciras and to delve into the history and curiosities from the chronicles of that era.
The guide implores readers to take a surprising journey through the “Algeciras which has been hidden from visitors”. The journey begins in the lush gardens of the Reina Christina Hotel, where the ruins of the Aljama de Al-Yazirat Alhadra mosque, which, according to the guide, was “probably the first mosque that was built on European soil during the Islamic occupation”. According to the guide, this mosque, which in Spanish is known as “la Mezquita de las Banderas” (“Mosque of the Flags”) was “attacked and set on fire by Vikings in 859”, and only 3 of its 8th Century walls and a cistern that supplied water to a fountain remain today.
The guide then directs our attention to the Church of La Palma’s clock, located in the Plaza Alta, which is said to be “older, bigger, heavier and more precise than Big Ben”. This clock, made in 1771, is an English George Graham watch, made up of 3,972 pieces, and is said to be a “historical gem of watchmaking” – weighing 2 tons and with a calibre of over 2 metres in length. The hanging weights located inside the tower are “lifted by hand every 3 days”, and “is capable for going for months without any adjustments thanks to its high precision”.
Another unmissable route will take you along the Paseo de la Cornisa to the ruins of the old guard tower “Torre del Almirante”; built during the medieval period to monitor the Rinconcillo bay and guard against enemy invasions. “It was rebuilt in the 17th century and armed with cannons and guards to defend against Berber pirates”, and the guide tells us that the fort and tower “were destroyed by an explosion from within its gunpowder magazine”.
The guide will also lead you to what is now the main office for the Mancomunidad de Municipios, which was once called Villa Smith, which in 1906 hosted some of the British delegation who participated in the Algeciras Conference. The building was owned by William Smith, a British shipping company which did business in Gibraltar, and whose owner also served as a Vice Consul for Great Britain to “flee the suffocating atmosphere of the Rock at the end of the 19th Century, who built this mansion on a hill, facing the sea, for his wife and children.”
Tales of Spies, Shipwrecks and Ghosts
Among other anecdotes and curiosities, this peculiar travel notebook also tells an interesting spy story: that of an Argentine military commando that, in the midst of the Falklands War, “settled in Algeciras with the aim of sinking a Royal Navy ship docked in Gibraltar”. According to the film “Operation Algeciras” and the guide itself, “fortunately, the divers failed; they and their sticky bomb were discovered by the National Police and the saboteurs were secretly returned to their country.”
The guide also mentions the story of the “Dina”, a Panamanian wrecked ship known among the locals as “the bean ship” (which can sometimes be seen during storms), and the legend of the tomb, which can always be found covered with flowers, of “an unknown soldier, whose ghost a woman says she saw whilst visiting her daughter’s grave”, in the old cemetery of Algeciras, and which since the 70s has become “a place of pilgrimage for those in search of a miracle or who come to lay flowers in thanksgiving for favours granted”.
The ephemeral history of the Hotel Sevilla, built in the roaring twenties at the mouth of the Río de la Miel (and closed shortly after, following a family tragedy), the old “traffic light tower” of the Naval Command, the small fresh water stream in the heart of the Pérez Villalta building, and the ruins of the old barracks of El Peral and Torre del Fraile, on the rugged coast of Punta Carnero, full of beautiful and inaccessible coves, are some of the “secrets” revealed in this tourist guide.
Despite the book’s small size, it includes the story of the Getares Whaling Company (established in 1921 by a Norwegian enterprise), and of the 2000 year old containers that were used to transport Garum throughout the Roman Empire. Also mentioned is the theory that gunpowder was first used in the Iberian Peninsula during the Siege of Algeciras in 1342 which saw the Moors defending themselves with a Chinese invention whose military use had never before been seen in Southern Europe.
You can pick up a copy of this guide at the Algeciras Tourism Office