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Dear Frank, Noemi, My holiday time is now ended after 2 weeks + in Spain. I would like to thanks Noemi for having kindly welcomed us in Tarifa. The appartment was great and our week in Tarifa was very nice. Thanks again, With best regards, Laurent

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Under the skin

The town’s slogan is a reminder that picturesque as it is, this is not just another pueblo blanco on the tourist trail. Lying in a basin at 340 metres above sea level, it may not have that cliff-top position that adds drama to its better-known counterparts like Olvera, Grazalema, Arcos and Jimena. And yet Ubrique has made its mark throughout the world – thanks to that piel.

The leather tradition in Ubrique goes back hundreds of years to the Romans and the Moors who in turn conquered this mountainous area, bringing with them their leather working skills. But the modern-day industry owes more to the nineteenth century, when different designs and colours began to be used, helping to set Ubrique on the path to becoming the artisan centre that it is today.

The town has much more to offer than just leather souvenirs, however, albeit superb quality ones. Ubrique nestles in a valley between the Sierra de Grazalema and Los Alcornocales, making it the perfect base for exploring two of the region’s most beautiful natural parks. The area’s early history will come alive when you visit the original Roman town of Ocuri or walk the same road that the Roman occupiers trod nearly two thousand years ago. This Calzada Romana is in fact part of the GR7, a route that links Tarifa with Athens, and runs for 11 km from Ubrique to Benaocaz through breathtaking scenery.

The pueblo blanco itself lies at the foot of a sheer cliff, the mountains around rising steeply to more than 1000 metres. It’s easy to picture the people of Ubrique taking to the hills when the French arrived in 1810, raining down fire on the would-be invaders who were several times forced to retreat.

The houses and streets of the casco antiguo are partly built into this rock face. Ubrique’s early settlers clearly hugged the base of the cliff for protection so that even today, the narrow white alleyways are punctuated by big pieces of bare rock as well as colourful flowers. And dominating the area, the elegant façade of the Church of San Antonio that has become the symbol of the town.

Ubrique’s prosperity has been closely bound up with its leather trade. The area has water and lime in abundance, two of the elements necessary for the tanning process. Early products focused on tobacco pouches (petacas) and production was stepped up with the arrival from Italy in the late 18th century of leather worker Angel Vecina de Malta. But Emilio Santamaría, who arrived in the town in 1916, is regarded as the pioneer of today’s industry. He built his workshop in the ABC building, which is beautifully decorated with tiles and remains a draw for visitors today.

The growth of the leather industry gave rise to the elegant nineteenth and twentieth century buildings that in turn grew out from the old casco antiguo. The Avenida del Dr Solís Pascual, lined with trees, runs through the centre of more modern Ubrique and is where the leather workshops can be found. But the hub of life in Ubrique is in the pedestrianised Avenida España, where the people of the town go to shop, stroll, have a coffee and catch up on the latest gossip.

The bullfighter, Jesulin de Ubrique, may well be the town’s most famous son today, but it’s the leather industry that is crucial to the economy of this pueblo blanco and its 17,000 inhabitants. The remains of the original tanneries can still be seen near the river, but today’s hides are brought in from other areas of Spain. However the traditional techniques and craftsmanship are still used to produce the handbags, wallets and belts that are exported around the world.

It’s all a far cry from the tobacco pouches of those early days, but Ubrique’s centuries-old craft is now under threat from cheap imports of mass-produced leather products from China. Initially it was thought that the quality and traditional craftsmanship of the famous Ubrique brand would be enough to safeguard the local industry, but as the impact of cheaply produced Chinese leatherwear really started to show, significant market share was lost and the town’s population started to fall as many were forced to leave the dwindling leather sector and find work elsewhere.

By the turn of the millennium Ubrique’s leather industry was in dire straits, facing the painful possibility that this important and proud local economic activity would be lost forever. A turning point came when a deeper analysis of the problems revealed that it wasn’t just price that was causing the decline in sales, but also the fact that the demand for traditional leather products and styles had fallen as tastes changed and the market became more design- and label conscious.

“Ubrique had the choice of giving up, continuing on the same, slow path to demise, or reshaping itself and finding a new niche to flourish in,” says Laura Domort, a local designer who has led the design and marketing revolution in her hometown. With the support of the Junta de Andalucía and the Town Hall of Ubrique itself, local manufacturers and designers have started to work together to update the designs of their products so that they are more in line with prevailing tastes and market trends. “In this age of designer labels and trendy fashion in which younger buyers are increasingly important,” says Laura, “it is vital to stay up to date with the latest developments and produce items that offer trendy design as well as traditional quality.”

But creating and producing highly desirable modern leather accessories is not enough. You need to find the right merchandising outlets and support all these efforts with impactful marketing and promotional campaigns. “That is how the big brands create their brand awareness, so with the support of the local authorities we are working on promotional campaigns to bring our products to a large, international market. Although many visitors come to our town partly because of the leather industry, and they form a good source of clients for local shops, it is not enough to keep the manufacturers going, so we need to ensure that our products are available from Madrid and Barcelona to London and Berlin.”

As if to underline this philosophy, she has opened her own shop in Barcelona and has started to make a name for herself in the international fashion world. With people like Laura Domort, a dynamic new generation is leading Ubrique’s age-old leather industry into a new age, combating cheap Chinese products with quality, style and the strength of a recognisable brand.