‘A mirage at the top of a hill’: food, drink and adventure in Spain’s Vejer de la Frontera

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Just above the horizon, wild horses gallop around a white domed building while, within petting distance, a small donkey munches on wild poppies and purple periwinkle. We are pausing to take in the view, before we cycle back after a day of hiking and swimming surrounded by forests of pine trees on the Andalucían coast.

Cadiz map

Later that evening, the light fades to a delicious pink hue, bathing the streets as tourists pass by the pomegranate tree at the foot of the small town. They always pause, and sometimes point upwards to what appears to be a mirage at the top of the hill. Yet this impossibly white enclave tumbling down the hillside is not a mirage, but the town of Vejer de la Frontera, in the Spanish province of Cádiz.

The streets in this pueblo blanco with Moorish and Roman roots are so narrow in places that cars, whose drivers are brave enough to squeeze through, almost brush your feet. Around every corner there is a monument to its rich history: 10th-century Berber gates closed for centuries by its Jewish quarter dwellers to fend off pirates; statues of women dressed in Vejer’s traditional cobijada, a black cloak that covers the entire body except the right eye; the main church, Iglesia del Divino Salvador, on the site of a former mosque, its foundations built on a waterway that still runs under its current Christian occupier.

We are here to stay with James Stuart, a pioneering Scot who arrived in the village more than 30 years ago in search of a sandwich and never really left. He bought his first home in the town in the late 1980s for the princely sum of £1,000, and two years later he bought the buildings that would become his main hotel, La Casa del Califa. Stuart says he immediately saw the appeal and potential in the town and adopted the philosophy of “if you build it, they will come”. This began a project of transforming a sleepy backwater into a tourist hub, renovating and managing dozens of holiday rental properties, starting five restaurants and four hotels, and providing employment for hundreds of people over the years. His vision also led to other tourism-focused businesses coming into the area.

La Casa del Califa Jardin
La Casa del Califa. Photograph: Frank Cornfield

“Vejer seemed otherworldly back in 1988,” says Stuart. “I felt as though I’d stepped back in time; the harsh light of summer bounced off the white walls, the palms swayed in the breeze, the pink bougainvillaea tumbled over walls and the old boy delivering to the cafe I stopped at arrived with the wicker baskets of a mule laden with fresh bread.”

Initially, Stuart had not planned a restoration project. His first business was an activity holiday company mainly providing mountain trips throughout Andalucía. La Casa del Califa came about after he extended his home to accommodate his own guests, and then he just continued to expand.

“Vejer, very much off the beaten track, probably didn’t need a small boutique hotel back then, but by creating an original, imaginative space we provided the town with a much-needed focus for the nascent tourist market. The project was more practical than poetic; there seemed to be a demand that we had created and everything aligned to allow it to happen,” he adds.

The fountain in Vejer’s main sqaure, just outside Hotel Califa.
The fountain in Vejer’s main sqaure, just outside Hotel Califa. Photograph: Nazia Parveen/The Guardian

The hotel is now a landmark, sitting in the heart of the town’s main square, Plaza de España, in the shadow of towering Senegal date palms. Inside is a beautifully imagined labyrinth, with the principal building dating from 1527 and other parts from the 10th century. It is a shrine to Stuart’s love affair with Morocco – a short ferry hop or 14km swim across the Gibraltar Strait (Stuart will attempt to swim it later this year). Many Moors came across to this part of Spain from Morocco and ruled parts of Andalucía from the early eighth century until the late 15th century, culminating in 800 years of history and leaving a legacy of magnificent food, art and architecture. Just as you step into the hotel there hangs an intricate 19th-century Persian tapestry gifted to Stuart by his father and for which he had to adjust the ceiling height to be able to hang it. This sets the tone. Stuart’s attention to detail is precise – a painstaking restoration of the buildings bought bit by bit over the years to create his very own caliph’s court.

Hotel Califa lobby
Hotel Califa lobby. Photograph: Tim Booth

There are now 20 rooms, all with very individual styles; a rooftop bar; a pool; and a central restaurant, Jardín del Califa, which serves up Moroccan and Middle Eastern food in stone vaulted dining rooms with a lush palm-filled courtyard. The menu ranges from meze, tagines, succulent lamb kebabs and kofta to traditional barbecued fare or crispy pastelas of chicken and almonds, with homemade desserts including honey-soaked baklava, chocolate fondant, and tahini and date cheesecake.

Beyond the hotel walls, Stuart and his Scottish wife, Ellie, are serious foodies – they run a further five restaurants in and around Vejer. At Corredara 55, there are delights such as oloroso-marinated pork cheeks braised for four hours with apricots, prunes and almonds, and crepes of spinach and beetroot filled with mint pea puree. But the stars of the show are a burnt meringue, which feels almost adulterous, and a beetroot cake served with a lemony creme fraiche. It is serious cooking with the most exquisite of ingredients.

Cape Trafalgar and Los Caños.
Cape Trafalgar and Los Caños

There is a chance to learn more about the Andalucían cuisine and culture during an intimate cookery workshop in the home of another émigré to the area, Annie Manson, a resolutely cheery Scot with a longstanding relationship with sherry (she is a qualified sherry educator). With the help of her sous chef, Pepi, we are tasked to cook a gloriously nutty menu of chilled white garlic and almond gazpacho and a sticky but light orange and lemon cake served with strawberries doused in sherry vinegar.

The main event, however, is left to the experts. Nawal, a chef and one of a family of Moroccan sisters who work for Stuart, is brought in to cook sea bream in traditional tagines, heavily laden with peppers, potatoes and aromatic Moroccan spices. Dinner is on the roof terrace of Annie’s home with sherry aplenty and sweet Moroccan tea to finish.

Snatching ourselves away from the food for a day we head off on a hike through the beautiful La Brena y Marismas del Barbate Natural park to Cape Trafalgar and the coastal town of Barbate. En route, we stop on the cliffs of Vejer at the nesting area of the extremely rare northern bald ibis as they feed their young; after being absent for centuries the area now has one of the world’s largest colonies of the birds. The afternoon is spent with Stuart, pedalling back to Vejer on e-mountain bikes along an easy section of the new EuroVelo, a long-distance route that will eventually link Cádiz to Athens, and through open countryside on farm tracks.

Hammam 1 photocredit José Aniés Fotografía
Vejer de la Frontera’s hammam – a reflection of James Stuart’s interest in North Africa. Photograph: José Aniés

We end our day back at Vejer as the sun begins to dip. Stuart’s enthusiasm for his adopted home is infectious, not least because of how intimately he knows it. As we walk through the quiet alleyways for our last dinner, and he takes a detour to show us a hammam he is opening – the first in the town – and yet another important monument, greeting everyone as he passes, he quips: “Maybe one day, there will be a statue of me?”

The trip was provided by the Califa Group. A three-night anniversary package staying at La Casa del Califa costs from €209pp, including three breakfasts, two dinners (El Jardin del Califa and Corredera 55) and a visit to the Hammam de Vejer. Optional extras include e-mountain bicycle hire with route notes (€30 per day), bird and botany hike with local guide (€130 half-day/€180 full day) and a full day with Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen cookery school from €155pp