JJust above the horizon, wild horses gallop around a white domed building while, within patting distance, a small donkey nibbles on wild poppies and purple periwinkle. We stop to admire the view, before returning by bike after a day of hiking and swimming surrounded by pine forests on the Andalusian coast.
Later in the evening, the light fades into a delightful pink hue, bathing the streets as tourists pass the pomegranate tree at the foot of the small town. They always stop – and sometimes point up – what seems like a mirage at the top of the hill. Yet this impossibly white enclave rolling down the hill is not a mirage, but the town of Vejer de la Frontera in the Spanish province of Cádiz.
The streets of this white pueblo with Moorish and Roman roots is so narrow in places that the cars, whose drivers are brave enough to squeeze through, almost brush your feet. Around every corner is a monument to its rich history: 10th-century Berber gates closed for centuries by residents of the Jewish Quarter to ward off pirates; statues of women dressed in the traditional Vejer cobijada, a black cloak that covers the whole 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 flows under its current Christian occupant.
We’re here to stay with James Stuart, a pioneering Scot who arrived in the village over 30 years ago looking for a sandwich and never really left. He bought his first home in the city in the late 1980s for the princely sum of £1,000, and two years later bought the buildings that would become his main hotel, La Casa del Califa. James says he immediately saw the appeal and potential of the town and embraced the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. This launched a project to transform a sleepy backwater into a tourist hub, renovate and manage dozens of vacation rental properties, start up five restaurants and four hotels, and create jobs for hundreds of people. over the years. His vision also led other tourism-focused businesses to come to the area.
“Vejer seemed otherworldly in 1988,” says Stuart. “I felt like I had stepped back in time; the harsh summer light bounced off the white walls, the palm trees swayed in the breeze, the pink bougainvillea tumbled down the walls, and the old delivery boy at the cafe where I had stopped arrived with the wicker baskets of his mule laden with fresh bread.
Initially, Stuart had no plans for a restoration project. His first business was an active holiday business offering mainly mountain trips throughout Andalucia. La Casa del Califa was born after expanding his house to accommodate his own guests, then he continued to expand.
“Vejer, very off the beaten track, probably didn’t need a small boutique hotel at the time, but by creating a quirky and imaginative space, we have provided the town with a much-needed focal point for the emerging tourist market. The project was more practical than poetic; there seemed to be a demand that we had created and everything was aligned to allow that to happen,” he adds.
The hotel is now a landmark, sitting in the heart of the city’s main square, Plaza de España, in the shade of towering Senegal date palms. Inside is a beautifully imagined maze, with the main building dating from 1527 and other parts from the 10th century. It’s a shrine to Stuart’s love affair with Morocco – a short ferry hop or 14km swim across the Strait of Gibraltar (Stuart will attempt to swim across it later this year). Many Moors came from Morocco to this part of Spain and ruled parts of Andalusia from the early 8th century to the end of the 15th century, culminating in 800 years of history and leaving a legacy of food, of magnificent art and architecture. As you enter the hotel, an intricate 19th century Persian tapestry given to Stuart by his father and for which he had to adjust the height of the ceiling to be able to hang it. It sets the tone. Stuart’s attention to detail is precise – painstaking restoration of buildings purchased bit by bit over the years to create his own Caliph’s Court.
There are now 20 rooms, all with very individual styles; a rooftop bar; swimming pool; and a central restaurant, Jardín del Califa, which serves Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine in vaulted stone dining rooms with a lush courtyard filled with palm trees. The menu ranges from meze, tajines, succulent lamb skewers and kofta to traditional barbecue dishes or crispy chicken and almond pastelas, with homemade desserts including honey-soaked baklava, fondant with chocolate, tahini and date cheesecake.
Beyond the hotel walls, Stuart and his Scottish wife, Ellie, are serious foodies – they run five other restaurants in and around Vejer. At Corredara 55, there are delicacies like oloroso marinated pork cheeks braised for four hours with apricots, prunes and almonds, and spinach and beet pancakes stuffed with mint pea puree. But the stars of the show are a burnt, almost adulterous meringue and a beetroot cake served with a lemony creme fraiche. It’s serious cooking with the most exquisite ingredients.
There’s a chance to learn more about Andalusian cuisine and culture during an intimate cooking workshop in the home of fellow emigrant in the area, Annie Manson, a decidedly cheerful Scotswoman with a long-standing relationship. with sherry (she is a qualified sherry educator). With the help of her sous chef, Pepi, we are tasked with cooking a gloriously nutty menu of fresh white garlic and almond gazpacho and a sticky but light orange and lemon cake served with doused strawberries. sherry vinegar.
The main event, however, is left to the experts. Nawal, a chef and member of a family of Moroccan sisters who work for Stuart, is brought in to cook sea bream in traditional tagines, heavily loaded with peppers, potatoes and aromatic Moroccan spices. Dinner is on the roof terrace of Annie’s house with plenty of sherry and sweet Moroccan tea to finish.
Tearing ourselves away from food for a day, we hike through the beautiful natural park of La Brena y Marismas del Barbate to Cape Trafalgar and the coastal town of Barbate. On the way, we stop on the cliffs of Vejer at the nesting area of the very rare northern bald ibis which feeds its young; after being absent for centuries, the area now has one of the largest bird colonies in the world. The afternoon is spent with Stuart, pedaling towards Vejer on electric mountain bikes along an easy section of the new EuroVelo, a long-distance route that will eventually link Cadiz with Athens, and through open countryside on farm tracks .
We end our day back in Vejer as the sun begins to set. Stuart’s enthusiasm for his adopted home is infectious, not least because he knows it intimately. As we walk through the quiet lanes for our last dinner, and he makes a detour to show us a hammam he is opening – the first in town – and yet another important landmark, saluting all the world in passing, he jokes: “Maybe one day there will be a statue of me?
The trip was provided by Califa Group. A three-night anniversary package at La Casa del Califa costs from €209 per person, including three breakfasts, two dinners (El Jardin del Califa and Corredera 55) and a visit to the Hammam of Vejer. Optional extras include Rental of electric mountain bikes with route sheets (30€ per day), ornithological and botanical hike with local guide (130€ half-day / 180€ per day) and a full day with the cooking school Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen from 155€pp