I’ve been spoiled rotten recently. If our wonderful weekend in Devon wasn’t enough to leave us salty and sunbaked, we flew out to Gibraltar 48 hours later to spend a week exploring southern Spain between Gibraltar and Cadiz with H’s parents. It was warm, it was endlessly sunny, and in short, it was everything that England isn’t right now, so you’ll have to forgive me for clinging to the memories of warm light, hot sand, and that definitive holiday smell of suncream and seashells as I send a few virtual reality postcards.
And where else to start but possibly the prettiest town, and the biggest conundrum. Vejer de la Frontera.
Sat on top of a steeply sided hill, towering over the surrounding coast and countryside it’s no surprise that it was seen as a key strategic landmark. Vejer has been defended by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Moors and finally the Spanish, but I just can’t imagine how anyone would think that they could scale first the cliffs and then the battlements with any degree of success. The fortifications alone would tell you that a lot of people have tried.
We arrived in Vejer on our first evening, winding up a twisting road to the summit that made Devon roads look flat and open, to find narrow streets and quintessentially Spanish whitewashed architecture, and, down four flights of stairs, a twist, a ducked head and the door to a dungeon, a very special courtyard restaurant. It was like arriving in England and driving straight to the most chocolate-box thatched cottage strewn village you can think of.
El Jardin del Califa was tranquil, candlelit and served some of the most delicious food of our trip. H had a mouthwatering rib eye steak and the girls shared a tagine of chicken, almonds, olives and preserved lemon, and by shared I mean that Elma ate almost all of the chicken, and Kitty hoovered the olives as if she hadn’t eaten in a week, tasted the rest of her dish, and promptly took a fork to my supper. I can’t really blame her, it was a spicy harissa couscous with pumpkin melting into it, all topped with fresh tuna, and I’m going to have to try to recreate it before too long.
The “spitty frog” fountain was in the centre of what I suspect might be Vejer’s main square. To adult eyes it’s beautiful but Kitty was utterly captivated.
As soon as she saw it she was off, trailing a willing Grandad to run circles around it, to examine each and every frog, check each and every water spout within reach, and giggle with bubbling glee every time she poked a small smudgy finger into the stream of water, turning round with sparkling eyes to shout:
“I just really love it! It’s so cold!!”
Our second visit to Vejer later in the week also included a visit to those beloved frogs, but for most of the evening we explored the other side of town.
Strolling along the battlements as dusk fell you could see out to the far hills, and around the curve to the rest of the town, although we never did work out from where the flock of hang gliders we encountered on the way in had taken off.
At its height the citadel telescopes out, all the way up to the church at the very top, although each level of battlements reveals fewer heavily armed Spaniards and rather more restaurants than in years gone by.
Something about the cobbled streets, the mostly whitewashed walls, and even the way the tiles are set to make the steps seemed faintly familiar though. It felt like home, only hot. It sounds silly to suggest that southern Spain has a little feel of Devon, particularly given my home county’s notable contribution to Spanish history in the form of a certain Sir Francis Drake, but perhaps the similarities of topography and geology which limit construction options have operated to shape Dartmouth and Vejer in a similar way.
Small streets and steps in all directions not withstanding, it had that same laid back feel, and we all enjoyed pottering around.
And the conundrum? Vejer is 190 metres above sea level on the top of a really big hill – just where is it getting fresh water?