Canal-side chic, a sunny day in beautiful Leiden

Leiden is one of my favourite Dutch cities, and one of the most energetic and vibrant in the Netherlands. Much of the vibrancy comes from the presence of Leiden University’s 23,000 students – in a city of only 122,000 people, they make their presence felt. On a late Spring day, when the sun shines and the cold winter temperatures finally give way to some warmth, the city really comes to life. Boats take to the canals, people gather in canal-side restaurants, and the streets fill with cyclists and walkers.

It’s easy to dismiss Leiden as a smaller, less touristy version of Amsterdam, but that is to underestimate its appeal. For a small city, it punches well above its weight, and has played an outsized role throughout Dutch history. This is a city that witnessed the birth of Rembrandt; was home to the Pilgrim Fathers before they sailed for New England in the Mayflower; was one of the earliest and most important printing centres in Europe; and the university played a major role in the development of modern medicine.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

As you walk around town, it’s hard to miss the role the university still plays in city life. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe, with a history stretching back to the 16th century. Its array of alumni is as diverse as 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes; 19th century President of the United States, John Quincy Adams; and 20th century genius, Albert Einstein. University buildings are clustered around the city centre.

The university was founded in 1575 to reward the city for withstanding the Siege of Leiden – the bleakest period in the town’s history. As the most economically valuable town in the southern Netherlands, Leiden’s decision to side with the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule resulted in an all too predictable and brutal siege. The siege lasted over a year and caused famine and widespread suffering. The lifting of the siege on October 3rd, 1574, is still celebrated today.

The university’s illustrious history is matched by that of the city itself, which stretches back to around 50 AD and the Roman Empire. Today though, it is the extraordinary economic, cultural and artistic flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age that is the most striking feature of Leiden. This period of history is reflected in the picturesque canals lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, ancient churches, medieval alms houses and several surviving windmills.

We arrived in the morning and made our way to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, a fabulous offshoot of Amsterdam’s world famous Rijksmuseum. The Leiden branch is home to one of the world’s most important collections from ancient Egypt, and has recently been reopened after being remodelled. We spent a couple of hours in the museum before walking through Leiden’s canal belt and settling down for lunch on the Oude Rijn canal.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

The weather was so warm we decided to spend a bit more time strolling around the city. We popped into the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, and the place where tulips were first grown in Europe after being smuggled out of Turkey in the 16th century. Afterwards, we wandered through the Van der Werfpark, a popular green space that hides a tremendous tragedy.

Until 1807 Werfpark was all houses, but in January of that year a consignment of gunpowder exploded, killing at least 160 people, injuring thousands and destroying dozens of buildings. We passed by the magnificent Pieterskerk, and wove our way through the narrow surrounding streets before heading back to the train station – a satisfying day of exploration complete.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Roman history on the beautiful Playa de Bolonia

The dunes behind the Playa de Bolonia hides one of southern Spain’s great surprises. Here, in an out of the way part of the Costa de la Luz, sits one of the most perfectly preserved Roman towns in Andalusia. Backed by green hills, it’s a dramatic sight, and gives the golden sands and aquamarine waters of this magnificent cove an even more dreamlike quality. I can think of worse places to build a town.

This may be the less popular Atlantic coast, but the beaches are both unspoilt and uncrowded, and the water is the same turquoise colour that you’d expect to find in the Caribbean. The wide arch of Playa de Bolonia stretches for over three kilometres, from a headland in the south to a huge and dramatic sand dune in the north. The cove is a beautiful sweep of unspoiled coastline that is worth exploration.

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

We’d brought a picnic to have on the beach, but first we walked its length and climbed the dunes at the northern end to get fantastic views. There were a scattering of fishermen, some dog walkers and very few other people despite the glorious weather. We stopped for a drink in one of the pleasant beach bars after descending the dunes, and then plonked ourselves down to have our picnic.

This was the last day and our final stop on this road trip. In the morning we’d have to be back at Malaga airport to fly home. A day at Playa de Bolonia seemed like a perfect way to end the trip. After lunch we wandered over to the Baelo Claudia, the well preserved Roman town that was founded here in the second century BC, thanks to its strategic position for trade between North Africa across the Straights of Gibraltar.

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

It became a wealthy city built on the trade in salted fish and the production of a liquid that fuelled the Roman Empire: garum. A pungent fermented fish sauce made with salted fish intestines that became liquid, garum was hugely popular in Ancient Rome. This smelly concoction was the condiment of choice across the Empire, and Baelo Cladio grew rich as a consequence.

Declining trade and a devastating earthquake saw the city abandoned in the 6th century, but its isolated position and relative obscurity have meant that what remains today is well preserved. It certainly makes for a striking sight sitting just off the beach with a backdrop of hills.

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

We’d driven through those same hills to get here after we’d had an early morning walk on the famous Playa de Zahara de los Atunes. At over 6 kilometres in length the beach near the former fishing village of Zahara, stretches as far as the eye can see. There was little activity other than fishermen and dog walkers, and we walked with only the wind for company.

You can see a wind farm from the beach, but beachside development has been kept to a minimum. It’s a welcome result of planning laws that prevent developers from building high rise monstrosities. In summer there’s a lot of life, and nightlife, in the communities along the beach; out of season, it feels almost abandoned. If your idea of ‘beach’ is more ‘combing’ than ‘lounging’, then this stretch of the Costa de la Luz is well worth a visit.

“Kiss me, Hardy”, gorgeous Cape Trafalgar

The Costa de la Luz is a wonderfully relaxed place to spend a few days. This coast is as far removed from the mass tourism of Spain’s Mediterranean flesh pots as it’s possible to get – conceptually speaking. Kilometre after kilometre of golden sand stretches out along the wild and rough Atlantic coast, there are rolling dunes rather than high-rise apartments and hotels behind beaches that, outside of the summer season, are almost never crowded.

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Until recently tourists to this area were predominantly Spanish, and although tourism is definitely more international these days, it’s of the low-intensity, low-impact sort. Fishermen still arrive early and claim their spot on the beach, surfers emerge some time later and take to the waves; there are low-key, easy-going beach bars and seafront restaurants serving up delicious seafood. The pace of life seems permanently set to ‘slow’.

We arrived in Los Caños de Meca after the short drive from nearby Vejer de la Frontera. It was early morning and there was time to stroll along the beach towards the village of Zahora, which is home to several good seafront restaurants and bars. It wasn’t quite time for lunch so we carried on along the beach to a small prominantry, beyond which is another vast sweep of beach, Playa Mangueta.

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

After a long lunch, we made our way back towards Cape Trafalgar’s most iconic sight, its lighthouse. Standing 34m tall, and built 1860, the Cape Trafalgar lighthouse is the area’s most prominent landmark, visible from just about every direction. It may not have been built to commemorate one of the greatest naval battles of all time, but it has come to symbolise the spot at which Admiral Lord Nelson inflicted a decisive victory over a joint French and Spanish fleet.

In 1805, if you’d been stood where the lighthouse stands today, you would most likely have had a view of one of the most epic sea battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The Battle of Trafalgar had far reaching consequences. It didn’t stop the land war in Europe, which Napoleon’s forces were dominating, but it did mean that Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain was cancelled and France wouldn’t be able to challenge British naval power for the rest of the war.

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Just before the Battle of Trafalgar there were 177,000 French troops preparing to invade across the English Channel. The French and Spanish ships fighting at Trafalgar were needed to break Britain’s dominance of the sea lanes and allow the invasion to take place. The loss of twenty-two ships of the line without the loss of a single British ship was a disaster for Napoleon.

Strolling Cape Trafalgar today, it’s hard to imagine the battle that raged out to sea. It lasted for hours, involved seventy-three ships, more than 45,000 men, and resulted in an enormous loss of life – the most famous of which was Admiral Nelson himself. We made our way back along the beach just as the sun was setting. It was one of those near-perfect sunsets: a brilliant golden orb plunging into a darkening ocean and framed by a blood-red sky. It seemed poetically symbolic of the battle itself.

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, a spectacular pueblo blanco

Perched high on a hill and gleaming white under the intense Andalusian sun, you can see Vejer de la Frontera long before you make the journey up the winding road to enter the town proper. If the town makes an impression from afar, once you’re inside the narrow medina-like streets it becomes overwhelmingly atmospheric … even when you’re dragging your bags through the streets because the nearest available parking space is nowhere near the hotel.

The old part of Vejer is one of the most picturesque places I’ve visited in Andalusia – and it’s up against some stiff opposition. The winding lanes and alleyways, the whitewashed houses, ruined fort and ancient church are the stuff of historic novels, and Vejer has had an extraordinarily long history. Like nearby Cadiz, it was first a Phoenician town, then came the Carthaginians, followed by the Romans. The town was then ruled by the Visigoths until the arrival of the Moors.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

In 712 the Battle of Guadalete took place to the north of Vejer. It was a defining moment in the Moorish conquest of Spain. The ruling Visigoth armies led by King Roderic, were defeated by an Arab and Berber army. Roderic was killed along with many Visigoth nobles, leaving a power vacuum that allowed the Moors to attack and capture the Visigoth capital of Toledo. Vejer would be ruled by the Moors for the next 536 years.

It wasn’t until 1248 that the city fell to the Christian armies of Ferdinand III of Castile, after which it was a border town and fortress along the frontier with the parts of Spain that remained in Moorish hands. This is when it received the addition of ‘de la Frontera’ to its name. Even after the collapse of Moorish power, the town continued to be attacked by Barbary pirates – it’s close to the coast and was an easy target for Berber corsairs from the coast of North Africa.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

This long history has bequeathed Vejer many ancient traditions, including some not seen anywhere else in Spain. On one street a sculpture of a woman stares down from the wall, dressed in black, head covered, only one eye visible. This is a depiction of a cobijado, or ‘cover’, a burkha-like shroud. It may be a remnant of the Moorish past, or an item of clothing that originates in Catholic Spain. The jury is still out on that, but it’s a tradition that has been around for centuries.

It’s only in recent decades that women in Vejer stopped wearing the cobijado, but there are several reminders of the tradition dotted around the town. The cobijado was used to hide a woman’s features, a little like Spanish fans, and upper class women wore them to stop the sun from darkening their skin – no one wanted to have the skin of someone who worked in the fields.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Walking around the town uncovers lots of the hidden charms of this small, friendly place. It’s a town to relax and unwind in, with good restaurants and tapas bars, and little else in the way of excitement. We spent a day slowly exploring the atmospheric (and very quiet) streets, until we found a party that had spilled out onto the street from a local restaurant. The sudden hubbub of noise and activity seemed completely out of place.

In Vejer we pushed the boat out to spend a night at La Casa Del Califa on the Plaza Espana. It was a good decision, La Casa Del Califa is a piece of history in its own right. Taking it’s cue from the Moorish history of the town, the decor is Arabic opulence, a theme that runs through the hotel and extends to the superb restaurant, where you can swap Spanish cooking for excellent North African cuisine. Best of all, the rooftop terraces offer fantastic views over the town and countryside.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

The beaches of Cadiz

If you live in northern Europe, there is something very exciting about being on a  beach in winter when it’s warm enough to pretend it’s summer. The weather in Cadiz made that possible. The beaches of Spain’s Atlantic coast are a bit wilder, and the water quite a bit colder, than their more famous Mediterranean counterparts, but they have a raw beauty that more than compensates. Plus, they only attract a fraction of the visitors.

If you’re visiting Cadiz it’s worth spending a day walking the beaches that spread south from the city. We got up early and drove to the Parque Natural Bahía de Cádiz, a large area of sandy beaches, freshwater lakes, marshes and salt flats, the salt from which has been used since 1100 BC. Phoenician traders who first settled this area exported it. The long wide beach makes for a wonderful early morning stroll.

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

We headed along the beach to the Punta del Boquerón, the warm sun was offset by a cooling breeze. Fishermen were lined up along the beach and a few hardy surfers were making their way into the water. In the distance I could see what looked like giant boulders on the beach, and off the coast was the island of Sancti Petri, home to the Castle of Sancti Petri.

As we approached, the boulders took on a more regular form and it became clear that they were modern additions to the beach. These were bunkers used during the Spanish Civil War and World War II to protect this coast and Cadiz from attack. Today, they’re crumbling monuments to a dark and dreadful part of Spain’s and Europe’s history. They are in pretty bad condition, battered by water, wind and sand. How long they will survive is anyone’s guess.

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Castle of Sancti Petri, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Castle of Sancti Petri, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Sancti Petri dates from a much earlier period, and was part of a system of 16th and 17th century coastal watchtowers constructed by order of Felipe II. The fortress was built as part of the defences of Cadiz, the intention being to protect Spanish shipping arriving back from the Americas, often laden with treasure, from Barbary Pirates and English privateers. The earliest part of the fort is from that time, but it was expanded in the 18th century.

Driving back into Cadiz we noticed a lot of restaurants with ocean views. It was Sunday and we decided we’d earned a long lunch. We ditched the car at the hotel and walked back along the seafront. We reached a strip of restaurants near the monumentally ugly Hotel Playa Victoria close to the football ground. The architecture in this area isn’t very attractive, but the seafood was excellent and came with ocean views.

Afterwards, we retired to the beach to sleep off our delicious lunch. It seemed like the perfect way to end our stay in Cadiz.

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

 

Cadiz, the glory of the Coast of Light

My grandfather had a saying, used to explain the inexplicable. A dour, world-weary phrase that summed up the whole of human existence. It came without the need for further explanation, a full stop to any conversation. “Aye, there’s now’t as strange as folk”, was pronounced whilst listening to news of extraordinary events somewhere in the world, or local gossip, before going back to reading the Westmorland Gazette.

That phrase came forcefully to mind recently. I was extolling the joys of Cadiz to an old friend, telling her about how exhilarating the city was, how glorious the nearby beaches, how delicious the seafood washed down with a chilled glass of fino … I was met with a stoney silence, broken only when she said, “Oh, we went there a couple of years ago. We hated it.” Hated it! How can anyone hate Cadiz? People really are strange.

Beaches near Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches near Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz may be more down to earth than its famous Andalusian rivals; its buildings may be more weathered, with peeling paint and crumbling plaster; and it may be a little rough around the edges, but that just adds to the phenomenal charm of this glorious  city. After all, this is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. It must be doing something right.

Cadiz sits on a narrow strip of land jutting out from Spain into the Atlantic Ocean. The ancient old town is shaped like a ball at the end of the peninsular, and crammed within its narrow confines are historic neighbourhoods, dozens of ancient churches, leafy plazas and atmospheric bars. The tightly packed streets are a little claustrophobic, emerging out of them into the brilliant sunlight of the ocean front is almost shocking.

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

La Caleta, the city beach, is wedged between old forts and offers sweeping panoramas over the ocean. Small fishing boats picturesquely bob up and down on the waves. This area has gained the nickname of Little Havana, the city’s seafront doing a passable impersonation of Havana’s Malecón – Havana’s crenelated fortifications are modelled on Cadiz. Like its more famous counterpart, it’s definitely the place to be at sunset.

Cadiz’s relationship with the sea dates back millennia, it’s a suitably excitement-packed history. The city was founded in 1100 BC by Phoenician traders. Centuries later it was captured by the Carthaginians, and Spain became the main European stronghold for Carthage’s resistance to the Roman Empire. It was from Spain that Hannibal launched an offensive against Rome involving his legendary crossing of the Alps on elephants.

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

After the final defeat of Carthage the city became Roman, whose empire in turn collapsed. Cadiz was controlled by different civilisations until the arrival of the Moors in 711, after which it was renamed Jazirat Qadis. For the next 551 years it remained a vital port and stronghold for Moorish rule. It fell to Alfonso X of Castile during the Reconquista in 1262, and has been Spanish ever since.

The city boomed after the discovery of the Americas in 1492, becoming the base for Spain’s treasure fleets. Gold and silver, flowing across the Atlantic, made Cadiz rich. It also made it a target for anyone who wanted to get their hands on Spanish gold. Chief amongst whom were the ‘privateers’ working for Elizabeth I of England. Sir Francis Drake attacked the port in 1587. Lord Essex launched a more destructive attack in 1596, burning the city, including the 13th century cathedral.

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz briefly became the capital of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, when Spain was occupied by the French. The city bore witness to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805, which included the destruction of a Spanish fleet. This loss, and Napoleon’s occupation, hastened the collapse of Spain’s empire, without which Cadiz slid into a long period of decline from which it has never fully recovered.

Today this extraordinarily rich history is writ large across the city. The best way of discovering it is to wander aimlessly and let it find you. In between, stop off at the many tapas places on pretty plazas, have a sherry (or two) in atmospheric bars, and eat fried fish on La Caleta watching the sun set while imagining the sights this city has seen over the centuries. What’s not to love about that?

Exploring historic Jerez

It was close to midnight, the sherry was flowing and the raw guitar and ecstatic vocals of a flamenco group filled the hot, crowded bar. A happy gang was joining in the chorus of a classic tune and the evening was coming to heady climax. This was when I realised how much I love the rough and ready culture of Spain. It’s a country that constantly surprises, whether an unexpected festival – of religion, food or art – or a small, intimate and passionate rendering of flamenco.

We were in the Tabanco El Pasaje, a classic Jerez flamenco place, where the owner had secured us a ‘ring-side’ seat after a chance encounter over a sherry earlier in the day. It was the culmination of a fantastic final day in this wonderful Andalusian town. We’d visited the lovely Alcázar, discovered a local food festival, unearthed a microbrewery in this sherry town, and explored the atmospheric streets. This won’t be the last time we visit Jerez.

Sherry barrels, Tabanco El Pasaje, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry barrels, Tabanco El Pasaje, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry and snacks, Tabanco El Pasaje, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry and snacks, Tabanco El Pasaje, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry barrels, Tabanco, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry barrels, Tabanco, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Like so many places in Andalusia, the historic centre of Jerez de la Frontera is filled with a maze of narrow cobbled streets and attractive plazas. It’s a town where history oozes from the walls of ancient churches, old palaces and the imposing Alcázar. If it wasn’t clear from architecture that incorporates Arabic mudéjar elements, seeing the magnificent Alcázar would be enough to tell you that this was once part of Moorish Spain.

We had a busy day of sightseeing and (more) sherry tasting ahead, and arrived early to the Alcázar. Unlike Granada or Seville, there aren’t many tour groups queuing up to get into Jerez’s historic sites, which meant we had the lovely Alcázar grounds to ourselves. The building is not as rich artistically as other ancient Moorish buildings we’d visited, but the Arabic baths, 900-year old mosque and the enormous olive oil press were still pretty impressive.

The Alcázar was part fortress, part palace, but definitely feels more like a fortress. Built in the 11th century, and expanded over the next couple of hundred years, it was a key part of Islamic defences against the Castilians. Unfortunately, the fall of Seville in 1248 left the door open for the Reconquista, led by Alfonso X of Castile, to capture Jerez. The city capitulated in 1264 after a long siege. Unusually, the Moorish population was allowed to remain largely unmolested.

The importance of Jerez to the Moors saw it grow into a sizeable town. Before the Moors, it was a relatively minor Roman outpost. Once Spain was unified following the Reconquista, Jerez boomed. Trade with Cadiz and Seville made it very wealthy and has bequeathed its own architectural legacy. All of these periods of history have left their mark on the modern city, and adds to the fascination of exploring its streets.

Alcázar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Alcázar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Olive press, Alcázar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Olive press, Alcázar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Alcázar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Alcázar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Once you’ve been to the Alcázar, spent some time in the cathedral and visited a sherry bodega, you’ll have ticked off most of the things on the typical tourist itinerary. That leaves time to wander the barrios of Jerez at leisure, and get a feel for the sedate pace of life. We had lunch in a little cafe and after an early afternoon siesta spent the rest of the day just walking.

We did manage to visit a couple of tabancos to sample a few different types of sherry, and it was during one of these ‘rest stops’ that we learned about the flamenco evening that would end our stay here. Who says living the dissolute lifestyle doesn’t have any benefits?

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Cathedral. Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Cathedral. Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Taste testing the sherries of Jerez

If the word “sherry” brings to mind a syrupy drink only consumed by your granny at Xmas, then the dark nutty deliciousness of oloroso and amontillado; the refreshing dryness of fino and manzanilla; and the deep treacly sweetness of the exquisite Pedro Xinenez, will come as a welcome surprise. In this part of Spain sherry is approached in the same manner a Highland distillery would approach a single malt – reverentially.

Jerez de la Frontera sits at one corner of Spain’s ‘sherry triangle’ – which is an actual thing. In the area between here and the triangle’s other points, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, is an area that single-handedly produces the finest sherries known to humanity. It’s the perfect place to explore a wine that has long suffered an image problem, but is deservedly having a revival and finally getting the global attention it deserves.

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Unlike the champagne cellars of Reims and Epernay, sherry cellars are above ground, and Jerez alone hoards over half a million barrels of the stuff at any given time. We decided to visit the Lustau bodega, which produces some of the world’s finest sherries, including their signature fino, La Ina, and the fantastic oloroso, Don Nuño. The latter definitely topped my list.

We booked a tour and turned up only to discover there was a health inspection. It delayed the start by thirty minutes, and was probably why the tour guide seemed in a rush to show us around these famous cellars. The vaulted cellars aren’t particularly interesting, although it’s fun wandering past the old wooden barrels filled with Jerez’s finest, but the history of the bodega and the wine making process is fascinating.

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

We learned about Jerez’s viticulture, particularly the palomino grapes grown in vineyards north of the town which receive around 3,000 hours of sunshine a year. The grapes end up in the bodegas, where they take on their unique styles. I always thought manzanilla was a little salty, and this is because it comes from Sanlucar de Barrameda on the coast. The salty sea breeze affects the wooden barrels and the wine within. We verified this with a taste test later on.

Sherry, or at least the English word, was invented in England around 1600, a corruption of Jerez’s Moorish name, Xeres. The connection with England goes well beyond just a name though. There are centuries of historic sherry ties between the two countries, thanks to the thousands of English Catholics who fled here as religious refugees after Henry VIII introduced the Act of Supremacy in 1534.

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Sherry tasting at Lustau Bodega, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Catholics were persecuted by the government for their beliefs, and barred from many areas of employment. Many chose to flee to Catholic Spain, and many ended up in this part of Andalusia. Their descendants are still regarded as being something of an “Anglo-Spanish aristocracy” in this part of the world. The Lustau bodega was loaded with historic and aristocratic atmosphere.

Founded in 1896, Lustau is the only sherry house to produce wines in all three of the cities of the triangle. It’s a company that has become known for its outstanding wines and, after a short tour of the buildings and cellars, we emerged into the tasting room. We’d booked the €25 Full Tasting Tour, this presented us with the mammoth task of sampling 12 different sherries. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.

We emerged into the blinding Jerez sunshine some time later, wiser about what makes a good sherry and in desperate need of a siesta.

An underrated gem, Jerez de la Frontera

Jerez de la Frontera was a revelation. It’s known as the world capital of sherry, is home to passionate flamenco, and wears its long and proud history firmly on its sleeve. Small enough to walk almost everywhere, large enough to feel cosmopolitan, it’s filled to the brim with fabulous tapas bars and takes its nightlife very seriously. It has so much going for it that I couldn’t help but wonder where the tourists were.

Jerez seems to have all the qualities of far more famous and popular Andalusian towns in abundance, yet it remains below the radar of many tourist itineraries. That must change in coming years, but for the moment it feels like you’re stumbling upon an authentic, almost-undiscovered part of Andalusia. We were there in the off-season, but even then I’d expect a town this lovely to have its fair share of tourism.

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Cathedral, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Cathedral, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

We stayed in the La Fonda Barraco, a classic Andalusian house built around a central courtyard in the old town close to the cathedral. Its owner, the fantastically helpful and well informed Alejandro, greeted us with a choice of sherries by way of welcome to Jerez. It was the first of many tastings of the town’s iconic drink. A love of sherry isn’t required to enjoy a visit to Jerez, but it certainly helps – the town is fuelled by the stuff.

We just had time to finish off a deliciously nutty Amontillado and put our bags in the room, before going out to catch a religious parade that Alejandro mentioned was taking place. We headed to the magnificent cathedral and waited with a few other bystanders for things to get going. Sure enough, a parade of local dignitaries and a statue of the Virgen soon emerged and made their way slowly down the street.

This sort of thing happens surprisingly often in Spain, and it was the harbinger of good news: it was a festival weekend. The town was buzzing with energy and activity, which mostly seemed to be focused on promenading, eating and drinking. It was a lot of fun. We watched the parade and then visited the Catedral de San Salvador, which was gearing up for a service and was atmospherically filled with incense smoke and organ music.

Afterwards, we walked behind the cathedral toward the magnificent Moorish Alcázar, passing one of the world’s most famous sherry houses, Gonzalez Byass, on the way. We found our way into Plaza del Arenal, the attractive main square. From here streets branch off in all directions, and it’s possible to wander around exploring the historic barrios of the town centre.

We planned to visit a sherry bodega the following day, so did a little prepping in Jerez’s tabancos, old and traditional sherry bars. Many had signs outside saying “hay mosto”. Mosto is fermented grape juice, more like wine than sherry, but not really like wine. It doesn’t have as much alcohol as sherry and is light and refreshing. It’s something of a local delicacy and is delicious with chickpea and chorizo stew.

Tabancos all offer a wide range of different sherries and basic tapas dishes, we sampled a couple as we meandered around the town. Like the Tabanco La Pandilla, which took us ages to find, they are simple places full of Old World charm. If you want something more upmarket, there are numerous good tapas bars and restaurants lining the streets and plazas between Plaza del Arenal and Plaza de Rafael Rivero.

Tabanco El Pasaje, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Tabanco El Pasaje, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Tabanco, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Tabanco, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Tabanco La Pandilla, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Tabanco La Pandilla, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Tabanco La Pandilla, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Tabanco La Pandilla, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

After spending a few hours strolling around town, the festival weekend seemed to be getting into full swing. In the town centre we found a nice restaurant, took a seat outside and ate a delicious dinner while watching the world go by. Jerez is a relaxed and welcoming place, we couldn’t wait to explore more of it the next day, but that would have to wait … you’ve not been to Jerez if haven’t joined the late night crowds carousing in the streets.

Feeling the fervour in El Rocío

If you arrived in El Rocío without any prior knowledge of this peculiar town, you could easily be forgiven for wondering if you’d somehow time-travelled back to the Wild West. People ride past on horses, wooden buildings with wide verandas line broad sandy streets, down which horse-drawn carriages rattle. There are wooden railings for tying up horses all over town. It just needs a saloon and a sheriff’s office to complete the picture.

The brilliant white Ermita de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío, an enormously over-sized church, is a jolting reminder that you’re still in Spain. Inside lies the answer to the many questions El Rocío poses, foremost amongst which is, why does this bizarre place exist? The church houses the 13th century wooden Virgen del Rocío, and she is at the centre of an annual pilgrimage that attracts close to a million people. The Romería del Rocío is Spain’s largest religious festival, and possibly its biggest party.

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

If the town was quiet when we were there, it’s bedlam during Pentecost when pilgrims arrive. People from across Andalusia make the pilgrimage to El Rocío dressed in traditional clothes and driving covered wagons pulled by oxen. These are organised by hermandades, Catholic brotherhoods with their origins in medieval Spain. Many of the buildings in El Rocío belong to the hermandades and house people and animals during the fiesta.

Outside of the Romería, El Rocío is a sleepy place. Even though there is a steady stream of worshipers and tourists visiting the Virgen, it felt like we’d arrived in a ghost town. Luckily, there are other things to occupy you in the area, including good walks and some excellent wild beaches along the nearby coastline. It’s also a twitcher’s paradise.

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

Ermita de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío, El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

Ermita de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío, El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

Ermita de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío, El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

Ermita de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío, El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocío sits on the edge of the Parque Nacional de Doñana. One of the most important wetlands in Europe, and a protected area, it attracts almost as many migrating birds as the Virgen del Rocío attracts pilgrims. The village itself is built on the shore of the tranquil Marismas del Rocío, a wetland area that is home to plenty of birds, including flamingoes, herons and storks. You can also see deer and wild horses around the lake.

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

We spent a few hours wandering around the town and lake, had some lunch and then headed to the coast. The Acantilado del Asperillo is a protected area of coastline that is home to a dune system that culminates in low cliffs at the edge of a pristine beach. It’s also an important habitat for the endangered Iberian Lynx. To protect the habitat, boardwalks lead from a scattering of parking areas through the dunes to the beach.

The car park was empty when we arrived, as was the beach. In fact, we had several kilometres of beach entirely to ourselves. Another benefit of being in Andalusia out of season. The beach is very attractive, although this is Spain’s Atlantic coast and the water isn’t exactly warm. We spent the rest of the day beach combing and relaxing, finally returning to our hotel to watch the sunset over the lake in El Rocío.

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain

Acantilado del Asperillo, Parque Nacional de Doñana, Andalusia, Spain