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

“Kill your man and flee to Olvera”, another beautiful pueblo blanco

The hills of Andalusia are home to more than their fair share of breathtaking villages. They frequently come with a picturesque Moorish fortress, a massive church towering over the whitewashed houses, and a long and dramatic history. Drive the Sierra de Grazalema north of Ronda, and every turn of the road seems to reveal another beautiful village. For sheer dramatic effect though, it would be hard to beat Olvera.

I’ve wanted to visit Olvera ever since I saw it in the distance while visiting Setenil de las Bodegas. Its immense church and Moorish fortress perched on a craggy hilltop, and the white houses tumbling down the hillside surrounded by olive groves on all sides, make it hard to miss. It’s a quintessential pueblo blanco, steep narrow streets offer glimpsed views of the church, fortress and surrounding rolling countryside.

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The picture-postcard-perfect surface hides a turbulent history though. In the 19th century it became notorious (as did many of these quaint mountain villages) as a hiding place for bandits and murderers. Far removed from the reach of the authorities, Olvera became the subject of an Andalusian saying, “Kill your man and flee to Olvera!” Things seem a lot quieter these days.

The town was probably founded in the 9th century as the invading Arab and Berber forces advanced across Andalusia. By the time the fortress was built in the early 13th century, the town had been absorbed into the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. It was a strategic point between Muslim and Christian areas of control. The town fell to the Reconquista in 1327, and became vital to the Christian advance on Gibralta.

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Mad dogs and an Englishman, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Mad dogs and an Englishman, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Its other claim to fame, is that Nicolás de Ribera, one of the original conquistadors who accompanied Francisco Pizarro on his conquest of the Incan Empire in Peru, was born here in 1487. Ribera was one of the ‘trece de la fama’, or famous thirteen, who defied orders from Spain’s governor in Panama to abandon their plans to conquer Peru. In 1535, Ribera was made the first mayor of the new colony’s capital, Lima.

Today the town has a sleepy feel, especially out of season, and is a fabulous place to spend a few hours wandering the medieval streets. There was a market on the day we arrived and it took us an age to find somewhere to park, but once we did we headed upwards towards the church and castle. It’s hard to get lost, just keep going up and eventually you’ll find yourself in the Plaza de la Iglesia.

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

From here the views of the town and the castle are simply magnificent. We stopped for a breather and decided to have a look inside the church. The huge facade towers over you as you enter, and the interior is much bigger than I’d expected. Having said that, I’m constantly surprised that even the smallest Spanish village will have a church that seems to have been built for a much larger community.

The interior was more austere than a lot of Catholic churches in Spain, and it was nice and cool after our hike uphill under a hot sun. Afterwards, we made our way up to the castle, which offers a panoramic view over the town and surrounding countryside that is unrivalled. Standing on the ramparts, it was clear that attacking this place must have been near impossible.

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

We were on our way to Seville, but before we set off again we walked through the maze-like streets, stopping in the pleasant Plaza Ayuntamiento for a drink and snack. Refreshed, we were back on the virtually empty highway towards Seville.

Ancient Ronda, Spain’s wild and startling town

Ronda is an extraordinary place. The epitome of traditional Spanish culture (bullfighting is a very, very big deal in Ronda), while simultaneously maintaining an identity that is unique and (slightly) aloof. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for a town tracing its evolution from early Celtic tribes, to Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. The town is split in two by the dramatic El Tajo gorge, separating the old Moorish part of town to the south, La Ciudad, from the newer, El Mercadillo, area to the north, built following the Christian Reconquista in 1485.

In Ronda, ‘newer’ has different meaning, this is one of Spain’s most ancient towns. On the western side of town you can see why Ronda has been inhabited for millennia, and why it took so long for Christian forces to capture it: the town teeters on the edge of vertical cliffs that plunge over a hundred metres straight down, making it a near impregnable stronghold.

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

The two parts of the town are connected by it’s, and one of Spain’s, most emblematic sights: a towering triple-arched bridge that induces vertigo when stood on top of it, and a sense of awe when stood beneath it looking up, white water tumbling between its central arch. The bridge, known as the Puente Nuevo, is one of three, but is the most famous of all thanks to a particularly brutal incident in 1936. During the Spanish Civil War, Republican forces from Malaga arrived in Ronda, rounded up Nationalist and Fascist sympathisers, throwing them off the bridge to their deaths 120 metres below.

In a conflict that produced many acts of barbarity from both sides, the executions in Ronda have a particular notoriety. Much used for propaganda purposes at the time, it was probably Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, which recounts a fictional version of events in Ronda, that made it internationally famous. Despite these terrible, and not particularly ancient, events, Ronda is a beautiful and tranquil place to spend a few days. It also makes a good base for exploring the mountainous surrounding countryside.

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Hemingway wasn’t alone in being drawn to Ronda, many other artists sought inspiration here, including film maker Orson Welles and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke said of Ronda, “I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda. There is nothing that is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city.” Stand on the Puente Nuevo and you get a sense of exactly what Rilke meant.

His last phrase, “wild and mountainous”, gives a hint of another side to Ronda and the surrounding region: for a couple of hundred years this was considered bandit country. The region was criss-crossed with trails used by smugglers from the coast, largely outside the control of the Spanish state. It gained a notorious reputation for banditry and contraband. This is, after all, the region that gave birth to one of Spain’s most famous literary characters, Carmen. Made famous by Bizet’s opera, Carmen was inspired by a visit to this region by French writer, Prosper Mérimée.

Ronda is considered to be the birthplace of modern Spanish bullfighting. The modern form, with all its rules and traditions, including the scarlet cape, started here in the 18th Century. Before that, and a little like Ronda’s reputation for lawlessness, bullfighting had two forms, one of which was just an out-and-out man versus bull free-for-all. I doubt this improved the bulls chances, but the modern form more or less ensures an unfair competition by weakening the neck muscles of the bull (with knives) before the matador takes to the ring.

To celebrate the founding of this new form of bullfight, Ronda built what many consider to be Spain’s finest bullring. Seating 5000 people, it hosts some of the biggest and most important fights in the country. When there is a big bullfight in Ronda the national media show up. There’s a museum attached which we skipped in favour of less bloodthirsty activities – wandering the streets sampling some of the delicious food that is on offer in the numerous tapas bars.