For the last few years I have booked somewhere that involved a long haul flight in order to escape the final weeks of winter in Brighton. February, the shortest month, has often felt like the longest, as Spring teases us with gradually longer days without the full bloom of a new season for another few weeks. This year I found myself booking somewhere much closer to home, in Spain, a country I have been to a lot, but never with a full appreciation of how beautiful, diverse and fascinating it is.
We flew to Seville and drove three hours south through the Andalucian countryside. I have only ever visitied Spain in summer, heading to the over-developed coast along roads that cut through parched land and dusty towns. This was a different experience, with wild flowers hugging the roadside, lush green fields in the distance, wetlands and flamingos in the nature reserves that ran alongside us.
Our destination was Vejer de la Frontera, a stunning ‘pueblo blanco’, on a hillside overlooking the Barbate river valley, which weaves past wide, wild hills as it runs down to the sea. The ‘de la Frontera’ in it’s name means ‘of the frontier’; the ‘border’ between Christian and Islamic cultures. The convergence of the two was evident as soon as we arrived, driving through cobbled, winding, medina style streets punctuated by outside eateries until the roads were too thin for our car to pass.
Our AirBnB was deep in the old town, at the top of a winding cobbled walkway only accessible by foot or on the back of a popping scooter. The layout was typical for the Moorish style houses in the city, originally settled by Arabs from North Africa. Passing through the front door in a tall white wall at street level led us through to a whitewashed courtyard draped in bougainvillea, which continued up an elaborately tiled staircase to a roof terrace that overlooked the surrounding hills, the flat white buildings on the other side of the city, and in the far distance, the roof tops of Algiers across the sea. It reminded me of the riads in Marrakesh; a network of hidden worlds tucked behind the high walls that protected those inside from the heat of the sun and anybody who wasn’t invited in.
Vejer is extraordinarily beautiful. The white walls are a canvas for colourful hanging flowers pots in all the colours of sunrise and sunset. The central square, the Plaza de Espana, is set around a tiled fountain surrounded by friendly eateries under a canopy of spring shoots and climbing branches. The steep hills and narrow streets lead you to views across the vivid green countryside, and the air is filled with birdsong from visiting swallows and resident sparrows.
We didn’t know it before we went, but Vejer is known for it’s food. As two vegetarians, we assumed there would be a lot of cheese and bread in store for us, but we were spoilt for choice in the bars and restaurants set within countless terraces and courtyards, offering menus that reflected the diversity of cultures that shaped the city it is today.
We had trips out of the city that took us to the wild coastline that runs along the southern edge of the country. A long walk across sand dunes running through woods took us to a rugged sandstone cliff-edge just outside of Barbate, with endless views across the Atlantic Ocean. Another drive through lush, softly rounded hills lined with wind farms led us to the wild beach of Bolonia, hugged by Roman Ruins, cacti and gorse. We visited the oldest city in Europe – Cadiz, founded 3000 years ago by the Phoenicians, and stumbled across the annual Andalucian festival that saw the streets swimming with groups of people in matching fancy dress, swigging beer and dancing to drums.
After a week, we drove to Granada. Less whitewashed and infinitely fascinating, it had all the contrasts of a modern European city with the omnipresence of the past in the form of the Alhambra, looming large on a hillside, with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in the background. We stayed in the UNESCO heritage site of the Albaicin, on the cobbled egde of the city, surrounded by farmland and fallow olive fields.
We spent days wandering around the city, stopping for a drink and tapas – a plate of something unordered and unidentifiable as a vegetarian comes with every beverage. We had walks that took us deep into the hillside overlooking the city, with two worlds evident from above; the old and new on either side of the ancient walls.
A favourite surprise was a fused glass gallery in the Albaicin called Reez run by a husband and wife team who create a myriad of colourful pieces in-house. They had taken their own photos of Granada and transferred them onto glass, as well as creating jewellery, dishes and wall art using moorish design to influence their pieces as well as their own distinctive style.
Another highlight was also the Cave Museum, which gave us such an insight into the history of the area and the development of the unique culture and identity of Andalucia, evolved over centuries from the interface between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, African and European cultures, past and present, giving me a renewed and distinctive sense of ‘Spain’ that I lacked before.