Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

sun series #2 - the white villages of andalusia

So, I find myself, yet again, dreaming of the beautiful, sunny coast of Andalusia - the Costa de la Luz, in southern Spain. The sun, here, is a constant companion, a kindred spirit who very rarely leaves your side. The dry golden hills run up against the uneven coast along southern Spain, where the Atlantic hammers the continent unapologetically, leaving a razor-sharp, jagged coastline of cliffs.

And making room for themselves, like pushy teenagers needing space, are bright spots of sandy coves, long soft beaches and so much fun. Throughout this province, due to the intense sun, the villages which lie exposed on hilltops or on the open shoreline, have long been brushed with the brightest of whites.

Vejer de la Frontera

I'll show you three of my favourite white villages, but will begin with the one that I always return to when I'm in Andalusia - Vejer de la Frontera. Just a few kms from the coast, Vejer is 50 kms north of Tarifa, one of the kite-surfing meccas of the world, and the southern most tip of continental Europe.

If folks think Europe is currently riding waves of instability, they need to open a history book or just scroll through Wikipedia. Southern Spain is fascinating because of its culture and food, but its tumultuous past, which is obvious around almost every corner, leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.

Walking the narrow streets of Vejer, some even too narrow to drive through, you will quickly realize that a lot of varying cultures and religions have fought over this prime piece of realty. Romans, Jews, Arabs, Moors, Berbers, Pirates, Christians, Muslims...all have dropped blood here and left their stamp.

Much of Vejer's former fortress wall still stands intact. The Moors influenced much of the architecture, having captured Vejer from the Romans, and holding it for over 500 years. 

From the 10th to the 12th century, the above 'Berber Gate' was shut by its Jewish Quarter residents, to fend off Barbary Coast pirates. I don't know if everyone lived in peace, but Muslims and Jews lived here for hundreds of years together in this little hilltop village.

Flour mills, along with fruit orchards, were long the prime means of economic sustainability in Vejer. The mills have now been refurbished and are available to tour, with guides who will demonstrate the old sweat-driven workings of the mill.

Here's a piece of trivia: Just off the coast at Vejer the Battle of Trafalgar was fought in 1805, when Spain and France defended the continent from Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Just imagine watching the spectacle of that battle from Spain's beautiful coast!

Vejer has unique cafés and tapas bars tucked into corners, and restaurant terraces surrounded by white. During the afternoon, most of the locals will be found inside, with only the tourists traipsing about.

On my most recent visit to Vejer, I came across these two gents, who were taking advantage of a shady spot, beer in hand. As I took a photo of the dark tapas bar they had just exited, the one gestured to me that I should take a photo of them. They actually posed, and then broke out in laughter. I'm guessing I had their permission.

The tapas culture is really one that I have become extremely fond of. Great guy and I always order a variety of tapas now, instead of a big entrée which is so common in most other countries. Plates of olives, padron peppers, fried squid or prawns, long kebabs of spicy pork or lamb, and spanish meatballs are some of our favourites. It's a low-cost dining experience which leaves you satisfied, but not stuffed. Plenty of room for a cervesa or sangria on the beach afterwards!

The way people live here fascinates me and one of these days I hope to get to know a local person well enough to see inside their home. Most of the balconies are tiny, with many of the homes having rooftop terraces where laundry is hung to dry and chairs are set up for nightcap visitors.

On crystal clear days there are many places from where you can see the Moroccan coast, which lies just beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. Africa is not very far easy day trip with the ferry.

The largest gathering place in Vejer, enclosed on most sides by bars and restaurants, is the Plaza de Espana. An epic, tiled fountain sits firmly in the centre surrounded by colourful benches which only tourists would sit on in this heat...palm trees stand guard.

The intricate detailing of tiled patterns can be found throughout Vejer, on building facades, in doorways and apartment entrances. Beautiful touches which seem simple, these coloured accents just enhance the white-washed brightness even more. The buildings are exquisite.

And, as an Rocky Mountain girl, who grew up surrounded basically only by pine trees, I'm in love with the incredible splashes of reds and pinks of bougainvilleas who hang and drape and spread themselves across Spain. In the white villages of Andalusia they are some kind of spectacular.

Medina Sidonia

About 30 kms straight north from Vejer is the small pueblo blanco of Medina Sidonia. Once a military defense town, because of its elevation and strategic spot, some say it's the oldest city in Europe.

Just south of Cadiz, Medina Sidonia also has a very bloody past. The ancient Phoenicians first occupied this land, then the Romans came, then in 712 the Muslim commander Musa Ibn Nusair held Medina Sidonia for hundreds of years. It "came" into Christian hands in 1264 and in 1588 Alonzo Pérez de Guzman, the 7th Duke of Medinia Sidonia, led the Spanish Armada from the coast here, to fight England.

This town is a bit more worse-for-wear than the more touristy towns in southern Spain, but that is one of the reasons I fell in love with it. Medina Sidonia is not catering to anyone - its walls have been there and done that, and I can imagine that it wouldn't much care about tourists touring it like it's a fun Hollywood film set.

At the tip-top of the town, is the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Coronado (Church of Saint Mary the Crowned) and from the cathedral's bell tower, you can almost see the Spanish Armada about to set sail.

The Gothic church was built in the 16th century on the site of a parish church, which had in turn been built on the foundations of an ancient mosque.

The etched detailing in the massive walls, pillars and statues, along with the impressive latin-cross-shaped cloister are reminders of a time when power of church was the power that ruled. Mighty symbols of who were the important ones of the political might is shown in much subtler, more confusing ways.

The bones of this church, like so many European cathedrals, are wonderful to photograph. The minutiae in every brick and archway is compelling and fills me with curiousity about the builders...and the contractors...and those whose daily centre this was.

The interior is no less impressive, with the focal point being the massive altarpiece. Still, as I always do, I looked up and...I caught my breath.

Like every small town in Europe, Medina Sidonia also has a spacious town square, but with very few locals about during the afternoon. At night the Spaniards come out to play; the old folks, families with children, couples and teens. The streets fill with laughter and quick chatter, en espanol, in the cooler evening air.

Here, walking the streets, you feel the thick layers of history's influence. Each ruler, each religion, each culture has left its permanent mark. As a fortress, Medina Sidonia was one of the most important points on the frontera (frontier), bordering the last Muslim country in today's Spain. The Kingdom of Granada.

Conil de la Frontera

The white village where we spend most of our Spanish time, and which we have truly come to love, is Conil. Its location is absolute perfection in our opinion. Perched almost on the beach itself, Conil is halfway between Jerez (which we fly into) and Tarifa (Strait of Gibraltar).

Up and down the coast from Conil, beaches and coves and cliffs of all varieties invite you to hang out - any kind of beach you could wish for is here. Some days we want miles of sand and gentle waves, other days we're in the mood for private coves surrounded by cliffs or the adventure of the Atlantic's rough waves.

This large town is beloved by inland Spaniards in the summertime, when it swells to three or four times its normal size. There are festive ferias (town fairs), weekly markets, raucous fish mongers and endless beachside tapas patios.

The Spanish do things more simply I believe, and seem to be more interested in spending time together; family, friends, neighbours. They might not be as busy, as say the Germans (if you forgive my stereotyping) and their buildings might not look as perfect, but therefore they might know a little bit better how to have a carefree, relaxed life.

When we're in Andalusia we can definitely feel it...and as the Germans say, we tank it up, sun and all!



  1. Nice post. Really enjoyed your writing.
    I love Spain. These villages look really neat and clean, true Mediteranian style. The white finish is ideal for the climate as it helps to repel the heat from the sun during the day to keep the dwellings cool.
    Time for another trip i think :)

    1. Thanks Dave, I appreciate the comments! I think it's time for another trip too!

  2. Glad you enjoyed my beautiful country :)!! Andalusia is amazing! Which camera do you use for your pictures?

    1. Wow, lucky you to live close by! I use the iPhone 6 most of the time, or the Canon Rebel.

  3. What a gorgeous place! I was not one bit familiar with Andalusia and I will have to say that I would love to visit it. Those pictures are just fabulous and the one of the beach with the famous white buildings in the background, oh my! Great post and thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Melody! It was also unfamiliar to me until my bf took me there...we've been going every year since :) There are just so many great corners to explore, and the Atlantic is always amazing. I hope you get there one day!

  4. Such beautiful little villages, my kind of place exactly. I spent sometime exploring similar looking villages in Costa Brava and loved it- maybe I'll return to explore more of the southern coast next time.

    1. When I was in Girona and Barcelona (which I loved) we only spent one afternoon on the beach - not enough time! I bet there are a lot of white villages around coastal Spain...I look forward to exploring more of them when I go back again. Too much to see, too little time :)

  5. Gorgeous towns! You know, my dad is from the area and this post of yours has brought me memories of when I was a kid and visited the family in summer. Thank you for that! :-)

    1. Somehow I missed your comment until now...sorry about that! Thank you and lucky you that you could spend parts of your childhood in such a beautiful place!

  6. Very nice trip , awesome photography , really superb . Thanks for your sharing .

    1. Thank you so much - I totally appreciate it!


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