Heading north-west up the Cadiz coast, from the wild beauty of Valdevaqueros, on the N-340 highway is a joyful drive. One passes fields of sunflowers, each tracking the brilliant light of the Costa de la Luz; and the ubiquitous wind turbines, their giant blades glinting in the sunlight, harnessing the power of the Atlantic wind. Then the road climbs, dips and after a broad bend you are confronted with the sight of Vejer de la Frontera ahead. Like a white citadel, its houses built right to the very edge of a pine clad hilltop. It's an enticing scene.
Relatively undiscovered by tourism until the early noughties, the streets and sun-bleached whitewashed Moorish architecture of Vejer have largely escaped redevelopment. This frontier town, shaped by Islamic Al Andalus and the reconquest, offers the essence of Cadiz province.
Many streets are like colossal balconies, affording generous, panoramic views out across the fields, woodlands, and wetlands towards the ocean and the beach of El Palmar. From these Atlantic waters an abundance of fish and seafood are caught, supplying the town's diverse selection of bars and restaurants. Look out for seasonal bluefin tuna; grilled octopus; and squid too. If you prefer meat, then order the slow-cooked rabo de toro oxtail; or mini gourmet burgers made with local retinto beef.
Explore on foot
This higgledy-piggledy town can only really be explored on foot. Once you've been lucky enough to find a parking spot, just forget the car. The oldest quarters of Vejer make for a fascinating, meandering, and sometimes disorientating walk. The castle is a good place to start, where just below one finds a little terrace, the Mirador de la Cobijada, with a view out over rooftops, towards the Atlantic and across to the alluring mountains of Morocco.
Here, shaded by an ancient olive tree, stands a life size statue of a woman. Her body is almost completely covered by a black cloak, leaving just her right eye free to look out over the village. This is the 'Estatua de la Cobijada', a striking, black sculpture, set against the brilliant white of the surrounding buildings. It's surprising and evocative, and has become one of the icons of Vejer, an integral part of its unique identity. Initially it made me think of Al Andalus and traditional Muslim dress, but this black blanket-like robe, the cobijada, is said instead to date back to maybe the 16th or 17th century. It was still widely worn in the village until it was banned in the 1930s (as during the civil war, weapons could be smuggled beneath the heavy garment). Today the statue is considered a homage to the women of Vejer and has been adopted as an icon of equality.
Retaining its character
From here, within the time-weathered medieval city walls, one can stroll the old town's alleyways and lanes, beneath ancient arches and past modest cottages and noble town houses. A distraction of a lively bar, a pop-up gallery, or chic boutique is never far away. These days Vejer has been discovered by affluent Madrid and Barcelona residents, as well as international travelistas and the tourist offering is getting increasingly sophisticated.
Yet don't let that put you off. Vejer is holding onto its 'alma', its quintissential Andaluz character. Yes, the guesthouses and boutique hotels are getting smarter, and the restaurants maybe a little more expensive in high season but there's still a bohemian charm, and of course the authenticity of a warm Cadiz welcome remains.
Stay a night or two, and you will have a different experience of Vejer; the tranquillity of the early morning before the visitors have arrived, and the calm of the evening sunsets.
At breakfast it's often just the sound of migrating songbirds or the chatter of the locals eating breakfast outside a bar. And again, in the evening the sunset is pure Cadiz; and an invitation to stay out and eat, drink and me merry to the soundtrack of touristy flamenco bars or residents' impromptu guitar playing from a balcony. Vejer is close to Andalucía's sherry triangle of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María; so you have no excuse to put aside any preconceptions and order a glass (or two) of chilled fino or a manzanilla or maybe a robust oloroso, to go with your tempting tapas.
It all adds up to an unforgettable break.
I'll certainly not forget that first time I took the drive through the Cadiz countryside and arrived at Vejer. It's a discovery I'm so pleased I've made - and when I can, Vejer and its untamed coast will surely be one of the first places I visit once our state of alarm 'lockdown' is over.