food, drink and adventure in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

Just above the horizon, wild horses gallop around a white-domed building while, in the distance, a small donkey munches on wild poppies and purple periwinkle. We stop to enjoy the view, before returning by bike after a day of hiking and swimming surrounded by pine forests on the Andalusian coast.

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Later that night, the light fades to a delightful pink hue, bathing the streets as tourists pass the pomegranate tree at the foot of the small town. They always stop – and sometimes point upward – at what appears to be a mirage at the top of the hill. However, this incredibly white enclave that descends the hillside is not a mirage, but the town of Vejer de la Frontera in the Spanish province of Cádiz.

On every corner there is a monument to its rich history.

the streets of this pueblo blanco with Moorish and Roman roots they are so narrow in places that cars, whose drivers are brave enough to squeeze in, almost brush your feet. On every corner is a monument to its rich history: 10th-century Berber gates closed for centuries by their residents of the Jewish quarter to ward off pirates; statues of women dressed in the traditional cobijada de Vejer, a black cloak that covers the entire body, except for the right eye; the main church, Iglesia del Divino Salvador, on the site of a former mosque, its foundations built on a canal that still runs under its current Christian occupant.

Related: Bandits, beaches and Roman baths – the wild side of Andalusia

We’re here to stay with James Stuart, a Scottish pioneer who came to the village over 30 years ago looking for a sandwich and never left. He bought his first house in the city in the late 1980s for the princely sum of £1,000, and two years later bought the buildings that would become his main hotel, La Casa del Califa. James says he immediately saw the city’s appeal and potential and adopted the philosophy of “if you build it, they will come.” This started a project to transform a sleepy backwater into a tourist hub, renovating and managing dozens of vacation rental properties, opening five restaurants and four hotels, and employing hundreds of people over the years. His vision also led to other tourism-focused companies entering the area.

“Vejer seemed out of this world in 1988,” says Stuart. “I felt like I had gone back in time; the harsh summer light reflected off the white walls, the palm trees swayed in the breeze, the pink bougainvillea fell on the walls, and the old delivery man at the cafe I stopped at arrived with his mule’s wicker baskets laden with fresh bread.

Initially, Stuart had not planned a restoration project. His first business was a holiday activities company, mainly offering mountain tours throughout Andalusia. La Casa del Califa came about after he enlarged his house to accommodate his own guests, and then he continued to expand.

Vejer looked otherworldly in 1988. I felt like I went back in time

James Stuart

“Vejer, far off the beaten path, probably didn’t need a small boutique hotel at the time, but by creating an original and imaginative space, we’ve provided the city with a much-needed focus for the nascent tourist market. The project was more practical than poetic; there seemed to be a demand that we had created and everything was aligned for that to happen”, he adds.

The hotel is now a landmark, situated in the heart of the city’s main square, Plaza de España, in the shade of Senegal’s tall palm trees. The interior is a beautifully imagined labyrinth, with the main building dating to 1527 and other parts of the 10th century. It’s a shrine to Stuart’s love affair with Morocco – a short ferry ride or 14km swim across the Strait of Gibraltar ( Stuart will try to swim later this year). Many Moors came from Morocco to this part of Spain and ruled parts of Andalusia from the early 8th century to the late 15th century, culminating in 800 years of history and leaving a legacy of magnificent food, art and architecture. As soon as you enter the hotel, an intricate 19th-century Persian tapestry that Stuart was given to him by his father and for which he had to adjust the height of the ceiling in order to hang it hangs. That sets the tone. Stuart’s attention to detail is spot on – a painstaking restoration of buildings bought in piecemeal over the years to create his own caliph’s court.

There are now 20 rooms, all with very individual styles; a rooftop bar; a pool; and a central restaurant, Jardín del Califa, which serves Moroccan and Middle Eastern food in vaulted stone dining rooms with a palm-fringed courtyard. The menu ranges from meze, tagines, succulent lamb and kofta kebabs to traditional barbecue dishes or crispy chicken and almond pastries, with homemade desserts including honey-soaked baklava, chocolate tahini fondant and date cheesecake.

Related: Beyond Seville: three ancient cities to visit in Andalusia

Beyond the hotel walls, Stuart and his Scottish wife, Ellie, are serious foodies – they run five more restaurants in and around Vejer. At Corredara 55, there are delights like oloroso marinated pork cheeks sautéed for four hours with apricots, plums and almonds, and spinach and beetroot crepes stuffed with pea and mint puree. But the stars of the show are a burnt meringue, which looks almost adulterous, and a beetroot cake served with lemon crème fraiche. It’s real cooking with the finest ingredients.

There is a chance to learn more about Andalusian cuisine and culture during an intimate cooking workshop at the home of another emigrant from the region, Annie Manson, a decidedly cheerful Scotswoman with a long-standing relationship with sherry (she is a sherry educator qualified). With the help of their sous chef, Pepi, we’re tasked with cooking a gloriously frosted white garlic walnut menu and almond gazpacho and a sticky but light orange lemon cake served with strawberries dipped in sherry vinegar.

The hotel is now a landmark, situated on the city’s main square, shaded by tall Senegalese palm trees.

The main event, however, is left to the experts. Nawal, a chef and member of a family of Moroccan sisters who work for Stuart, is brought in to cook sea bream in traditional tagines, heavily loaded with peppers, potatoes and aromatic Moroccan spices. Dinner is on Annie’s terrace with sherry galore and sweet Moroccan tea to finish off.

Getting away from food for a day, we set off on a hike through the beautiful La Brena y Marismas del Barbate natural park to Cape Trafalgar and the coastal town of Barbate. On the way, we stop at the cliffs of Vejer in the nesting area of ​​the extremely rare northern bald ibis while they feed their young; after being absent for centuries, the area now has one of the largest bird colonies in the world. The afternoon is spent with Stuart, pedaling back to Vejer on electric mountain bikes along an easy section of the new EuroVelo, a long-distance route that will eventually link Cádiz to Athens, and through open fields on farm trails.

We end our day back in Vejer as the sun starts to set. Stuart’s enthusiasm for his foster home is infectious, mainly because of how intimately he knows him. As we walk down the quiet alleyways for our last dinner, he takes a detour to show us an opening hammam – the first in town – and yet another important monument, greeting everyone as he passes, he jokes, “Maybe one day, there will be a my statue?”

The trip was provided by the Caliph Group. A three-night birthday package at La Casa del Califa starts at €209 per person, including three breakfasts, two dinners (El Jardin del Califa and Corredera 55) and a visit to the Vejer Hammam. Optional extras include E-mountain bike rental with route notes (€30 per day), birding and botany walk with local guide (€130 half day / €180 full day) and a full day with Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen cooking school from €155pp

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