COSTA DE LA LUZ

beach cape of trafalgar
This guide to what see, where to stay and eat along the Cadiz coast was first published in The Guardian Aug 2014. Check it out on The Guardian site for great pictures and additional tips and suggestions by readers.

Its old walled towns are densely packed with medieval churches, Arabic forts, watch towers, palaces, bodegas, tobacconists, scooters, bars full of bullfighting paraphernalia, kids on pink bicycles, and people eating fish on rickety tables that block the traffic. The spaces in between the coastal towns of Cádiz – craggy mountains, pine forests, fields and endless beaches – are empty and wild. Over it are big skies which, given the guaranteed 300 days of sun a year, are almost always blue and bright, hence the name given to this Atlantic coast, Costa de la Luz.

The province of Cádiz feels more foreign, exotic, and isolated than neighbouring Malaga. Popular with visitors 3000 years ago, it’s currently going through an ‘undiscovered’ phase. And in the south especially, there’s more evidence of its centuries under Arab rule; there’s fierce heat (down to a pleasant 20 degrees average in October), dust, wrenching flamenco coplas playing in shops, bars, and taxis, and you can see Africa from the beaches. It’s also more laid-back, something that has much to do with sherry. The coastal towns of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Puerto de Santa Maria, Cádiz and nearby Jérez, are important points on the official sherry triangle, and awash with it.

There’s a lovely, logical route along the coast, starting in Sanlúcar de Barrameda (erstwhile home of Columbus and Magellan, gateway to the new world) through the city of Cádiz, to the deservedly touristy Vejer de la Frontera, and the unspoiled beaches of Zahora, Zahara, Bolonia and Valdevaqueros, ending up in Tarifa. Straight through, it would take less than three hours, but allow a week . . . or a month.

STAY

Posada de Palacio, Sanlúcar

Faded beauty but prized location in amongst the palaces and bodegas of barrio alto. Comprising three once grand houses, and furnished with antique mirrors, desks, cabinets, clocks, statues, lamps and paintings, it’s like an underfunded museum with comfortable beds. Finest features are the original ones – the internal courtyards, the traditional floor tiles; huge bedroom doors; shuttered windows opening onto balconies, all of which provide authentic spirit of place. The owners plan to renovate and knock through to a fourth house, a neglected old property around the corner which in 1498 apparently belonged to Christopher Columbus.
Caballeros 9-11; posadadepalacio.com; + 34 956 365 060; Doubles from €90

Hotel Argantonio, Cádiz

Cádiz looks as if it should be expensive – actually it’s not. You can find a spot within easy walking distance of every monument, plaza, and playa on the map without forking out too much. Argantonio is the hotel you hope to find in all cities – central, friendly, and affordable, and round the corner from a good bar opposite an old church. Quintessentially Andalucian with its tiled floors, fountain, and courtyard, the rooms are pretty, if compact. There is parking nearby, but set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide if you’re planning to drop off your luggage first; roads here are narrow and generally have something parked in them.
C/ Argantonio 3, +34 956 211 640, hotelargantonio.es; Doubles from €95

Hotel La Casa del Califa, Vejer

Hope for rain and curl up in an armchair with a book, linger over lunch in the atmospheric restaurant, watch clouds scudding over the pile of white blocks, domes and church towers that make up this spectacular town. Like Vejer itself, the hotel is the sum of its historic parts (a 1000-year water deposit, old houses and stables, courtyards, a grain store), aesthetically pleasing, seductively relaxing, a place to unwind. However, you’ll note in the Map Room, that the Califa is the ideal base from which to explore the coast: Sanlúcar and Cádiz are 1hr and 1.5hrs respectively to the north and Tarifa just 45mins south. The boutiques, bars and churches of Vejer itself, are about five paces outside the door.
Plaza de España, 16; +34 956 447 730; lacasadelcalifa.com; closed January. Doubles from €90

Wallpaper House, Boston House, La Peña, Tarifa

You’ll appreciate how wild and elemental this coast is after a week in one of the two super-private, mountain flank classic prefabs high above the Straits of Gibraltar. Sitting in a natural amphitheatre under a rocky ridge, the larger, the Wallpaper House, was originally designed for Milan’s Salon del Mobile by Swedish architect Thomas Sandell and *Wallpaper magazine. A polite distance away, Boston, basic but romantic and engulfed in flowers, came from the USA in bits with instructions. Home comforts come courtesy of bottled gas and solar panels. Indoor, outdoor living at its best.
Low season for each: €120 / night. Minimum stay 1 week (Sat-Sat).

Riad Lolita, Tarifa

Classily renovated 19th-century al-Andalus house available by the room or in its entirety. Languorous and stylish with a touch of the film set; all grey, white and cream, with tiled floors, marble staircases, beams, shutters, and plenty of billowing curtains, crisp linens, chandeliers etc. Rooms are wrapped around an inner courtyard, and shared spaces include a pleasing kitchen – although given its location, tucked inside the old city, surrounded by cafés, bars, bakeries, you won’t be cooking. The family suite (double, bathroom, and triple) is a rare thing and top value.
C/ Jerez 18; +34 660 863 437, riadlolitatarifa.com; Doubles from €60 & family suite €115 (Oct); Doubles from €50 & family suite €95 (Nov)

EAT

Casa Balbino, Sanlúcar

The heavenly combination of local seafood + local wine is ubiquitous in Cádiz, but nowhere, nowhere, is it as good. Family-run Balbino, now 75 years old, attracts celebrities, politicians, and well-heeled locals, though it’s far from fancy. Squeeze in, claw your way along the seafood display, order by weight at the bar, balance your teetering stack, and eat on your feet under a bull’s head and framed matador snaps. Thankfully the staff are funny and fast, and the food – mojama (sundried tuna), squid, stuffed spider crabs, baby sole, langoustines – is delicious. Meat’s available, but it’s fish and seafood tapas, hot and cold, this place is famed for, and tortallitos de camarones, above all. So good, and so cheap.
Plaza de Cabildo, 14; +34 956 360 513

El Lola, Tarifa

You’re spoilt for choice tapas-wise in old Tarifa, but for a relaxed café atmosphere matched with top-class food, family-run El Lola is hard to beat. Try garlicky potatoes with fresh mackerel, and then the langoustines, avocado and wasabi, and the degustación de atún rojo for starters. There’s a flamenco theme going on here; tables have polkadot covers and the bearded waiter sports a frilly apron. Lola’s the last in a lane full of bars, so you could start at the originals – Los Melli and El Paisillo – and work your way down.
C/ Guzmán el Bueno, 5; +34 956 62 73 07; Open: 1-5pm, 7.30 until late.

El Jardin del Califa, Vejer.

Africa, just there across the Straits, is resolutely ignored as inspiration by most local chefs. Here’s the exception; a predominance of North African dishes, served under palm trees in a walled courtyard lit by flaming torches on (ojalá) a balmy night. The restaurant of the Casa del Califa offers a all-encompassing dining experience, from the exotic setting, right through the mezzes, pastelas, and tangines, to the Sultan’s Cheesecake, a burbling fountain, and, when I was there, aloof cat and crescent moon. It’s deservedly popular (moorish and moreish); book well in advance
Plaza de España, 16; lacasadelcalifa.com; +34 956 447 730 Ext 1; closed January

Restaurante Joselito Huerta, Sanlúcar

José opened a bar here on the sandy shores of the Guadalvivir estuary 55 years ago serving manzanilla to fishermen at the end of a long morning. Inevitably it wasn’t long before he hit on the bright idea of cooking the catch. The menu is basically a list of the things that are found in the sea served fried with a slice of lemon, and the clientele is local and loyal. Weather permitting tables and umbrellas are set up at the water’s edge, offering an up-close view of boats and the wilderness, dunes, and bird haven that is Doñana National Park. Confused by choice? Go for the selection of fried fish, the surtido, which simply comes in small, medium, or large).
Bajo de Guía 30; + 34 956 362 694

DRINK

Bar Barbiana, Sanlúcar

It has the look of a pricey deli (backlit shelves of wine, artfully arranged langoustines), but the football’s always on, the mood’s relaxed, and the drinks are cheap. Like just about every bar in Cádiz, there’s food, and it’s excellent (try the papas aliñas). Outdoor tables provide front row viewing for the evening paseo action in the cheery Plaza de Cabilde.
C/ Isaac Peral, 1; +34 956 36 28 94

Taberna la Manzanilla, Cádiz

At first glance it looks like a farmacia . . . except all the medicine in the dark old cabinets is manzanilla. Indeed, the walls are lined with of bottles of all sizes and ages, many of the ornate faded labels signed by matadors, flamenco stars, and whatnot. Not for drinking, so don’t ask. What you want is in the salty, tangy manzanilla in the barrels. The old regulars may fall silent as you enter, and the system and the choice appear utterly baffling, but just ask for a vino, slide over a couple of euros. Whatever happens next will be good.
C/ Feduchy, 19; lamanzanilladeCádiz.com; (Closed Sat & Sun eves)

Sajorami Beach, Zahora, Caños de Meca

The iconic beach bars, the chiringuitos, batten down the hatches mid-September, but this, part of a laid-back hotel, stays open through October and will do. Tables and benches are set in the sand on a bluff right above (depending on the tide) either the glassy lagoons or frothy Atlantic rollers. The Battle of Trafalgar took place just off the cape in October 1805, which is something to think about as you snack on tuna carpaccio and sip your tinto de verano.
sajoramibeach.com; +34 956 43 7424..

DO

Cádiz

As in Tarifa and Sanlúcar (and, to a lesser extent, Jérez) aimless wandering is the best way to appreciate Cádiz for two reasons: Firstly, occupied by Romans and Moors, enriched by trade with the new world, sacked by the British, fortified, and matured in the damp sea air, every one of its narrow cobbled streets spans centuries of history and eyefuls of sights. And secondly, it’s impossible not to get lost (although, because it’s small, and bordered on three sides by beautiful beaches, not for long). However, look out for the cathedral with its golden dome, the 18th century watchtower, Torre Tavira; the Mercado Central, and the Freiduría Las Flores, best of the city’s many chippies.

Baelo Claudia Roman ruins, Bolonia

Disregarding the three beach bars close by the fish salting vats, little has changed since Baelo Claudia’s heyday during the reign of Claudius. The villas, forum, shops, basilica and baths aren’t what they were in 2AD when an earthquake accelerated the decline in its fortunes, but it’s easy to imagine the citizens looking out to sea while waiting for the action to kick off in the amphitheatre. Various feet, heads, urns and reclining gods are displayed in the modern museum, an architectural gem. Bolonia beach is one of Spain’s best – long, unspoilt, backed by pine forest. (Right for the dunes, left for the nudist cove.)
Closed Mondays; +34 956 106 798; free entry for EU visitors.

Museo de la Manzanilla & Bodegas Barbadillo, Sanlúcar

A useful way to glean information pertinent to buying olorosos, manzanillas, and palo finos, but for the tasting session at the end which will wipe your memory clear. However, the chance to pad through the shadowy aisles of damp barrels, and admire the ecclesiastical architecture shouldn’t be missed. There are nine bodegas here, but Barbadillo, which swallowed up convents and houses, Pacman-like, in the 19th century is the biggest. Invest €6 in a bottle of Solear as you exit through the gift shop.
C/ Sevilla 1 – Frente Castillo de Santiago; +34 956 38 55 00; barbadillo.com. Tours 11am (English); 12 & 1pm (Spanish)

Windsurfing, kite surfing, surfing surfing, Tarifa

The heady combination of strong winds, warm winters, and extensive sandy beaches have established Tarifa as a top destination for year-round wet fun. There are dozens of schools offering every possible permutation of tuition and course from a 3hr try-out upwards (from beginner to winner, as they say), as well as shops selling and renting equipment. You’ll see signs to schools as you pass Punta Paloma on the N340 to Tarifa, and nothing but as you enter Tarifa itself.

Cádiz and the Costa de la Luz: where to stay, eat, drink and more | Travel | The Guardian.