Review of La Casa del Califa
- by Fiona Flores Watson
First published in Andalucia.com 'Special Hotel Collection'. Fiona is a journalist and travel writer living in Seville. Reviewed in 2016.
Enchanting, historic hotel in pretty hilltown with Moroccan decor, excellent restaurant with large courtyard garden, and rooftop terrace bar.
Why should I stay there?
Right on beautiful Plaza de España in Vejer, with its famous tiled frog fountain and bustling cafes, this characterful, cosy hotel spread across neighbouring 1000-year-old houses, terraces and patios offers excellent service and superb food,
in the heart of one of Andalucia's prettiest villages.
Where is it?
In the hilltop town of Vejer de la Frontera (200m above sea level), 12 km from the beach (El Palmar), just 60 km from Cadiz city, and 65km from Jerez de la Frontera, home of sherry, and the nearest airport. It's an easy 150km drive from Seville along good, fast, dual-carriageway roads. Other nearby airports are Gibraltar (85km) and Malaga (210km).
Who is it ideal for?
Those who love hotels which are comfortable, quirky and fun, full of hidden corners and secret rooms. As you explore, you discover more tiny staircases leading to quiet corners with inviting armchairs.
This is for visitors who want to experience picturesque Andalucia - a hilltop village, complete with walled old town, castle and battlements - plus foodies who come for the fabulous organic Moroccan-Lebanese cuisine, and watersports fans and those who love exploring unspoiled countryside.
What's it like?
A labyrinth of rooms on various levels across ten houses dating back to the 10th century, of varying sizes and shapes due to the unconventional layout - 11 staircases and seven entrances on three different streets - makes this as far from a standard hotel as it gets. The owner, Scottish entrepreneur James Stuart, bought the first house in 2001, and has gradually extended the hotel since then, while keeping its relaxed, intimate charm. Eclectic ethnic-chic décor, with lights, wall-hangings and artefacts from North Africa and the Middle East, including some exquisite pieces from the 17th century which belonged to the owner's father, transports you to another place. Photographic studies of North African landscapes and people hang on the walls, adding to the adventurous feel. Terraces are positioned for full sun-trap potential all year round, drenched in brilliantly-coloured bougainvillea and hibiscus, and the views down to the marshes of Barbate and neighbouring forests are phenomenal.
What are the rooms like?
The 20 rooms are stylishly decorated with rich Moroccan fabrics, iron beds and wooden furniture; floors are of terracotta-coloured glazed parquet brick, covered with antique rugs. Rooms overlook flower-filled patios, higgledy-piggledy rows of cube-like white houses clinging to the hillside, or Plaza de España. The suite, Africa, is large and luxurious, with a vaulted, wood-beamed roof, exotic print furniture and a corner hydrotherapy bath. Amenities are natural and lemon-scented. All rooms have tea and coffee making equipment and a TV, while junior suites (Torre and Africa) have a mini-bar and stereo system.
What should I eat there?
El Jardin del Califa restaurant serves excellent North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, prepared by the Moroccan chef. The house speciality is Tagra de Tanger, an aromatic tagine of borriquete (red bass) with preserved lemons, peppers, olives, tomatoes and potatoes, spiced with paprika and cumin; also recommended are the grilled meats and the couscous. Perfect for a warm summer's evening is the meze, with houmous, baba ganoush, tabule, falafel and flatbread. Desserts not to be missed include traditional Arabic pastries such as baklava, kunafa, and other delicacies with dates, almonds, pistachios, walnuts and honey, although they also have gluten-free chocolate cake. Service is attentive and helpful - we were lucky to be looked after by the delightful Nawal, who is from Morocco. Eggs, chicken and beef are all organic and locally produced, as are around 30% of the vegetables.
Breakfast has cereal, yoghurts, toast and fruit, as well as home-made wholemeal croissants, and the Califa's own-brand quince jam, with a mixed culinary-cultural offering of the North African (almond paste), French (pancakes) and Spanish (jamon iberico and chorizo), as well as delicious local honey. You can ask for scrambled eggs.
The restaurant has three areas where you can eat: the Pergola, a glassed-in conservatory with original exposed sandstone wall; the garden itself, shaded with palm trees and boasting a 10th-century well; or inside, with white-washed walls, and the stone cave, originally another well.
El Jardin del Califa is renowned throughout the province of Cadiz, and beyond, for its superb food - in fact, you would struggle to find anywhere offering North African dishes of this quality in most of Andalucia.
In the Teteria, you can have tea, coffee, cakes, and cocktails. Art exhibitions decorate the interior, while outside you can enjoy views over the marshes of the Barbate river, with the mountains of the Sierra de Alcornocales in the distance. Don't miss the sherry cocktail menu - these unexpected concoctions are quite a revelation (in the US they've been a staple in cocktail bars for years).
What should I see and do in the area?
Wander around the narrow, winding streets of Vejer, with its white-washed houses dotted with zingy-bright geraniums, crenellated ramparts offering views of the pine forests and marismas of Barbate, and indulge in the exploding food scene - think mini-gourmet market and gastro-tapas bars.
Beautiful, uncrowded beaches are a short drive away, with some of Spain's best watersports: fantastic surfing in El Palmar, by Cape Trafalgar, and world-class wind and kite-surfing in Los Caños de la Meca, as well as down the coast in Tarifa, where international competitions are held; for families, hip-yet-friendly seaside town Zahara de los Atunes is very nearby. Foodies shouldn't miss Barbate, home of the atun de almadraba, delectably tender blue-fin tuna caught in a sustainable system which dates from Phoenician times. Horse-riding, mountain-biking and hiking take you into through spectacular scenery - pine-forests, mountains and coastal cliff paths. At Bolonia, you can see the fascinating remains of a Roman seaside town, Baelo Claudia. Jerez, with its sherry bodegas and pure-bred Carthusian horses, is an hour away, as is Cadiz, Europe's oldest city, home to Spain's craziest spring-time carnival.