Vejer is consistently one of Spain’s top ten prettiest towns (survey done by the Spanish Tourist Board) and is widely regarded as being the best preserved of the ‘Pueblos Blancos’. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Strait of Gibraltar Vejer is a historic monument town of turreted walls, flower filled courtyards and ancient buildings. Vejer has a very strong gastronomic scene with a range of excellent restaurants and traditional cafés to while away time in.
Vejer is situated at 200m. above sea level and is just a few km. from the beaches of El Palmar, Trafalgar Bay or Los Caños de Meca. Vejer itself is made up of 2 parts, the old medieval quarter and the newer part of town carefully designed in the style of the ‘pueblos blancos’ of the region. Surrounded by large swathes of agricultural land growing sugar beet, sunflowers and wheat Vejer has a lot of land given over to the grazing of the local ‘retinto’ cattle. Vejer overlooks both the Atlantic coastline and the ‘Las Breñas’ Natural Park a 5,000ha. forest of pine wood running down to the coast and the ‘Marismas’ Natural Park a smaller nature reserve through which the Barbate river runs and which is home to an important collection of birdlife. Both parks have walking trails running through them and are perfect for day walks. Vejer has many view points overlooking both the coastline & the cork oak studded hills of the ‘Alcornocales’ Natural Park one of Spain’s most important nature reserves.
A short walk away is the roman acueduct of Santa Lucia, with a water supply that feeds the small lush valley nearby where avocadoes, pomegranate & other semi-tropical fruits are grown.
A myriad of walking trails & wider cañadas (droving trails) run through the local countryside. The terrain is hilly although not steep, moderate fitness is required for cyclists wanting to ride to the beautiful town of Medina Sidonia or to visit the fishing port of Conil for example.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF VEJER
Vejer, thanks to its unique position, was site of the most ancient civilizations of southern Europe. For the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans Vejer constituted a strong defensive core against the Iberians of the interior for the defence of the commercial fishing factories and ‘almadrabas’ (tuna fisheries) developed by these settlers.
The Phoenecians & Carthaginians
The city of Vejer owes its early origin to its strong strategic position above the river Barbate and close to the sea. This location provided the town with natural good defences and easy access to the sea by river. Vejer was a settlement in the Paleolithic era and by the Bronze Age fortifications had been established on the hilltop. Historical references take us back to the rule of the Carthaginians (roughly 400 BC.) In pre-Roman times the city was known as Besaro and maps of the Roman empire show Vejer marked as Bessipo.
The Romans, Vandals & Visigoths
Visible relics from the time of the Roman rule (in 216 BC. Cornelius Scipio conquered Cádiz during the Punic wars) include the footpath of the Cuesta de La Barca and the Gate of Sancho el Bravo at the eastern end of the Corredera. The Teutonic migration of people into Spain finally ended the Roman rule here. During the short time the Vandals occupied the South of Spain and before moving on to North Africa they indirectly provided Andalucía with its present name. lt was the Arabs, who referred to the Southern part of Spain as ” al-Andalus” meaning “country of the Vandals”. (Photo – Roman ruins at Bolonia)
The Islamic invasion
A part of the vault of the Iglesía Parroquial originates from the period of the Visigoths. They were later defeated in a decisive battle against the Arabs at the lagoon of the river Barbate (“Laguna La Janda”) close to Vejer. In the following centuries the old town developed its essential characteristics (castle, fortification and layout of the streets and houses). During the
“Reconquista” at the beginning of the 13th century the first Christian troops appeared in the area around of Vejer but it was not until 1250 that they finally conquered the town itself. ln 1264 Vejer once again fell to the Arabs but by 1285 the town was in the hands of the Guzman el Bueno. From that period stems the appendix “de la Frontera” pertaining to the frontier between Arab and Christian occupied Spain.. ln 1292 Guzmán set out to defend Tarifa. During these fights he sacrificed one of his sons who had been captured by the Arabs and held hostage in an attempt to force the city to surrender. In 1293 Guzmán became the first mayor of Vejer. Later on the whole town was given to him by Fernando IV as a reward for his merits. (Photo – Arab Ojee arch entrance to Vejer Castle)
The repercussions of the re-conquest
As a consequence Vejer lost its independence which later led to many conflicts between the local people and the Dukes of Medina Sidonia (the successors of Guzmán). In 1535 Juan Relinque, a citizen of Vejer, began his courageous fight at the court of Granada in his endeavour to regain independence of his city from the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Although his arguments were supported by written law he nevertheless lost the fight after a number of years. In 1566, 11 years after Juan Relinques death the court at Granada finally voted in favour of the residents of Vejer and the town regained its independence.
As an anecdote in Christopher Columbus’ 1592 discovery of the Americas voyage sailed a citizen of Vejer – Alfonso de Clavijo. (Picture – Arco de la Segur with dedication to Juan Relinque).
The Battle of Trafalgar
On the 2lst. Oct. 1805 the British navy under the command of Admiral Nelson destroyed the unified French & Spanish armada at nearby Cape Trafalgar and the roar of cannon fire could be heard in Vejer. ln 1811 Napoleon’ s troops occupied Vejer. Don José Miranda Cabezón, led a succesful campaign against the French occupation which resulted in the liberation of Andalucía.
The Civil War
Violent incursions by anarchists at the beginning of the Spanish civil war in 1936 revived the demand for a land reform. As a result of these incidents two dozen Moroccan soldiers from General Francos’ army occupied the city & 5 inhabitants lost their lives.
You can still trace the outline of these ancient monuments and in places they appear proud & defensive & in others disappear into homes & you’ll see somebodys washing being hung on the ramparts. Heavily restored in places the walls were built in the 15th.C. as part of the defensive investment after the Christian reconquest of the region. The best sections of restored walls are to be found next to the north face of the church, in the Judería including the old gates of Puerta Cerrada and the entire section from the gate of Sancho el Bravo to the Plaza de España including the Casa del Mayorazgo (see below).
A notable feature are the various arches that lead into the old town through the walls. Unlike in many other towns all the original gateways still exist & form a feature of the everyday life of Vejer.
The old moorish built ‘alcazaba’ is tucked away down a narrow backstreet. Only one facade reveals this monuments history as the town has been built right around the edifice. A classic 11th.C. ogee arch leads into a jasmine scented courtyard. Beyond this there is not much to see as now much of the castle is residential. If you are lucky the local scouts who have their den here will show you around the ramparts from where there are fine views of Vejer.
Built on the site of the old mosque the minaret is still standing now although now crowned with a bell tower. Under the church is the outstanding ‘aljibe’ or water deposit built by the moors (not open to the public) so large that it can be navigated around in a small dinghy. The church itself has two contrasting styles. Towards the front of the main aisle is visigothic while the remainder is mudejar. The interior was completely bespoiled during the Civil War & little remains of the churches riches. Its simplicity however is most attractive. Take a close look at the burial niches along the outside north wall of the church.
A most attractive plaza this is a favourite spot for visitors & locals alike. Ringed with date palms with some immense bouganvilla bushes as a backdrop the Plaza de los Pescaitos (Plaza of the Little Fish), gets its name from the goldfish that used to swim around the fountain. The ornate fountain is not as old as it seems and dates back to the 1940’s. Decorated with bright ceramics & 4 spouting frogs you will find an almost replica fountain in the main plaza of Algeciras. The town hall (‘Ayuntamiento’) overlooks the square & a notable feature is the 16th. C. façade of the Hotel La Casa del Califa.
One of Vejer’s most notable privately owned buildings is the intriguing Casa del Juzgado now better known as the Hotel La Casa del Califa. Until 2018 the ground floor (level of the Plaza) was home to the local Magistrates office and after a decade of legal wrangling this part of the building reverted back to its righful owners, James Stuart and Regli Alvarez founders of the Califa. The main building dates back to 1527 although the façade was added almost a century later. Built on the site of a 10th. Century arab building you can still see the aljibe and remaining stairs from this era by visiting the hotel itself.
Next to the Gate of Sancho el Bravo you will find this large private house now a ‘patio de vecinos’ with 5 families living around its large central courtyard. Visiting the medieval tower is free, just walk through the courtyard and leave a donation on your way out. This is a good opportunity to see how families communally live, at one time sharing not only common living spaces but kitchens and toilets. From the tower you will see fabulous views of town, country and coast plus a splendid birds eye view of the Plaza de España. Open every day during daylight hours.
Standing proudly overlooking the south axis of the old town this chapel was built in 1552 as a tomb for Juan de Amaya and his family. In 1584 the nuns of the Conceptionista order occupied the neighbouring convent. In 1773 a brutal earthquake shook Vejer damaging many monuments. The giant buttresses holding up one side of the chapel now frame what is one of Vejer’s most popular views (see the Photo Gallery). The building was heavily restored in the 1990’s and is now open as an ethnographic museum most days of the week except mid-winter.