We’ve done an awful lot of traveling over the years. Big cities like Rome, Tokyo, London, Moscow are great. Even the smaller cities or big towns — Avignon, Granada, Prague — are amazing. The cathedrals, the town halls, the castles, the museums! But we’ve come to the realization that our fondest memories often come from the small towns and villages where we’ve been lucky enough to spend some real time — from a week to a full month — Gradil in Portugal, Motovun in Istria, Buoux and San Siffert in France, Potrero in Costa Rica, Kinvarra in Ireland and now Vejer de la Frontera in Spain. Again and again our memories (and our stories) come from those small corners of the world.
These are towns most people have never heard of. Some are big small towns like Vejer and Motovun, but others like Buoux and San Siffert are dots on the map with maybe one restaurant or cafe and virtually nothing else.
While small, we have chosen these locations with care. We look for a place offering multiple day trips and sights within an hour or so drive. We look for villages big enough to have a coffee shop, a restaurant or two and a market. And we look for charm — some historical buildings, often on a hilltop with views and a place a bit off the beaten tourist trail.
What makes these small towns more attractive to us? Being able to return to a home base where you get to know the locals feels almost homey. It gives us, however superficial and temporary, a sense of belonging to speak to the same neighbors each day, drink espresso at the same cafe. It also encourages us to slow down, focus more on being somewhere rather than dashing off to catch all the must see sights in a famous city.
Of course, this comes with a few caveats. For the most part, you need a rental car. Most of these small towns are not easily reached. And you need the luxury of time. If you are in a country for a short stay, you will want to see the major sights before venturing off the beaten path. Fewer locals will speak English. And in most of these towns, good mobility is essential —lots of walking, often on cobblestones with steep hills. No taxis.
That said, we were lucky enough to find Vejer de La Frontera — one of the best examples of a great small home base in southern Spain. From there we could drive in 15-30 minutes to a number of different beaches for walking and swimming. Want to try wind or kite surfing or just plain old-fashioned surfing?
Not exactly our thing, but another option. Gibraltar was 90 minutes away, Cádiz 40 minutes. Roman archeological ruins, the other more famous white villages and Jerez, the Sherry capital, all within easy drives. From our home base we could hike from the village or drive in under an hour to more challenging hikes. Enough to keep us busy for a week.
Then there was the town itself. Just wow! Approaching from the east, the white buildings in the distance just spilled down the very steep hill. Once we arrived in the town, we realize there were two hills – one ancient and one modern, but in both all the buildings were white. Definitely a Pueblo Blanco. The only exceptions were the beige sandstone church in Castle perched high above the old town town itself. And despite all its picturesque qualities, it was a real — complete with laundry hanging from clothes lines.
In the valley between the two, there was a community of white washed buildings two and three stories high built 100 years ago. That’s where we stayed. Our place was one of several sharing a small courtyard. Our neighbor, José, greeted us as we came and went and locked the courtyard gate promptly at 9:00pm. He spoke such a colloquial version of Spanish we could barely understand him, but through pantomime and speaking louder he managed to explain how to manage the gate.
At the street level in both parts of town there were often shops and restaurants and on the upper floors apartments and homes which meant there were a lot of locals. It is a tourist town, but mainly Spanish with a handful of Brits, Germans and French. Amazingly, we never heard an American accent in the week we were there.
The streets are narrow and steep but nevertheless, cars, taxis, scooters, motorcycles come through at terrifying speeds, often plastering pedestrians against the stone houses. In August they run bulls through the same streets. We wondered which was more dangerous – cars or bulls. But we soon found the best pedestrian friendly routes through the town.
And from our foodie perspective, the town was heaven. There were plenty of restaurants, a number of big grocery stores, wine bars, cervecerias, pastry shops, cafes and a food market (a smaller version of the San Miguel market in Madrid) offering tapas from the vendors selling fresh seafood or charcuterie.
On the advice of two British ex-pats we found several amazing restaurants — El Jardin del Califa a standout for ambiance and food and El Quixote for its food and friendly staff. El Jardin del Califa sprawls on the side of a hill over multiple levels. Inside is a warren of passageways stairs and very narrow low doorways – sort of a reflection of the town. The main dining area is a lovely courtyard patio, the cocktail lounge has a beautiful rooftop terrace with breathtaking views. And the food – Morrocan! Tangines, couscous, dates and olives. El Quixote — wonderful fusion food and no ambiance, but lots of locals. Basically Spanish dishes with some very Asian accents — scallops with a kimchi cream sauce browned with a culinary blowtorch at the table, a stir fry of Iberian pork and vegetables served on Asian noodles. All delicious.
Not all small towns are food havens like Vejer de La Frontera, of course. But most will have some very good regional cuisine or specialties. We still dream about the fois gras in St Siffert, goat cheese in Apt, truffles in Motovun and oysters in Kinvarra.
Yes, we will continue to travel to the great cities and towns for their history, culture, vibrant energy, and gastronomy. But there will always be a place in our travels to think small.