Think Small

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.

Clockwise from top left Kinvarra, St. Siffert, Cevalu, near MonteVerde

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.

View of the old town and church from our “home” in Vejer de La Frontera

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.

From the old town in Verja de La Frontera looking towards new town

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.

Seafood tapas at market

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.

Night view from terrace at El Jardin del Califa

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.

Going Wild in Andalusia

The western face of El Betijuelo

When our guide first said, pointing up to the rocky face of Sierra de San Bartolomé, that’s where we are going, we thought she was crazy. We were about an hour into the hike and had already been up and down the fairly steep, but manageable trail and we were enchanted by the pine forests and the cool mist swirling around us. But climbing up to that rock face? Really? Laura, our guide, reassured us we could do it. And the sun would come out before the end of the hike, she said.

Earlier Laura picked us up at our home base in Vejer de La Frontera and we drove to the eastern side of the mountain, up a narrow road to Del Estrecho Natural Parknear the town of Tarifa. Across the Straits of Gibraltar was Morocco, though barely visible in the morning mists. In previous drives we had admired the pine forests which were puffy mounds of green on top of trunks throughout the region. Now we were going to get up close and personal with those forests.

Looking east toward Tarifa

As we started our hike, Laura stopped to point out familiar and not so familiar plants and bushes. Wild olive trees whose fruit are collected for a kind of oil. Wild rosemary and thyme. Another bush that blooms in February and is used in perfume. A berry that migrating birds stop to eat.

The trail was not obvious and the footsteps of previous hikers disappeared in the dusty path. Without Laura it would have been a search and rescue mission to recover two lost Americans. We had just made our way down to nearly sea level when we walked through the edge of a cow pasture (our path was frequently blocked by inadequate stick and barb wire gates which supposedly kept the cattle in or out of the area). Laura pointed up to the high point in this hike. Yikes! But she assured it our assent would be relatively gradual and easy. She was right. Relatively…

Once we gained elevation, the clouds lifted enough for us to see the town and beach of Bolonia and the blue Atlantic Ocean. After a bit more of a climb, she pointed to the sky and there were Griffon vultures soaring below and above us with their massive ten foot wingspans.

We sat on a couple of rocks (Mary sat safely a little further back than Peter and Laura) watched the birds fly in and out of the clouds, sometimes above us and occasionally below us. We had seen these birds once before on the Istrian peninsula in Croatia. It was a thrill to see them again. We had seen stork nests not far from here. These birds now live permanently in this part of Spain, not migrating to Africa as they used to. Climate change, speculated Laura.

We reached the highest point in our hike with only a little huffing and puffing and began to walk along the spine of the mountain with the Mediterranean Sea off to our left in the distance and the Atlantic to our right. We avoided the jagged rock walls where rock climbers do their thing. The plants along the trail were shriveling up from lack of rain providing little nourishment for a pair of horses we passed. It must look very different in the spring after winter rains.

Laura pointed down to the pasture where we had first been shown the place where we now stood. Holy cow! It looked so small and so far below us.

But just a few yards further the the trees and bushes dripped with moisture from the clouds blowing through them. The mountain, the winds and the clouds create a series of microclimates around this hilltop.

When we said we enjoyed the cool wind, Laura was too polite to openly scoff, but clearly the locals are less fond of these winds. Theoretically we experienced the Poniente, a fresh westerly winter wind that is humid. A bit cool today. (The easterly summer wind is Levante). Regardless, the winds make this part of the coast of Spain popular with kite surfers.

At times we climbed over large boulders, but most of the time we hiked between rocks outcroppings and knee high brush.

And Laura was correct! The sun did come out just as we began our descent down the east side of the mountain.

The path back to the car was a steady decline, a clear and easy to follow trail. And Morocco now visible off in the distance. Still it was hard to to soak in the view while watching our footing. Thankfully throughout the hike we stopped frequently to admire and take some photos of the views.

We will remember this day as one of the highlights of our month Spain. Laura was a charming guide with very good English. She was willing to share with us her insights into Spanish life. She had grown up in Argentina and lived here now running her own small business,, offering tourists a variety of outdoor experiences. We wished we had also signed up for the birding tour she does in one of the region’s estuaries. As it was she helped us add one more bird to our life list — Sardinian Warbler.

Not enough time in this corner of Spain!