Every April (and let’s hope it happens this year), people from the mayor’s office in the southern Spanish hill town of Vejer de la Frontera tramp its streets in search of residents who have let the facades of their homes get a bit, well, grubby.
Those inhabitants whose walls fail to come up to snuff get a knock on the door and a polite request to rectify the situation with a fresh coat of paint.
After all, when you’ve made the official list of the most beautiful villages in Spain, you don’t want to lose the accolade. And it’s not just the brilliant white of its buildings that helped this medieval pueblo blanco, 55 miles west of Gibraltar, gain a global reputation.
The bright side of life: Every April people from the mayor’s office in Vejer de la Frontera check that residents are keeping their properties dazzlingly white – and urge them to give them a lick of paint if they’re looking grubby
Hey, good looking: Vejer de la Frontera made the official list of the most beautiful villages in Spain
It turns out that much of this is owing to a 55-year-old Scotsman called James Stuart. When, 30 years ago, he arrived in this town of 12,700 people in search of a snack after a day’s windsurfing on the coast, it had just one hotel.
Most visitors were forced to stay in small pensions and were lucky to get any hot water for a shower in one of the shared bathrooms.
Today, he is the Rick Stein of Vejer. Just as the British celebrity chef accumulated so many outlets in the Cornish port of Padstow that it has become known as Padstein, Vejer has become so dominated by Stuart it could almost be dubbed Jaime de la Frontera.
Vejer de la Frontera, which lies 55 miles west of Gibraltar, is great for birdwatching – 2,000 griffon vultures nest on the nearby hill of Sierra de Retin
Apart from owning the hottest restaurant in town, he and his partners have four other restaurants and bars, four hotels, and four homes for rent. He bought his first house in the town for £1,000 in 1989, selling it two years later to buy a four-floor property for £34,000 that became his first hotel, La Casa del Califa.
At the beginning, it had just eight rooms and no bar, but now it has 20 and a courtyard which houses one of the prettiest restaurants you’re ever likely to see. Diners select from a Moroccan-inspired menu and eat in the shade of palm trees. It’s no surprise to hear you won’t get a table at El Jardin del Califa without a booking on any evenings from July up to October.
And another highlight of this gastronomic hotspot — whose labyrinth of streets teems with tapas bars — is Corredera 55, run by James’s Scottish wife Ellie.
Scottish expat James Stuart is the Rick Stein of Vejer, writes Dominic Midgley. He runs the hottest restaurant in town along with four other restaurants and bars and four hotels. Plus four homes available to rent
Even Vejer’s most evangelistic cheerleaders concede it only takes a couple of days to do the rounds of the town’s cultural attractions, but that’s when its role as a base camp for other activities comes into play, writes Dominic
I stayed at his newest property, a luxurious boutique number called Plaza 18, situated just off enchanting Plaza de Espana.
Opened in 2019, it is a joint venture with British couple James and Nicky Dobree.
Nicky made her name designing the interiors of ski chalets — for the sort of people who spend £50,000 on a sofa. I can’t vouch for the price of the sofas at Plaza 18, but the beds are a delight.
As the Plaza has only six rooms, there is no room service, but you can serve yourself from an honesty bar, which sits below a portrait of a distinguished looking seafaring gent.
There are tapas bars aplenty nestled amid Vejer de la Frontera’s labyrinth of streets
The cities of Cadiz and Seville are within easy reach of Vejer de la Frontera (pictured), reveals Dominic, as is Jerez, the southern tip of the so-called Sherry Triangle
Dominic stayed at James Stuart’s newest property, ‘a luxurious boutique number called Plaza 18 [pictured], situated just off enchanting Plaza de Espana’
Plaza 18, pictured, opened in 2019 and is a joint venture with British couple James and Nicky Dobree. Nicky, reveals Dominic, ‘made her name designing the interiors of ski chalets — for the sort of people who spend £50,000 on a sofa’
Doubles at Plaza 18 in low season from £140 — including breakfast (hotelplaza18.com). EasyJet (easyjet.com) London to Gibraltar (just over an hour’s drive) from £75 return.
As we’re only nine miles from Cape Trafalgar, the scene of Nelson’s victory against the French in 1805, you could be forgiven for thinking it is Horatio himself.
But it turns out to be Admiral James Saumarez, a contemporary of Nelson’s, who is a forebear of James Dobree. The original is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Even Vejer’s most evangelistic cheerleaders concede it only takes a couple of days to do the rounds of the town’s cultural attractions, but that’s when its role as a base camp for other activities comes into play.
Beaches with some of the best surfing and windsurfing in Europe are just six miles away on the Costa de la Luz and a 45-minute drive will get you to Tarifa, reputed to be the windiest resort in Europe.
History buffs will enjoy a visit to Cape Trafalgar, but to combine scholarship and pleasure, head for the village of Bolonia. It not only has one of Andalucia’s best preserved Roman ruins, Baelo Claudia, but can lay claim to one of the most beautiful beaches on the Atlantic coast.
Meanwhile, the cities of Cadiz and Seville are within easy reach, as is Jerez, the southern tip of the so-called Sherry Triangle.
As James Stuart and I talk on one of three terraces that line the back of Plaza 18, all with spectacular views of the town and countryside, large birds that look like eagles wheel overhead.
He identifies them as griffon vultures. It turns out that Vejer is a great spot for birdwatchers too. Two thousand griffons, almost extinct as recently as 1975, nest on the nearby hill of Sierra de Retin, also home to up to 50 pairs of the endangered northern bald ibis.
Clearly, our feathered friends have been as taken by this Spanish charmer as I have.