The Andalucían town of Medina Sidonia is a fabulous find for those looking for history and culture hidden away from the main resorts of southern Spain
Light and shade danced an arresting paso doble as I looked out over the valley from the rooftop terrace of Casa de Medina. The hotel is in Medina Sidonia, a town of 11,000 people in Andalucia’s Cadiz province. Nearby cities like Seville, Jerez and Cadiz – the latter just 30 minutes' drive away - have a backdrop of dance, though more usually flamenco, sherry-making, and bullfighting. But here in Medina Sidonia, the hustle and bustle of these large cities seemed light years away.
This isn’t for everyone. It’s a total escape from the Spain of package holidays and beer-fuelled nights on the Costa del Sol. Medina Sidonia is a picture-perfect white town on the quieter Costa de la Luz (coast of light). And here the light in spring seems softer, bringing the surrounding landscape to life. On a clear day you can see Cadiz and even the Rif Mountains in Morocco.
Medina Sidonia is renowned as the oldest town in Spain, first settled more than 3,000 years ago, and has been declared a 'Historic and Artistic Zone and of Cultural Interest' by Spain’s Department of Culture. The Romans built on early Phoenician settlements. The town fell into Moorish rule in 712 before being reconquered by King Alfonso X (El Sabio) in 1264 to become part of the Kingdom of Granada.
This history and regular change in control of the town has left Medina Sidonia with a rich tapestry of Roman, Visigothic, medieval, Gothic and Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical architecture. Medina Sidonia’s tiny cobbled streets tell of times gone by, as do the houses in its centre, built in the traditional Andalucían style and hiding a number of architectural gems behind their thick walls.
Casa de Medina was a great example of this. The house was bought in 2004 by Gary and Kirsty Biston, who spent a year restoring the property in traditional style, while adding a rooftop swimming pool and modern interiors. It used to be their family home, but they now operate it as a five-bedroom bed and breakfast hotel. Alternatively, guests can rent the whole house for a week at a time.
I stayed in a double room with en-suite bathroom and made use of the saltwater pool even though it was a bit chilly - not surprising, given the time of year. The rooftop sun terrace was a place to bask in the sunshine and take in the panoramic views of the lush green of Spain in the spring. The whole landscape is awash with colour at this time of year, the intense sunshine not yet having had the chance to bleach plants into the sandy-beige of Spain’s scrubby summer. Instead, winter rains have yielded greens of forest, emerald and jade mixed with spots of yellow, pink, red, orange and violet spring flowers.
From the terrace, you can see the town's patchwork of rooftops, which peaks in its many churches. The hilltop town is crowned by the blue and white dome of Santa María La Coronada, a 17th-century gothic church, located next to the excavated remains of the Alcazar, or Royal Palace.
The church square is accessed by one of three arches in the town, among the last remnants of Medina Sidonia’s town walls. Puerta del Sol, Arco de Belѐn and Arco de la Pastora now offer evocative aspects on the town – the pink sunrise through the Puerta del Sol, views of the church of Santa María La Coronada through the Arco de Belѐn and through Arco de la Pastora, orange trees and the distant landscape.
Taking a break from my walk around town, I headed to the main square, crowned by Medina Sidonia’s town hall at one end. Sitting in the twinkling afternoon sunshine outside Paco Ortega restaurant, I requested tapas – Russian salad, tuna with onion and calamari, accompanied by a Cruzcampo, the local beer – in my best Spanish. English isn’t widely-spoken in Medina Sidonia (this is the heart of real Spain, remember) but thankfully the waiter was able to interpret even my pidgin Spanish. In the square, life passed by at a leisurely pace. Despite this being a working town, traders took time to greet friends and families strolled by enjoying the sunshine.
Back at Casa de Medina, I had coffee in its typical Andaluz patio, open to the blue skies above. This area was part of the hotel’s charm, but as if that wasn’t enough, the hotel also has a cave off the patio area where you can cool off if the weather gets a little too warm. It’s believed that the cave once served as an escape tunnel from Santa María La Coronada to the rest of the town. I found myself lost there for a moment contemplating the events that might have shaped its dark recesses and made it a living breathing part of this town’s incredible history.
Where to stay
As well as Casa de Medina, a couple of other places are worth recommending: Casa Rural Los Balcones, a restored mid-19th-century nobleman’s house with seven suites, and Hotel Spa Al Medina Golf, a four-star spa hotel.
Where to eat
As well as Paco Ortega, try Venta La Duquesa, a slightly-out-of-town restaurant offering traditional Spanish fare and homemade desserts.