Cádiz and Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Guidebooks are not kind to Cádiz, a three-mile peninsula extending into the Atlantic like a gaunt, outstretched arm. Lethargic, past its prime, they might say. But as for me, it's a city I could live in. True, its tourist attractions are few—and therein lies its charm.
You come to Cádiz to attain perfection in the art of the paseo, joining the crowds of sailors, lovers, and older gitanas for a panoramic amble by the bay. You come to linger over coffee on a palm-fringed plaza. To wander narrow streets in the echo of babbling locals who lean perilously from their terraces to gawk at passersby.
Among the city's handful of national treasures is El Faro restaurant, a mecca for pilgrims of the seafood faith. As we enter this nautical haven we are greeted by the proprietor, who yells in our ears, "Our motto?Calidad, calidad, calidad!"
He is not bragging.
We struggle to decide which is best: a bite of thin, crisp tortillitas de camarones (shrimp pancakes made with chickpea flour); a luxurious slurp of gratinéed oysters; or a bowlful of clams in a wonderfully messy spinach sauce.
Our main courses are arroz marinero (a soupy, paella-like rice dish brimming with the day's catch) and a fritura de pescado, a fish-fry extravaganza—good, but not as spectacular as it might be at the right beachside shack. The wine list is long and patrician, but we're happy with our young Antonio Barbadillo Cosecha: light, local, and cheap.
After a luncheon of such epic proportions, the prospect of dinner seems as enticing as a night on the rack. Nevertheless, we can't pass up another epicurean port—Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a 20-minute drive north of Cádiz.
Three things draw visitors to this sweet but unremarkable town. The first is the Manzanilla, which is produced only in Sanlúcar and owes its unique "sea breeze" flavor to the high salt content of the region's soil. The second is langostinos, the pricey prawns renowned for their exceptional succulence. And the third?The chance to savor the first two together in the lovely fishermen's quarter of Bajo de Guía, where the river Guadalquivir empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
Here's what you do: come before sunset, select a restaurant from the row lining the promenade (we were happy with Paco Secundino), settle at an outdoor table with a bottle of thoroughly chilled Manzanilla and a plate of boiled or grilled langostinos, and watch the giant red sun blaze into the Atlantic. It's an experience you won't soon forget.
The perfect postscript?Another half-bottle of Manzanilla and a couple of tapitas at Casa Balbino on Plaza del Cabildo, one of my favorite tapas palaces in Spain.
Ronda and the White Towns
On a crisp, luminous day, we begin the last leg of our journey, a gorgeous mountain drive from Cádiz to Ronda. This is the land of pueblos blancos, stunningly white Moorish villages poised atop craggy mountains and green hills. Arcos de la Frontera—a ribbon of shimmering white, stretched along a limestone spur—is a miniature feast of baroque façades, Moorish streets, and breathtaking views. Other white towns, Grazalema, Zahara, and Medina-Sidonia, are pure Andalusia, lazy and unspoiled, fronting the hilltops like blinding white crooked teeth.
We arrive, famished, in Ronda, the most celebrated (and overrun) of the pueblos blancos. Since bullfighting is a local religion, we choose a macho taberna named for legendary bullfighter Pedro Romero, across the street from one of Spain's oldest bullrings.
We get what we bargained for. Stuffed bull's heads protrude dangerously from their medallions on the walls. At the next table, a young matador is surrounded by a throng of groupies, all drinking at his expense. Our dinner?A platter of house-smoked fish; a delicious white-bean potage with Ronda sausages; a partridge ragoût; and migas, a bread hash with sausages, eggs, and enough garlic to stun a vampire.
"Queen Sofía doesn't like bullfights," laments our waiter as he brings our flan, "so the king has to attend with his mother."
We chuckle at the thought. "Imagine the elderly duchess of Barcelona shouting 'Olé!' at a bloodied bull."
The endless Vivaldi potpourri on the radio erupts into guttural rasps of flamenco. The music is still ringing in our ears as we board our plane at the Málaga airport—like an insistent tropical wind . . . like the madcap romantic poetry that is Andalusia.