VEJER DE LA FRONTERA, Spain — Time was, and not so long ago, when this country's Costa del Sol was an arresting vision of sparkling and sleepy little whitewashed towns along the Mediterranean coast from Malaga to Gibraltar. Alas, time and developers can change just about anything.
Torremolinos, Marbella, Fuengirola and countless other fetching villages right out of Don Quixote have become blighted with high-rise hotels, office buildings and other signposts of progress that have brought dispiriting sighs even from the Spaniards.
But beyond Gibraltar on the Atlantic side, along the Costa de la Luz things have remained relatively stable. Here and in inland Andalusia the white towns remain, to remind us of a Spain free of wall-to-wall tour buses, $200-a-night "golf hotels" and other signs of the late 20th Century.
Vejer is one of these white towns (Los Pueblos Blancos), so beautiful that its name means paradise in Arabic. Romans founded the village and it was an important place during the Moorish occupation of Spain from 711 until 1492. Historians say that it was the last completely Arabic town in Spain.
Vejer still rides the crest of its solitary hill as it has for 2,000 years, a pretty and languorous town where you may still see an occasional woman dressed head to foot in the dark robes of Islam, her face perhaps covered with a veil similar to the letam still worn by women in Morocco.
To here: Fly Iberia nonstop to Madrid, American and TWA with changes. Aviaco will get you down to Jerez de la Frontera, where it is best to rent a car for the hour's drive on to Vejer.
How long/how much? Give Vejer a full day and night, with another day or so set aside for visiting Los Pueblos Blancos nearby. Accommodations in Vejer are in short supply but the prices are downright cheap. Dining costs are moderate.
A few fast facts: Spain's peseta recently sold for .0086, 116 to the dollar. Spring and fall are the best seasons for a visit, but even midsummer is kept reasonably pleasant by cooling air from the nearby Mediterranean. You won't need a car in town, although the streets and alleys are often hilly.
Getting settled in: Hostal Jose Munos Lobaton (Corredera 55; $18 double) was entering its second month of operation as a small hostal during our visit, an absolutely spotless place with glistening marble floors and pots of flowers in the hallways. The lounge has a large window with the best view in town of the valley. Take breakfast and other meals at Restaurant La Posada next door, owned by Lobaton's brother Juan.
Hostal La Janda (Cerro Clarina; $22 double) is another new one and just as simple and neat as the one above. It's at the top of the hill, so the views are also marvelous. Rooms are modest but with bright curtains and bed coverings, one a mini-suite with sitting room for the same price. The two jovial ladies who run La Janda speak no English, but communications don't seem to be a problem. Breakfasts are served in the hostal, other meals at a restaurant next door.
Hospederia del Convento de San Francisco (town center; $69 double) is Vejer's very best, a recently restored 17th-Century Franciscan monastery that is exquisite in every respect. Bedrooms have exposed-stone walls, beamed ceilings, some with magnificent stone arches spanning the width of the room. Furnishings are handsome period reproductions, raffia-framed mirrors at dressing tables, baths completely modern.
One of the downstairs salons is lined with choir stalls, new rustic couches and chairs upholstered with colorful contemporary fabrics. Walls of the reception hall and bar-cafeteria have Roman mosaics from the 2nd Century, an impressive sight.
Regional food and drink: Andalusian meals usually start with a fino sherry accompanied by a few tapas and always plump and juicy olives, which seem to have a different marinade in each restaurant, all delicious. A rather startling sight in some cafes and bars is the bowl of rather pinkish lard used to smear on toast or hard rolls for breakfast.
Vejer is only six miles from the Mediterranean, so seafood is always fresh from the water: swordfish, tuna, clams, squid and choco , a tiny cuttlefish much admired around here, are a few of the delectables you'll find on menus.
Like most Spaniards, Andalusians love meat, so plan on seeing plenty of veal, game and beef, all prepared in a simple but hearty manner. Ox or bull's tail is a particular treat, served in a heavy wine sauce with rice from Valencia.
Provincial red and white wines always seem to go well with local food, but they're seldom exported and few make it beyond the region. So have the corriente (local wine) or go for a more expensive Rioja from northern Spain.