The more than 7,000 and one nights of the Califa
The Califa complex of Vejer, which celebrates almost two decades driving the tourist boom in this town of the province of Cádiz, was born from the hand of a Scottish globetrotter who arrived hungry in the 80s.
Text by Paco Sánchez Múgica / Photos by Manu García
Translated from the original article in La Voz del Sur 8 Oct 2019
James Stuart in the ancient 10th.Century 'Aljibe'. PHOTO: MANU GARCÍA
The British newspaper The Guardian recently placed Vejer de la Frontera, as one of the best places in the world to restart your life. James Stuart can attest to that. This man was born in the Scottish Highlands 55 years ago, in a small town of an unpronounceable name near Inverness, and ended up being reborn with his family and businesses in Southern Europe, at the top of the 201 meters that separate from sea level this beautiful town of whitewashed houses. He arrived at neighboring Tarifa in 1987. After a days windsurfing in Los Caños, he discovered Vejer on a day strong windy ‘Levante’ day. Back in those days winter was a desolate time on this coast and James headed inland looking for a snack. And Vejer offered it. You could practically say that since then he stayed there.
He bought a small house for 200,000 pesetas of the time (about 1,200 euros today), “what I had literally saved from my winter as a ski instructor in the Alps”, and with his business partner, Regli Álvarez , he set up an active tourism company, planning bike routes for foreigners throughout Andalusia. It was the early 1990’s when that adventure began and a decade later, in 2001, they opened the Califa Hotel, in the medieval heart of Vejer.
James Stuart and Regli Alvarez in the garden of the Califa. PHOTO: MANU GARCÍA
Of those first eight rooms, today they have grown to a total of 34 rooms within the union of the eleven (corrected form the original article) houses that make up the Califa complex. This includes Plaza 18, a renovated property that has recently opened its doors as Luxury boutique hotel. In high season, the group employs about 80 people, which are reduced by half when autumn-winter arrives. The growth of the Stuart project has gone hand in hand with the tourist boom of Vejer, on the route of the most beautiful villages in Spain. On one of the walls of the establishment, where the taste of his alma mater is quickly evidenced by photography, there is an image in which James’s Volkswagen Beetle appears, with its surfboards on the roof, and near the iconic vehicle passes an old Vejeriego with his donkey. This is a powerful symbol of the radical change that Vejer has experienced in a little over thirty years. It is ratified by Vejeriega businesswoman Regli Álvarez, who studied tourism in Seville and has been a business partner since the 90’s of the last century. “When I was a girl, there was no tourism here. I don't know if we are guilty of that development, but they know us in many countries, sometimes we are amazed with the things that customers tell us and the places from which they come. I don't know if it has coincided, but since we opened the hotel and restaurant Vejer it has grown exponentially. ”
El Muro, Vejer 1988. PHOTO: JUAN GARCIA
With a sustainable and ecological spirit, this tourist complex, a step away from turning two decades, adds to its offer of accommodation - there is another hotel of the group in Los Caños - a tea shop, a street food café and the Jardín del Califa, one of the most popular restaurants in the town that houses an 11th-century cistern inside. Not surprisingly, the oldest area of the Caliph has been occupied since the 10th century. The labyrinthine hotel and its different dining areas treasure antiques from both Andalucia and the Middle East and North Africa that have made it almost a kind of museum for the town, with just over 12,000 inhabitants and a few kilometers from the most pristine coast of Cádiz. Many kilometers from the native Scotland of James. “The Highlands are very different, it is easier to work here, we have tourism all year round. In Scotland, fishing, hunting tourism works very well ... but it is much more seasonal than here. It is different, life is different. Here I have my family - married and with two daughters - and my business, I would not return, but I will always be Scottish, although this is my house, I feel very comfortable here. My girls are Spanish and have a British passport,” says the businessman, while touring some buildings that await surprises at every step.
An Iranian tapestry from the 19th century, among the jewels of the Hotel Califa. PHOTO: MANU GARCÍA
A 1.8 meter lamp handmade in Marrakesh, some guns from the early nineteenth century of an African hunter, an Iranian tapestry of the nineteenth century that could be perfectly in a museum ... And photos, many photos and family memories. There is a picture of James's paternal grandmother, in a colonial straw hut in northern Rhodesia (today's Zambia). "This photo (from 1904) shows how things change throughout life, she eventually died in Scotland," explains her grandson, Scottish by birth and adopted Vejeriego more than a century later.
James shows the huts in Rhodesia where his paternal grandmother was born, in a photo from 1904. PHOTO: MANU GARCÍA
We follow the route through the interior of the charms of the Caliph. "This is like Hogwarts Castle," jokes its owner. James Stuart, with the name of a film actor, is not afraid that Brexit wobbles his tourist emporium in the province of Cádiz. “I think that Spain will adapt and the Government will not hit the British to get visas or anything. The borders in Europe are free in any case and I personally am not afraid. The national market is very strong, the Spaniards have a lot of weight and every time we have seen a small slump of Britons or Germans, the Spaniards fill up the gaps.” 60-65% of Califa Group customers are, in fact, of national origin, while the rest is foreign. "I'm British but I don't push the British market, we work a lot with English, Italians ... there are hoteliers who look at a specific market, but here we are very open."
Next to the network of rooms, the idea of complementing them with a very special restaurant arises. “It was the food I knew, the food of my childhood. Typical back then were the classic Andalucian restaurants or a pizzeria, almost anywhere twenty years ago is what it was. The idea was to do something different, very risky, but with a very good product quality and an incomparable space, it doesn't matter if you are inside or outside. ”
Skewers of lamb, in the Jardín del Califa. PHOTO: MANU GARCÍA
Thus arose the Jardín del Califa , the icing on the cake of the complex. You can eat in a vaulted stone silo that dates back to 1527 or the aforementioned Almohad cistern. Lebanese tabbouleh, Moroccan pastry, babaganoush , Syrian magubla (eggplants and minced meat with rice), beef tagine with prunes, or mezzes from the Middle East. A menu that gives an idea of where everything goes in the Califa, which also has a dedicated pastry chef making Arabic sweets, desserts and baklava.
Just round the corner, going down a narrow whitewashed street, you enter the Palmeras del Califa, where a swimming pool and more rooms arranged with the same care and taste as the rest of the Califa await their clients. As in The thousand and one nights, the famous medieval collection in Persian language of traditional tales of the Middle East, the Califa Group celebrates more than 7,000 nights sheltering those who visit Vejer, filling bellies of hungry travellers and creating wealth and employment in this Cádiz province town. And all because of that sandwich for which a blond, light-eyed guy from the Highlands yearned for after a days surfing.