Get thee to a nunnery

Medina Sidonia Guide

image_63077_jpeg_640x480_q85Whatever I expected to find in Medina Sidonia, it wasn’t the Spanish inquisition; or the ruins of a subterranean Roman town; or the greatest Sister Act in home baking since Two Fat Ladies.

Like most tourists, I’d gone to this hilltop fortress pueblo (just off the Los Barrios-to-Jerez road) to pay homage to ‘the Duke’.

Not John Wayne, if you’re wondering, but the fabulously-named Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno y de Zúñiga-Sotomayor, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, who died four centuries ago this July.

He was the Spanish Armada Commander who suffered from sea sickness, if you remember your O-level history.

Medina Sidonia doesn’t make a big deal of the man who ultimately lost one of Europe’s greatest sea battles. Understandably, it’s not something the authorities like to boast about.

Medina_Sidonia_0049_rounded_720_266_10x10x0x0_cropedThey also keep shtum about a more recent ducal descendent, the outrageous 21st ‘Red Duchess’, so-called for her bolshie behaviour.

She once wrote a book claiming that the Phoenicians, NOT Columbus, discovered the New World! And that wasn’t her last two-fingered salute to Spain and her relatives before she became another skeleton in her family closet.

In a bizarre deathbed ceremony in 2008, she married her secretary and lesbian lover of many years and left the family silver all to her. Her son, the current Duke of Medina Sidonia, is Professor of History at the University of Castile-La Mancha and, probably, bitter.

Medina Sidonia has other secrets:

  • Two benches used in the brutish Spanish Inquisition where non-Catholics were really put in the ‘hot seat’! They have unusual pride of place in the Gothic church of Santa Maria la Coronada (St Mary the Crowned)
  • The town museum showcases a Roman sewer system that could teach Spanish plumbers a thing or two about waste disposal
  • Hidden in the basement of one of the old houses is an original Roman street, complete with pavements, kerbstones, gutters and Roman graffiti – remnants of the subterranean city of Asido Caesarina

 

 

The austere walls of the closed San Cristobal and Santa Rita Convent hide a sweeter secret …

Medina Sidonia is renowned for its Arabic confectionary, in particular its signature alfajores which have a D. O.-type quality award. Oozing with honey, crunchy with almonds, hazelnuts and sesame seeds, aromatic with exotic spices, all the local bakeries sell them but it’s more fun to buy them from the nuns.

The convent shop is just off Plaza España – a photo-opportunity of a square with a Renaissance town hall and two symmetrical rows of bay trees forming an arboreal guard of honour, their leaves sculpted into helmet-shaped bobs.

Through the convent doorway, past a sign marked Confitería, you come to a room divided in two by a heavy metal grille, and a sign saying: “To Attention. Please press the bell.’

 

 

A nun in a black and white wimple appears behind this medieval portcullis and I wonder what we’ll do if she’s taken a vow of silence. Fortunately, not. The transaction is accomplished in brief reverential whispers.

Whether for reasons of Health and Safety, or to prevent unnecessary contact with the outside world, you put your money on a little revolving turntable and the sweets appear in its place. Like a miracle.

It was a bit like being in a Confessional Box and sweets are one of my vices but, happily, they didn’t cost me four Hail Marys or even two Our Fathers – just a bargain €10.

And they were heavenly, of course!

 

Medina Sidonia Guidehow to buy that heavenly convent confectionery

 

Medina Sidonia Guide Notes on planning your trip

 

1. How to get there from Los Barrios, Centre of the Universe

Medina Sidonia map

2. Top Tapas

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Bijou & boutique: La Vista de Medina is well-named. It’s rooftop dining terrace at the very pinnacle of the town has 360 degree views. Find it opposite St Mary the Crowned Church. We loved the pumpkin soup with apple and bacon and the mince-stuffed red pepper with Roquefort sauce (pictured)

 

Spanish & Traditional: The Duke and the Duchess (Restaurante Hotel El Duque & Venta La Duquesa) guard the entrance and exit to the hilltop pueblo. Haven’t eaten in either but they were both heaving with locals when popped in to check them out.

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Hip & trendy: The sunny terrace of Show de Tapas is set beneath the castle walls and one of the three gates into the city. The white umbrellas against old stone are quite surreal.

 

3. Sizzling Stays:

medina sidonia guide

 

La Vista de Medina (left) is also a bijou boutique hotel
La Posada casa rural – apartments with ambiance in the historic centre

 

 

medina sidonia guide

Living nativity

4. Don’t Miss:

The Living Nativity. This annual festival sees a re-enactment of the Christmas story with real sheep and donkeys

Further information – Medina Sidonia Guide

 

5. Where next?

Check out these other fantastic places to visit nearby
Doñana, Vejer, Jerez, Tarifa, Zahara de los Atunes

9 Comments

  • Chelsea March 1, 2015 at 6:07 pm Reply

    Brilliant piece on Medina. I live literally 20 mins from this town and have never been but after reading your article it´s next weeks destination.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and looking forward to being inspired to go and visit your next disovery.

    • Belinda March 3, 2015 at 9:17 am Reply

      Thanks Chelsea, next discovery coming soon!

  • Lisa March 5, 2015 at 8:40 am Reply

    Love it! When are you coming to visit Mijas Pueblo with me? x

  • Kirsty Biston March 26, 2015 at 10:16 am Reply

    What a wonderful article Belinda, thanks so much on behalf of all of us that run a business here, for your lovely words and great praise for our little town.

    As a foreigner who settled here 11 years ago, I consider Medina Sidonia my home and always feel really proud when I come across anything written about it. You don’t very often see many articles written in English, so to find such a wonderful compresensive article wriiten by yourself was a real treat.

    I hope we see you again soon,

    Kirsty

    • Belinda March 27, 2015 at 8:55 am Reply

      So great to hear your feedback Kirsty, I will most definitely be back in Medina Sidonia!

  • Vincent Jenkins August 23, 2016 at 8:49 pm Reply

    I have been on the electoral roll of Medina Sidonia since 2002. I first came here more than 50 years and recognized the place as a living example of an oppidum, one of those hill-top towns that Caesar tells us about in his report on “The war in Gaul”. That is one reason why when I retired from archaeology I came back here to stay.
    I understand that your intended audience is “wow” tourism rather than academic interest or intellectual accuracy, but I feel that your panoramic photo of the town ought to be of the right town. Your photo is of Zahara de la Sierra, an interesting place in its own right, it is not of Medina Sidonia. I would like you to correct this if you can.

    • Belinda August 24, 2016 at 5:06 pm Reply

      Hi Vincent, Thank you for pointing this out, in my 40 years or so as a journalist I strive for accuracy as well as wow factor. The photo in question which was sent to me masquerading as Medina Sidonia has been removed and replaced!

  • Vincent Jenkins August 26, 2016 at 9:34 pm Reply

    Thanks for correcting the photo of the town . Since the Living Nativity began my wife and I have been the innkeepers who say “There is no room in the inn, but you can stay in the stable”. But because of my beard some children think that I am Santa Claus.

    • Belinda August 28, 2016 at 8:21 am Reply

      I’ll keep a look out for you one Christmas, Papa Noel!

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