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.
They 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:
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 Guide – how to buy that heavenly convent confectionery
1. How to get there from Los Barrios, Centre of the Universe
2. Top Tapas
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.
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:
La Vista de Medina (left) is also a bijou boutique hotel
La Posada casa rural – apartments with ambiance in the historic centre
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?