The birthplace of the Duke who lost the Armada hides a sweeter secret
Most Brits have heard of Medina Sidonia thanks to its 7th Duke, Commander of the ill-fated Spanish Armada. But, understandably, the tourist office doesn’t make a big deal of the Spaniard who lost one of Europe’s greatest sea battles.
In his defence, it wasn’t entirely the Duke’s fault. King Philip ll pressured him into the job, even though he suffered from sea sickness! However this ravishing Moorish hilltop pueblo, considered, by some, to be the oldest in Europe, hides other secrets:
Hidden in the basement of one of the old terraced houses is an original Roman street, complete with pavements, kerbstones, gutters and Roman graffiti – remnants of the subterranean city of Asido Caesarina.
Meanwhile, the museum showcases a Roman sewer system that could teach Spanish plumbers a thing or two about waste disposal.
And two benches used in the brutish Spanish Inquisition, where non-Catholics were really put in the ‘hot seat’, have unusual pride of place in the Gothic church of St Mary the Crowned.
But what you least expect to find in Medina Sidonia is the greatest Sister Act in home baking since Two Fat Ladies.
Get thee to a nunnery
Medina Sidonia is renowned for its Arab 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.
Even though San Cristobal and Santa Rita Convent is a ‘closed’ order, the sisters do a roaring trade in confectionary behind its austere walls.
The convent shop is just off Plaza España – a photo-opportunity of a square with a Renaissance town hall and two symmetrical rows of sculpted bay trees forming an arboreal guard of honour. You enter beneath a sign marked Pasteleria, and eventually arrive in a room divided in two by a heavy metal grille, and a sign in English saying: “To Attention. Please press the bell.’
A nun in a black and white wimple appears behind this medieval portcullis to take your order. Fortunately the shop nuns don’t seem to have taken a vow of silence although transactions are 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 felt 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!
The imposing city walls, cobbled streets and white village vibe all make Medina Sidonia well-worth a visit. Civilisations throughout history have battled for control of its strategic hilltop location. It’s a hike to the top but you’ll be blown away by views across a plateau of orchards to the beach resort of Chiclana, 22km away.
Where to eat in Medina Sidonia
Chic and arty: La Vista de Medina is well-named, with coast and countryside views from its rooftop dining terrace. Find it at the top of the town opposite St Mary the Crowned Church. We loved the pumpkin soup and mince-stuffed red pepper with Roquefort sauce (pictured).
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 juxtaposition of contemporary white umbrellas against ancient battlements is quite surreal.
The Living Nativity. This annual festival sees a re-enactment of the Christmas story with real sheep and donkeys
Driving distances from Medina Sidonia:
ℹ️The coast – 22km; Cadiz city – 42km; Gibraltar – 87km
📌Vejer, best-kept village in Andalucia – 30 km
📌 Jerez, world sherry capital – 38km