Andalucía's best kept secret

Sanlucar de Barrameda is a Spanish city serving up seriously big flavours

For decades, Spain’s Mediterranean coast has been the country’s dominant tourist destination. And that’s no bad thing, for while 18-30s tours tear up the Costa Del Sol, savvy Spaniards and in-the-know travellers trickle triumphantly through Andalucía’s smaller airports, heading for the sprawling, vineyard-rich pastures of Jerez and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

At the moment, there are no direct flights from Dubai to Sanlúcar’s nearest airports, Jerez (around 20 minutes away) and Seville (a little over an hour away). The upswing, however, is that you can fly direct to Madrid, and start your break with a road trip. Which, is exactly what we did. Navigating your way down is surprisingly simple once you’re out of the capital, as there’s only one major route heading south. Again, that’s once you’re out of the capital. Set time aside for driving past the Plaza de Cibeles at least three times, in a consistently surprising variety of directions. Once you’ve negotiated your way through a series of highway intersections that would test the very brightest minds of Mensa, you should be free to cry silent tears of gratitude at the sight of the E-90.

At just under six hours, it’s a long but rewarding drive. Few roads in Europe (or indeed, the UAE) take in so many varying landscapes, not to mention ancient landmarks. Whizz past cotton fields and vineyards, over gorges, through mountain tunnels and, at Mérida, catch a glimpse of some of the oldest Roman ruins in the country.

Located in the northwest of Cádiz province, Sanlúcar is renowned throughout the country for the fortified drinks exported from its many bodegas, but also for serving up some of the region’s finest cuisine. Local catch ranges from octopus to razor clams, langoustines to shark, enormous tuna to the small-but-famous “Sanlúcar prawns”. There’s no better way to get acquainted with the local produce than a stroll around the market, where chainmail-gloved fishmongers fillet with such speed it’s a wonder they possess any fingers left to protect.

There’s no less of a performance to watch in the Plaza del Cabildo (pictured above) – and we’re not talking about the square’s resident busking flamenco singer. Head to the rightly popular Casa Balbino for some of the absolute best tapas in town, served by a clamouring team of waiters, firing out orders at incredible pace while a selection of local cured meats dangle over their heads. Once you’ve jostled for your place at the bar (and practised your Spanish pronunciations in your head at least 17 times – the local dialect variations will ensure even then you don’t get it quite right) don’t miss the tortillas de camarones, pulpo alla gallega and cazón en tomate – shrimp fritters, sliced octopus with paprika and dog fish in a tomato sauce, respectively. At between €1.50-3.50 (Dhs6-14) each, they’re a fantastically tasty bargain, and one of the reasons you’ll struggle to get a table any time after 8pm.

But the real pleasure of the square is the people-watching and table-hopping it affords. Don’t miss Barbiana, legendary for its papas aliñás – a cold tapas of crushed potatoes topped with cooked tuna, onions and liberal-handed lashings of olive oil.

Beyond el centro is the famed beachfront promenade of Bajo de Guía, site of the community’s endurance Sunday lunches. Turn up before 2pm and you might be the only ones tucking into your breadsticks, but an hour later and for the rest of the afternoon, the strip is rowdy with Spanish chatter, bossy waiters and the scrapings of plates. Head to Poma for richly flavoured arroz a la marinera (a saucier, soupier spin on paella), or neighbouring Avante Claro for the sweetest almejas al ajillo (clams in garlic) you will find anywhere on the Andalucían coast. In the evenings, the Bajo tends to be far quieter, particularly in low season, but you’ll always find a crowd in tapas bar Casa Bigote, scarfing plates of delicate atún mechado (marinated tuna) and tender chocos fritos (fried cuttlefish).

Until now, you’ve probably never heard of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, but the tide of Spaniards who make their way here every year should tell you enough. Bring an open mind and a big appetite, and prepare to fall in love with this gastronomic gem on Andalucía’s Atlantic coast.

While you’re there
Where to…

Eat
Avante claro

A Sunday lunchtime staple on the Bajo de Guía. Try the catch of the day, filleted or served whole, alongside a splash of pisto and olive oil-dressed potatoes.
www.restauranteavanteclaro.com (+34 956 38 09 15).

Sleep
Club de campo

Stay in a huge villa overlooking your own private pool, a golf course and out to the sprawling Andalucían countryside. Easily the region’s most peaceful accommodation.
Email casamiguelsanlucar@gmail.com for bookings.

Explore
Cádiz

Famously the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain, ditch the car at El Puerto de Santa María and take the ferry across for a couple of euros. Spend a day exploring the sights.
www.cadizturismo.com.

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