An ideal choice for family holidays, the Andalusian harbour town of El Puerto de Santa María is a short train ride from Jerez, the birthplace of sherry, a stone’s throw from Gibraltar and has enough bodegas to sink the entire America’s Cup fleet as well as some of the best beaches in
the whole of Spain. Samantha Kett reports.
Despite being almost untouched by foreign tourism, Spain’s Costa de la Luz is renowned for its fine, golden sand, warm sea temperatures and the relative privacy of its beaches. Santa María has five such beaches, all carrying the Bandera Azul (blue flag) denoting cleanliness, safety, and environmental friendliness. Situated either side of the River Guadalete they are separated by impressive rock formations, eventually leading into the Bahía de Cádiz, a marshland nature reserve.
The town enjoys a rich and varied history, dating back to the ancient Greeks.
Recently a Phoenician village dating from between 9 and 3 BC was unearthed and legend has it that the first settler was the Athenian leader Menestheo, who, after the Troyan war, arrived there and named the port after himself. In 711 A.D. it became a muslim town after the Moorish invasion and was renamed Amaría Alcanter, which means Salt Marsh Port. This was changed to El Puerto de Santa María by Alfonso X in 1260 when it received ‘official’ status as a town. It was from here that Christopher Columbus set off, in 1492, on the voyage which would lead him across the Atlantic – a guest of the town’s aristocracy, he was provided with equipment and a co-pilot, Juan de la Cosa. Upon their return to Santa María in 1500, they compiled the first world map to feature America.
Feeling thirsty? Then visit one or all of the town’s ten (yes, ten) bodegas – and you can visit them all. They are mainly family-run, some are nearly 200 years old and their owners have chosen El Puerto de Santa María for its climate, which ensures a good quality grape-harvest. You will be taken on a tour of the distillery where you can taste their wares, and if you are still sober afterwards you can stop for a bite to eat and a drink in the taverns and tapas bars in which many are based. The region’s tipple is fino (dry sherry) and each bodega produces its own brand. The trips are very good value for money – from 2 euros to 4,50 euros per person from Monday to Friday, although they are usually only open in the mornings and tours on Saturdays and Bank Holidays tend to be for groups of at least ten people (priced six euros to seven euros per person). In some you will need to book in advance.
As a fishing town, Santa María’s cuisine is based largely on fresh seafood. The catch arrives in the harbour every morning at 5 am. ready to be sold at market the same day, and there is no shortage of variety. Choose from raya al pan frito, mackerel or sole with fideos, malarmaos con sal, Caldillo de Perro (seafood soup with bitter orange), fried scallops, among countless others.
Seafood is boiled in salt water at a consistent temperature, the timing being measured to the second, and finally dropped briefly into freezing cold water before serving, a method which maximises its colour and flavour. Other culinary delights are artichokes, peas and chick peas, that grow on the banks of the river Guadalete, and the shrimp omlettes served in tapas bars. Shrimp are caught locally, rinsed and mixed with flour, parsley and onion before being deep-fried and served up as crispy tortillas the size of a coffee coaster. The result is delicious, and one is simply not enough. For dessert, try the Tarta Imperial, made from almond praline and butter cream – paradise on a plate, even if it is a dieter’s nightmare.