Monday, 31 March 2014

El Convento de San Francisco, past and present: the new Refectorio restaurant.

 This afternoon, the Mayor of Vejer inaugurated the modifications to the Hotel San Francisco. It's a relief to see the scaffolding taken down and to recognise the freshly-painted but familiar hotel frontage. At last we can meet our friends in the Cafeteria again when the cold winds blow.
The restaurant and cafeteria have been closed for several weeks while major changes were made to the restaurant, El Refectorio. Formerly located on the first floor, the restaurant has now been resited on the ground floor, where it is more accessible. It occupies the former reception area together with the function room. The hotel reception has been carved out of the cafeteria area, reducing its size a little.
With Vejer's Roman mosaic presiding on the back wall, the new restaurant is both inviting and spacious. The former restaurant area on the first floor will now be used as a conference and meeting room, and a bright new kitchen has been installed on the ground floor.
The Convento San Francisco has been a feature in Vejer since the sixteenth century, when a smaller building was constructed to house a community of Franciscan monks. An earlier experiment in sharing premises with the Conceptionista nuns had proved unsuccessful.
When the Franciscan monastery was first established, its situation would have seemed almost rural, as it was sited well outside the walled enclosure. By the eighteenth century, the convent was the centre of a large and thriving community, which stretched up the hill (Calle Cerro) towards the vineyards at the top, and a new building, the present Convento San Francisco, was erected.
In its heyday, the Convento community would have been almost self-sufficient, producing its own vegetables, honey and medicines, as well as clothes and shoes. It would also have employed a large staff of non-monastic workers. The Convento's cloisters were situated on Calle San Francisco, where the Teatro San Francisco and the Mercado de Abastos now stand.
Between 1835 and 1837, the Desamorticisation laws removed property from the church and aristocracy, and as a result, the Convento passed into use by the Town Council. For a while it was used as a prison and during this era, one of the most alarming events in its history occurred.
During the mid-19th century, there was fierce opposition between 'moderate' and 'progressive' liberal parties, who knew no scruple in taking political advantage. It became routine for a politician voted out of office to be clapped into jail for corruption as soon as he stepped down. In 1842, the 'moderate' ex-mayor Ildefonso Fernández Arjona suffered this fate. A few days after he was detained, a fire broke out following an arson attack.
The fire burned for 5 days, and though Don Ildefonso escaped unharmed, the arsonists were never caught. In default of any more concrete theory, blame was put squarely on the shoulders of the 'progressives', though it is just as likely that the 'moderates' did it to implicate the other side.
Severely damaged, the unused Convento mouldered for many years, but at the end of the 19th century, the Enciso brothers bought the building and rebuilt it as a shopping centre. They added two new stories above the monastery church, which is now the cafeteria area, and these are now in use as hotel accommodation.
In 1998, the building was repurchased by the Ayuntimiento and converted into a hotel. It is now administered by TUGASA, the Cadiz tourist organisation.
The date of the opening of the new restaurant has not yet been announced, but it will take place very shortly. Meanwhile, the restaurant staff have remained in employment. They have been working on hotel maintenance tasks, but are now looking forward to starting work in their new environment.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Gaspar Sobrino's Vejer house.

The patio is decorated with a collection of 1950s posters
Gaspar Sobrino designed Las Delicias Restaurant, La Palomita delicatessen  and the new Mercado. If you've ever admired either of these places' décor, or wondered what was behind a certain impressive black door in the heart of Vejer's historical centre, you'll enjoy these pictures, which were published in the latest edition of Mi Casa magazine ( They show the interior of the designer's highly individual Vejer house, with all the charm and invention you might expect from this designer.

When Sobrino found his Vejer house, it was in a lamentable state, without services or utilities. All the floors, windows and doors had to be replaced but the result is a remarkable and beautiful summer home.

Brilliant colours in the living room.
A typical Andalucian town house built in 1900, it is arranged on three stories, culminating in a stunning roof-garden terrace. Sobrino's first priority was to respect and preserve the original structure and design. He was also determined to introduce as much light as possible into the building, as well as to create a highly personalised interior.

The roof terrace - antique bath sometimes
used as a jacuzzi
The design matches black paintwork with white walls, individualised by reclaimed floor tiles and varied by wallpaper and the occasional coloured wall. Most of the colour, however, is provided by the contents of the house.

The designer's unique style is apparent
as soon as you enter the hall.

A guest bedroom
A pretty cloakroom

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Hospital of La Janda and the defiance of José Ortiz

   You can't ignore it - as you turn off the roundabout and head up the hill to Vejer, there it is - the shell of the projected Hospital de La Janda, abandoned now for several years.
  Vejer and the surrounding pueblos used to have their own hospitals. One of them, on Calle San Juan, was run by the Sisters of La Merced. When it closed at the beginning of the twentieth century, patients were transferred to their Convento near the Plaza de España.
  By the end of the twentieth century, advances in medical science made it impractical to continue with small local hospitals. In 1999, plans were announced to build a new hospital, the High Resolution Hospital Centre (CHARA) to serve the people of Vejer, Conil, Barbate and Medina Sidonia.
  Work began in 2007, and according to the Junta of Andalucía, which is responsible for hospitals and other facilities, was about 80% complete by 2010.
  At this point, work stopped and the nearly-completed building was left to its own devices. Despite a barrage of complaints and petitions, the Junta has refused to respond to appeals to complete the project. The Ayuntimiento of Vejer has been outspoken in challenging the delay.As time goes by, vandals and the elements are damaging the building and it will now be expensive to complete.
  The Junta claim that financial stringency has made progress impossible. Some in the Ayuntimiento suspect political motives: Vejer is currently led by the PP, while Andalucía generally is a PSOE stronghold.
At the end of February, the Mayor of Vejer decided that he could stand no more. He has issued a challenge to the Junta of Andalucía. His words are translated below.

José Ortiz, Mayor of Vejer -
in no mood to mess around..

The Mayor of Vejer, José Ortiz, has made public his ‘indignation’ at the attitude of the Junta of Andalucía regarding the paralysed state of the hospital building project.
 Ortiz points out that work on the project stopped in 2010, ‘long before the change of governments  in Vejer and Andalucía and so far, the Junta has based its strategy on shifting the blame for its own failures onto others’.
Ortiz argues that the Ayuntimiento has ‘completed the installation of water supplies to the hospital, despite which it was denied an opportunity to meet the new Health Secretary. A petition was sent to the Junta, which has dragged its feet in responding. In addition, a meeting of local mayors of different political persuasions requested a meeting with the Health Secretary, a request which was ignored by the Junta.
“To this collection of absurdities, we must add that we have sent the Junta a signed agreement to supply electricity, which they did not acknowledge. This agreement, which pledges a subsidy of 450.000 Euros, was referred for the signature of the Junta, being required to justify the purpose of the grant by the Council”, the Mayor stressed, adding that the Junta’s strategy, apparently party political, represented a betrayal in view of the action the Ayuntimiento had already taken in installing a water supply. Since there was no reason not to believe that the work  would also be efficiently carried out in respect of the electricity supply, it seemed that the Junta was reluctant to proceed because if the work were completed, the Junta would not be able to blame any other public administration for the failure to complete the hospital.
  Ortiz added that ‘as the leading representative of Vejer, I can no longer tolerate them playing fast and loose with my town. The Junta currently has the hospital project on the negotiating table with the contractors, Pascual, for the renewal of agreements. Given their silence and since they have made no progress in the procedures which would allow work to go ahead, we have a completely abandoned hospital, the object of acts of vandalism, while the people of Vejer are obliged to travel kilometres for hospital care. I cannot remain passive any longer; I am obliged to take action in protest. I have therefore decided that if I receive no reply from the Junta by the end of March, I will initiate action to fence off and close the hospital site.”

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Carnival costume - the disfraces.

Vejer's 2014 Carnival celebrated the country life

An off-the-peg mask in a Conil shop
 Elaborate and ingenious costumes are central to Carnival the world over. A Spanish costume is called a 'disfraz', and while ordinary members of the public may buy their costume from a local shop or hastily improvise something at home, the performers, the chirigotas and comparsas and all those who dance or sing, have their costumes designed and made by professionals, many of whom specialise in this demanding work.
Carnival is celebrated all over the Roman Catholic world and represents an escape from the well-regulated life of routine and the sober face we usually try to present to the public. And though many countries have specialised in developing elaborate masks to disguise the revellers' identities, in Andalucía, it is also common to paint the face with make-up, a welcome concession to austerity and hard times.
The pilleus
Carnival evolved from the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which in turn grew out of the ancient Greek celebrations in honour of Dionysus, and so has a long and honourable history. The tradition spread from Italy in the early middle ages and merged with winter festivals in other regions of the Mediterranean.
The whole idea behind Saturnalia was to 'turn the world upside down'. Saturn was a farmer-god who took no account of social rank or position and during the festival, communities reverted to a 'golden age' where all were equal and there was enough for everyone.
Slaves pretended to disrespect their masters and everyone wore the 'pilleus', a hat normally reserved for the middle classes. Romans forgot their usual sobriety and wore colourful and elaborate evening clothes right through the day.

Many of these ideas have survived in the tradition of Carnival, and have developed independently in the different regions. In the province of Cadiz, Carnival is salty, outrageous and highly satirical, and costumes often reflect this tone.

Every town in the region, however small has its carnival groups. In Vejer, there are eight, and each group will have a new set of disfrazes every year, according to the topic of their act. This creates a lot of work for local dressmakers, most of whom have specialist training in the techniques particular to carnival.

Even so, some of the demands made by the performers will stretch their ingenuity to the limits. Dolores Moreno, who has been making carnival attire for thirty years, admits to sore eyes and sore fingers throughout January and February every year as she struggles with slippery satin and sews on hundreds of buttons. Her skills include shoe and glove-making, virtuoso sequin-application and the ability to create a set of identical costumes in a range of sizes and shapes, as well as to visualise and create wearable costumes out a few sketches and a verbal description.

Dolores spent four years training in cutting, sewing and design before she considered herself competent to take on the twin challenge of Carnival disfraces and Feria dresses, but one group of Vejeriegas has to perform the same miracle with no training at all. Because every school child has to take part in a carnival parade, every mother, regardless of ability, must create a suitable costume according to the fabric and pattern sent home from school. Of all the challenges of Carnival, this one is surely the most demanding.
Some disfrazes are complex, some are simple, but carnival isn't something you can easily avoid!

Monday, 3 March 2014

Carnival - the Pregón

The women's chirigota group hold a public rehearsal at the Bar Trafalgar
Photo: Juan Jose Moreno

 This is the week of Carnival and the celebrations will culminate on Friday the 7th when different groups will come from far and near to compete. This weekend, we saw several informal appearances around town, giving us a preview of what was to come and on Sunday afternoon, Vejer's different groups came together for the prégon, the opening of ceremonies.
 The pregón was not advertised, because everyone knows exactly when and where it will take place, and the Teatro San Francisco was full for the occasion.  The pregón was attended by all the town's dignitaries, because Carnival is one of the most important events on the town's calendar, but the person at the heart of Carnival is the Pregonero.
 The Pregonero, or Pregonera, because the job is sometimes done by a woman, is the master of ceremonies, or as we might also say the 'lord of misrule', who introduces and co-ordinates the activities of carnival.
However, the term was not always confined to Carnival. Originally, a pregón was a street cry, either from a street vendor or the person we might call the 'town crier'.

 A few street vendors still operate in the area. In Conil recently, I heard the guttural shout of the cenachero (fish-seller); 'María! Come and buy anchovies!' His fierce shout was not exactly inviting, but it was difficult to ignore.
 Although the cenachero was named after the 'cenacho', the harness used for loading a mule, he was famous for his pannier baskets, which he would set dancing on their chains. He didn't have the streets to himself. Even in the 1980s, milk was sometimes sold from a van, straight into your jug. Itinerant street selling was the main form of distribution for a whole range of household products, low on overheads and convenient for the buyer.

 Street-selling diminished during the twentieth century as cars on the streets increased and urban centres grew. Nowadays, itinerant sellers are more likely to operate from a van. Bread is still sold this way in the provinces of Granada and Jaen, the arrival of supplies heralded by a prolonged blast on the horn, and the knife-sharpener's whistle is heard around Vejer, though maybe not for much longer.

 Nowadays, the pregón is mainly associated with Carnival, and the pregonero/a is at the centre of the festivities, kicking things off with an individual and entertaining pregón which is unique every year. It is also the moment when the 'disfrazes', the carnival costumes are shown for the first time

José Duarte
 Vejer's pregonero this year is José Duarte, familiarly known as 'Pepe Purito'. A lifetime Carnival enthusiast, in 2012 he founded the group 'La bajada de la bolsa' (the bottom of the bag) which encourages the participation of female chirigotas in this traditionally male genre.

 In the opinion of 'Pepe Purito', though Vejer traditionally had a strong carnival tradition, it lost momentum at the end of the twentieth century. Fortunately, a new generation came along and restored the tradition to its former glory. Vejer can now boast eight Carnival groups, and enthusiasm for this unique cultural tradition increases every year.