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.