(Re)Discovering Rota, Spain & Costa Ballena {Arranque Roteño}

If someone would’ve told me years ago that Rota was worthy of being considered an international tourist destination, I probably would’ve looked at them with incredulity. It never occurred to me during all those years going to school on the Rota Naval Base that Rota was anything more than a little, sleepy agricultural and fishing town, situated in a strategic location for the Spanish and American military and the neighbour of my little Chipiona. Of course, I knew there was some sort of history there seeped in the stones of the old castle, in the walls of the main church, and in the rocks of the corrales. But from kindergarten through high school, I never really gave it much thought.

Rota for me, like for many other kids who grew up with me, was a beach playground and a place to go bar-hopping and disco dancing with friends. (Yes, I actually said disco.) And Costa Ballena, now a golf and residential resort, was where I used to hang out on a farm that belonged to family friends. A large portion of the land used for the golf course and the resort belonged to a cousin of the former King of Spain from the House of Orleans-Borbón. The rest of the land belonged to this family, who are our friends. On these grounds, I used to go horse-back riding, play in the hay stacks, and catch erizos de mar (sea urchins), which we would cut up right there on the beach and eat raw with a squirt of lemon juice.

After leaving Spain in 1997, it was many years before I came back to visit the area. In fact, the last time I went to our friends’ farm, I got lost because the roads had ‘changed on me’! Part of their farm remains the same as when I used to hop inside the pigsty to pet piglets and carefully feed the mommies or walk amongst the cows in the stable. I used to also feed the geese, although I was terrified of them because I knew their bites could hurt. And it was from this farm that I got my beloved little Marilyn, the bunny rabbit who was my pet until she grew into too much of a nuisance to have at home and we had to bring her back there. Our friend Francisco bit off the top of one of her ears so that we could tell her apart from the rest of the bunnies when I would visit. It turned out that the tiny act of cruelty had been unnecessary since little Marilyn used to come hopping to see me as soon as she heard my voice calling out her name. I don’t know what ended up happening to her.. or maybe it’s better than I don’t remember. But Luisa and Juan’s farm was my animal haven growing up. And Francisco’s older brothers were probably my brother’s first local friends.

So maybe you can imagine my astonishment when I now visit Rota and Costa Ballena and find an entirely different world from what my memory holds true. But just like when the Americans ‘landed’ in Spain and the Base was opened in 1953, the changes that come with this development progress have been more than positive for the Villa de Rota and Costa Ballena.

A few weekends ago, I had the privilege of rediscovering Rota at the hand of Descubre Rota, Rota’s tourism office. I was invited on a blog trip by my good friend Teresa, who pens the travel blog El Faro de la Jument and is one of the original members of the Andalucia Travel Bloggers Association.

I invite you to read on, to get acquainted (or reacquainted for some) with this lovely seaside town, maybe learn a few not-so-well-known facts, and discover Costa Ballena with me.

The Necropolis. Long before the Americans arrived in Rota, even before the Spanish Conquistadores landed in what is now the Dominican Republic to claim the discovery of the Americas for Spain, way long before then, there were other peoples who made this land their land. Who knows where they came from, maybe Northern Africa, or maybe they were the Phoenicians who sailed from the eastern most regions of the Mediterranean Sea and settled in the Iberian Peninsula. Whoever they were, they lived and died here. And some of them built a necropolis sometime during the Atlantic Bronze Age. During the construction of the Naval Base (which is actually a Spanish military base), the necropolis was discovered. It is the oldest archeological find in Rota; and because the the building of the Base had to continue, the artifacts were relocated. Some can now be seen at the Rota City Hall, inside the Castillo de Luna.

Corrales de Pesca. For a long time, it was thought that the Phoenicians – those savvy, commercial, sea-faring people –  had been the designers of the fishing corrals that shape the Rota and Chipiona coastline. But it seems like historians cannot agree on the origins of this sustainable form of fishing. So, although they are ancient, we cannot discern whether we should be thankful to the Phoenicians, the Romans, or the Moors for creating a way of life that continues to this day. Between Rota and Chipiona, there are eight corrales still in existence. To-day, they have been declared as a natural monument, the first in Andalusia; and hence they are now also protected. Many species of fish and mollusks live inside the walls and many others find their way in when the tide is high and get trapped when the tide recedes. The corrals were made with sandstone and lumachelle, a type of limestone containing fragments of shells and fossilized animals, which is commonly found in the area. It is not unusual to see house façades in Rota and Chipiona decorated with piedra ostionera, which is local name for the lumachelle. In fact, our former house in Chipiona has an outside zocalo made of piedra ostionera. One can learn more about this type of aqua-culture and visit the corrales by booking a guided tour with the tourism office of Rota.

Castillo de Luna. Rota’s more modern history is closely linked to that of Moorish Andalusia and the Christian Reconquest of Spain. Rota’s castle was first constructed on top of the remnants of a Moorish Ribat, which gave the town its Moorish name Rabeta Ruta. In 1297, after the Moors have been expelled from Spain, King Fernando IV of Castille grants all the lands between the Guadalquivir and the Guadalete rivers to Don Alfonso Pérez de Guzman, otherwise known as Guzman el Bueno, for his heroic efforts defending the city of Tarifa in the name of the Crown. These lands are comprised of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Chipiona, and Rota, where Guzman erects his castle and settles. A few years later, in 1303, Guzman’s daughter marries a Ponce de León and becomes part of the Spanish royal family. As her dowry, she is given the entire Villa de Rota, including of course the castle. In 1477, King Fernando and Queen Isabel, better known as the Reyes Católicos and as the unifiers of Spain, visited Andalusia and stayed at the Castillo de Luna. Since then, the castle has passed through various hands and has served various functions, from being the family seat of the Casa de Arcos, to being the summer home of the Marquis of San Marcial (who purchased it for 15,000 pesetas in 1909), to housing a school and hospital owned by the “Marquis of Villapesadilla” (who purchased it for 200,000 pesetas in 1943). In 1982, the religious community in charge of managing the school and the hospital abandons the building and it falls into disrepair. In 1999, after 11 years of renovation, it reopens it doors as the municipal palace. Today it houses the City Hall of Rota and the Office of Tourism. The Castillo de Luna can be visited by booking a guided tour at the tourism office inside.

Muralla. The remnants of the wall that surrounded the town at one time are still standing and visible facing the municipal marina, not too far from the central market, facing Calle Pasadilla. One could almost miss noticing the wall, if it weren’t for a small sign on the side facing the street. The town has planned to open a walking street alongside so it can be properly enjoyed. In the meantime, one can view it from behind a metal gate of sorts. But it’s definitely worth a stop and a look. The wall was constructed with lumechella, the same type of limestone used for the corrales and the many façades one sees in the town of Rota. The old wall used to separate the town and farms of Rota from the port and is thought to have been first constructed by the Tartessos. But it’s also been said that it could date from the 12th or 13th century making it Medieval and probably built by the Moors

Iglesia Parroquial de Nuestra Señora de la O. The day we visited Rota, there was a wedding at the Parish Church of Our Lady of the O. Roteños love to get married here, as it’s a very pretty venue; and the palmtree-lined plaza, which borders with one of the stone walls of the castle, creates a beautiful and romantic backdrop for any picture. One of my friends from high school got married here and I’ve been inside numerous times for various events. But I had never seen it from above as on this trip. One can visit the castle and walk on the rooftops, which provide an excellent vantage point of the church’s plaza, the Rota lighthouse, and the iridescent turquoise waters and white sand beaches. The construction of the parish church was finalised in 1537, during the reign of Emperor Charles I. The Ponce de León family paid for the building, which has been an icon of Rota ever since. Inside one can see various architectural styles ranging from Gothic, to Isabelline, to Plateresque and Baroque. Also inside, one can find the patron saint of Rota, Our Lady of the Rosary, whose festivities are celebrated in Rota in October.

Torre de la Merced. This tower is the only architectural remains of the old convent of La Merced, which had been founded by Don Rodrigo Ponce de León in the 17th century. With its brilliantly coloured blue and white tiles, it’s clearly visible from many parts of town and is another cherished symbol of Rota.

Las Playas & La Bandera Azul. Now that we’ve travelled through some of Rota’s most important history, let’s not kid ourselves. Most people today, including the Americans from the Base, come to enjoy the beautiful white sand beaches. Rota is surrounded by 16 long kilometers of beautiful beaches and turquoise waters that look like the Caribbean. From the urban beaches of El Rompidillo (old Garbage Beach to many of my friends) and la Costilla (the most famous and the one that brings back cherished adolescent memories) to the more ‘wild’ El Puntalillo and Punta Candor, which are protected by the pinewood forests, Rota’s coastline is a paradise for beach-goers, swimmers, and wind-surfers. Rota’s clean waters and excellent beaches are usually awarded every year la bandera azul (blue flag) by the European Foundation of Environmental Education. Beaches and marinas that offer a series of environmental conditions and whose infrastructure and installations meet certain standards are distinguished with this prestigious award. This year, Rota’s beaches and marina have been bestowed with a total of ten blue flags!

El Pinar. If there is one characteristic feature of the southern Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula, from Spain to Portugal, it’s the forests of the pino piñonero, or the pine nut pine tree. These pine trees grow along the coast and protect the beaches and the sand dunes typical of the region. Rota’s pinar is part of the Natural Park of the Almadraba and has a unique micro-climate, offering a reprieve from the heat during the summer months and protection from the winds coming off of the Atlantic. One can walk or bike through the park along the many walkways made of wood and breathe in the pine-scented fresh air. And if one is lucky, one could find a pinecone filled with pine nuts to take home and eat. My friends, cousins, and I used to go pinecone gathering in the pinar when we were young. We would also pick up palmichas (the fruit of the palmito – Chamaerops humilis – a palm-like plant that grows at the foot of the pine trees in the forests). The palmichas we usually ate in situ under the shade of the pine trees, savouring the fresh, earthy flavours of the white fruit, after cutting off the green leaves with a sharp knife. Needless to say, we were usually accompanied by adults. The pine cones on the other hand we could gather on our own, although we had to take them home to enjoy. Once home, we roasted them in the fire place, letting the sweet aroma permeate the house and fueling our anticipation of enjoying the little cream-coloured nuts, which we could only access after breaking each shell one by one.

Camino Natural Vía Verde De Rota. Rota is a haven for outdoor sports, from swimming, to wind-surfing to horse-back riding, to golfing, to cycling. The town has recuperated the old train tracks that used to go from El Puerto de Santa Maria to Sanlúcar de Barrameda and has converted them into a green way for cyclists. Within the municipality of Rota, one can enjoy 7,8 kilometers of this green way. By the way, rental bikes are available in Rota and Costa Ballena at the Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena from Bicicletas Valdes

Intervenciones por RotaLiterally translated as “Interventions Around Rota”, this initiative founded by a few local artists is very unique. Their mission is to enhance the town with art in unexpected places at unexpected times. The art is permanent, but when it will appear on the streets, the façades of houses, or on any given wall is totally a surprise for the townsfolk. It’s street art in a sophisticated and serendipitous format. We got a tour of all the “interventions” around town. They all have one common denominator: they represent a part of Rota life and intend to make the viewer think deeper. There are ceramic pumpkins, giant snails, two summer lovers separated, a representation of the different people that have made up Rota, a fishing boat filled with rocks (to represent all the refugee children crossing the Mediterranean), and even a street named “bésame en esta esquina” (kiss me on this corner). I dare you to find all 20 of them!

Costa Ballena & Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club. The Whale Coast takes its name from the beach called Playa Ballena, who in turn was named by fishermen who used to tell a story about what was probably a stranded whale. Legend has it that there was an old whale who circled the world in search of the most beautiful beach and chose these waters off the coast between Rota and Chipiona as its sanctuary. From time to time, whales and other cetaceans have been stranded along these coasts, but none other has been so influential. Costa Ballena, whose lands as I mentioned in the beginning belonged to a family who are our friends and the Duke of Orleans-Borbón, is now a touristic complex and golf course.

Unlike other golf courses in Spain, Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club was first built as a golf course, and later surrounded by housing and the rest of the complex. The course has 27 championship holes, a 9 hole par3 course, and the best practice facility in Europe according the the PGA of Sweden. The Club was built in 1995 with Spanish Masters champion José María Olazábal as the head of design for golf company Integral Golf Design. The course, which is all Bermuda grass, officially opened its doors in 1997 “to house all levels of competition, starting with the European Tour Second Stage Qualifying”. The Cuadrangular Internationals at Costa Ballena, King’s Cup, and Queen’s Cup have been contested here; and it is the official training base for National Teams during the winter months.

Friends of my father play golf at Costa Ballena on a regular basis; and my father played a couple of times before we left Spain. But I had never even stepped foot inside the complex until the other day. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s a mini-paradise that reminds me of parts of the coast of Málaga, which has traditionally been the jet-set coast par excellence. It has a beautiful park, with waterfall and lakes included, a 4-kilometer long strand of white sand beach, 4 hotels (Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena and Hotel Playa Ballena have great views of the course), bars, restaurants, pubs, and a number of beautiful housing complexes. One could live or stay at Costa Ballena and never have to leave … but then one wouldn’t delight in all the pleasures the Villa de Rota has to offer …

Food & Wine. For a food blog, I couldn’t possible neglect one of the great pleasures of life, now could I? Visiting or living in Rota can be a delight for all senses, and for the palate there is plenty to discover.

Rota is known for its fresh, wild caught seafood, its succulent tomatoes, its calabaza roteña (a native pumpkin variety), and other fresh produce. After all, this town has always been known for its fishing and agriculture, two trades that thankfully have not been lost to progress.

There is an old-timer and a new-kid-on-the-block I would like to highlight and which we had the privilege of visiting on our tour.

Bodegas El Gato. Rota’s oldest winery. It turns out I’ve walked by this winery probably a thousand times, and yet I had never noticed it before. When the Americans arrived in the 1950s, the lands where the Base is located were all farms. Many of these farms were vineyards, some of which cultivated the local grape variety Tintilla. Tintilla is a small, purple grape, from which the sweet, syrupy varietal Tintilla wine is made.

Juan Martínez Martín-Niño, colloquially called “El Gato”, used to have a vineyard on the lands of the Base, where he only grew Tintilla grapes. When the lands were expropriated by the Spanish government, Juan found himself without his vineyard and without a job. Instead of abandoning his profession and passion however, he asked his father to help plant a small farm he had in town with the same grapes. Little by little, Juan’s vineyard grew and eventually in 1957, he opened up the winery, as the only producer of Tintilla wines. It wasn’t all a bed of roses nonetheless, and he had to supplement his income as a taxi driver – a profession that thrived thanks to the Base – for a number of years, until the winery took off.

Today, Juan is one of the few producers of Tintilla wine, a local art form that could’ve been lost if it had not been for his tenacity and perseverance. In his winery, several generations of his family and friends – who are considered extended family – work to keep sustaining this craft. They produce other wines as well, many of which are organic, all are aged in their bodegas, and some of which are still bottled artsinally by hand!

The wines can be purchased directly at the bodega; and they also offer guided tours in English, wine tastings, and flamenco shows. It’s worth a visit and a taste!

El Bucarito. For someone like me, El Bucarito is pure bliss. Where else could I visit an old, working farm, pet newborn kids, play with the mommy goats, watch black-hooved Spanish pigs happily romp around in their sty, have a close up stare down with a golden foal who was a little too timid to let me pet him, and eat organic, raw goat’s cheese and organic, salt cured meats? At El Bucarito, I was transported to my childhood within moments of arriving.

But there’s more to the story and this quaint farm, whose owners started this venture only about 20 years ago with the mission to produce artisanal cheeses in the heart of the Rota farmland. It’s a sustainable, organic farm that makes a variety of cheeses, most of which are raw, with a few of them made from pasteurised milk. They grow Florida goats, Iberico pigs, and horses and donkeys. The old, original farmhouse has been renovated and they offer buffet-style breakfasts, children’s parties, and cheese and cured meat tastings. They also have mini classes on how to make one’s own cheese. It’s a true delight for all ages, and most especially for one’s taste buds.

Back in the town of Rota, there are more places to shop and eat, too many to name in one blog post. But El Mercado de Abastos (the local market) is worth a visit, with its mixture of food stalls and bars (restaurants). We stopped there for a break on our tour and ate some salty, crunchy chicharrones (pork cracklings), sampled some cheeses from Dora’s shop (all organic and raw), and tasted some local, white wines.

The last leg of our weekend was at the Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería, an educational working farm. Rota farmers used to be called mayetos because they harvested their produce and brought it to market in the month of May, an entire month earlier than most in the region of Jerez. It was an agrarian way of life, that probably originated during Moorish times, when in the 15th century Rota is segregated from Chipiona and becomes its own town. Farmers were given small parcels of land, a choza (thatch-roofed house), and an animal, in return for preserving and exploiting the land as mayetos. The produce they cultivated and harvested became synonymous with Rota. The calabaza roteña (Rota pumpkin), the juicy, red tomato roteño, the green cuerno cabra peppers, the Spanish melon, and the local watermelon were prized produce in the markets of the region. They still are to this day, even as far as Sevilla.

The less fortunate mayetos lived in thatch-roofed wooden huts, whilst those with a little more money could afford a thatch-roofed house made of more sturdy materials. They worked from sunrise to sunset, nurturing and caring for their farmlands with constant love and attention. In addition to this complete dedication to their land, there are a few other factors that aided the mayetos to be able to bring their produce to market earlier than most. The long hours of sunlight, the moderate climate, their peculiar form of irrigation, and an earth rich in silica aided these agriculturists as much as the many hours they spent bent over the fields. Because the land is not very fertile and the silica is very permeable, they watered their carefully tilled liños (rows) by only wetting the surface of the ground and repeating this various times during the day. They carried the water in pointy jarras de barro (clay jugs) that are called jarras de riego.  The mayetos were known for spending most of the day bent over; and many suffered from a deviated column in old age. In the area, this health issue is known as anquilosis vertebral roteña, which goes to show how prevalent it was amongst these farmers from Rota.

It was pure permaculture farming, but with a life full of hardships that we cannot romanticise today. However, The Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería is trying to ensure this important part of Rota’s history is not lost, that we learn from it, and learn how to collaborate with our environment for the benefit of all of us, including Mother Earth.

Arranque Roteño

From this way of life, a traditional cuisine developed that is still enjoyed today. One of the most iconic dishes known almost exclusively in Rota is arranque roteño, which has a similar base as gazpacho andaluz or salmorejo. This dish, although not really a soup like the gazpacho or a thicker sauce like the salmorejo, is made with tomatoes del tiempo (seasonal fruit), pimientos de cuerno de cabra, garlic, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and bread. For the bread you can use gluten-free bread, just make sure if it’s homemade that it is has a neutral flavour like regular bread has. The following recipe was shared by Pilar Ruiz Rodriguez-Rubio, who has her own local food blog, Aprendiendo a Cocinar, where she cooks with her mother, Cristina, and shares traditional recipes from Rota. (I met Pilar during the weekend, since she works at the Rota Office of Tourism; as serendipity would have it, she’s a good friend of a good friend of mine!)

You’ll need a lebrillo (or something similar in which to make the arranque) and pestle-like instrument. This can also be made in a food processor, but it won’t be as traditional, and the flavour may vary somewhat.

Ingredients

1 kilo red tomatoes, preferably of the plum variety (not overly ripe), peeled and roughly chopped
2 or 3 green peppers, preferably of the cuerno de cabra variety (or Roman in the US), torn by hand into small pieces
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled
Spanish or French bread, one telera or about 1/2 kilo
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt, to taste

Method

In the lebrillo or mixing dish, using the pestle, crush the peppers, the garlic, and some sea salt. When the peppers are throughly mashed, add the tomatoes. Continuing mashing and mixing until you achieve a homogenous, smooth texture.

Start adding the bread, broken up in small chunks, and continuing mashing. Little by little, add the EVOO to soften up the mixture and the desired consistency* is achieved. Add more sea salt, to taste if necessary.

*The type of bread used is typically a telera, which is a golden loaf of bread, very crusty on the outside with a dry migajón or inside crumb. It can be found in Spanish bread shops and usually weighs about 1/2 kilo. The desired consistency or texture of this dish is much, much thicker than gazpacho (which is really a soup). The arranque is almost like a thick paste and it is eaten with pieces of raw onion or raw peppers used as spoons.

Buen provecho!