Staring out across the Atlantic waves towards North Africa, the Costa de la Luz in south-west Spain feels like frontier country. Wild, often windswept and with twinkling glimpses of the Atlas mountains on the horizon, no wonder so many of its ancient towns bear the suffix "de la Frontera".
It is hard to believe sometimes that this far-flung corner of Andalucia, with its Moorish architecture and blood-drenched history, is a part of Europe. The road, rail and air links being poor until recently has served only to emphasise the sense of isolation, of difference. Slowly but inevitably, however, this last Spanish costa to succumb to the developers' concrete-mixers is being "discovered".
Until January this year there were just two flights a week to Jerez de la Frontera airport from Britain. Now there are a staggering 16 with budget airlines alone. Many of the roads, once barely more than tracks or death-trap single-carriageways, have been upgraded; there is even talk of extending the AVE fast-train service as far as Cadiz. Yet, stricter planning laws and tough building restrictions within the two national parks, just behind the coast, have miraculously helped to preserve the "Coast of Light" and its hinterland from the worst ravages of mass tourism.
Any development, such as on the stretch west of Huelva, is restricted to three storeys; and it is virtually impossible in many areas to buy any building land at all. From Ayamonte on the Portuguese border down to Tarifa - 11km across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Moroccan coast - there is a string of popular and picturesque fishing villages and beautiful historic towns which have managed to retain their character and "Spanishness".
The Madrilenos flock here in the hot summer months, but without the same foreign interest as in the neighbouring Costa del Sol. Property prices remain at least 30 per cent lower, even on the coast. Go inland a few miles and houses are cheaper still, with perhaps one exception: Vejer de la Frontera, the hilltop pueblo blanco made famous by a car ad involving narrow winding streets and rampaging bulls. Vejer, with its old quarter of Moorish whitewashed houses arranged around internal patios, has been gentrified and even anglicised over the past few years. Its quainter houses have been snapped up by foreigners for ever-increasing sums, pushing the locals out to modern developments on the outskirts. Now rarely available, even a small, three-bedroom house here can cost up to £180,000, which is an astronomical sum in these parts.
But while Vejer has already had its boom, there are plenty of other places that are as yet untouched by the Farrow & Ball paint brigade. Medina Sidonia is handily close to the airport at Jerez but untroubled by its noise; it is a bustling, aristocratic old town with grand, historic houses, just half an hour from the coast.
"Medina is fast becoming more popular because it's the first town off the airport motorway and very beautiful," says Matthew Coman, a musician who lives nearby and helps foreigners buy property in the region through his location firm, Matt's Spain. "It's a town that's just snowballed over the past six months as people realise how wonderful it is." Coman says that a typical three-bedroom, Moorish-style house in Medina would cost £100,000. A huge, grand old house in need of renovation is currently on the market for €150,000 (£104,000) through Country Properties.
Even the spectacular white towns of Arcos de la Frontera and Ronda, with its steep gorge, are really good value, Coman says, with two-bedroom flats still going for £60,000. A traditional Andalucian house in Arcos, with magnificent views, its own sherry cave next door (with another two bedrooms), spiral staircase, gardens, garage and plunge pool, is on the market for €275,000 through Cadiz Properties. Another in the town's old quarter, in need of some cosmetic work but with four bedrooms, is on sale for €95,000.
Not far from the town, but with 27,000sq m of land and breathtaking views over the nearby lake, is another property, half old, half new-build. The older part is currently used for storing wine barrels, but on conversion could make a huge additional living space. It is on the market for €204,000 through Cadiz Properties. Surrounded by lush, green valleys, these towns are hugely popular with walkers, although potential buyers should be warned that their beauty comes at a price, as some have the highest rainfall in Spain. "The clouds coming in from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet at this point and just dump any rain on the land underneath," warns Coman. Drier and hotter - although still cooler than the Mediterranean coast, thanks to the Atlantic breeze - is the so-called "sherry triangle" which stretches from Jerez to Sanlucar de Barrameda in the north, down to El Puerto in the south. Dotted with beautiful bodegas (sherry's answer to wine chateaux and equally grand), this land oozes with the wealth of the great sherry families known locally as pijos, or toffs.
The young pijos hang out in El Puerto, a bustling summer town, right on the coast, much loved by the painter Goya; it is known as the town of 100 palaces, because of its grand architecture. Some of the larger properties have 60 or 70 rooms, and a few are now divided into elegant apartments. One two-bedroom, top-floor flat here, with towering ceilings, palatial rooms and two balconies, recently sold for £110,000. Five minutes away in the car is one of the finest beach resorts in Spain, but again almost exclusively Spanish. Vistahermosa boasts a pretty beach, reached by a grand, prestigious avenue, flanked by old, elegant beach villas with mature gardens and price-tags (when, rarely, they come to the market) of about £500,000.
Down the coast is the historic, walled city of Cadiz, vibrant and weather-beaten; perched on a peninsula, it is reputedly the oldest town in western Europe. Surrounded by its own marvellous beaches, it has recently been galvanised by a huge facelift mostly funded by the EU, and its grand old houses are sparkling once again. Prices have shot up here recently but are still extraordinarily good value.
A two-bedroom flat with lift (rare and highly prized in Cadiz) on one of the most prestigious streets in town, Calle Ancha, just sold for £150,000. Most, however, barely scrape through £100,000, even in the best parts of town. Most sought-after, are the 300 torres, or towers, on some of the grandest roof terraces. With 360-degree views of the sea, private roof terraces and spiral staircases, these towers are the height of fashion and can cost up to £300,000.
South of Cadiz are more resorts, although beyond Cabo de Trafalgar the Atlantic winds can get a little too fresh. One, Conil de la Frontera, with a Blue Flag beach, is now a little touristy, but a good sea-view, two-bedroom flat will still cost £130,000. Perhaps better to explore El Palmar, a sleepy seaside village with just a couple of good fish restaurants and a wild, virgin beach. Long may it stay that way.
Matt's Spain: 07973 720439 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Cadiz Properties: 07870 554762
Country Properties: 00 34 627 989 543