When the border between Portugal and Spain opened up on May 17, there began a huge flow of Spaniards over to their summer villas in the Algarve. We went the other way a few Saturdays ago. It was Helga’s birthday, and we decided to have a family party at the lovely parador in Arcos de la Frontera.
Arcos is a town of about 31,000 (roughly the size of Tavira), located about 100km south of Seville and 290km from Faro, in the Sierra de Cádiz.
Arcos de la Frontera gained its name by being the frontier of Spain’s 13th-century battle with the Moors, who were driven out in 1255 by Alfonso X of Castille after two-and-a-half centuries of occupation.
In 1962, it was named a complex of historic-artistic interest by Spain. It is a typically long, narrow town, but it crawls up a very high sandstone ridge and is bordered on three sides way down below by the Guadalete River. At its highest point, the sheer drop is about 200 metres and that is where the parador can be found.
Arcos has been called by many ‘one of the most beautiful towns in Spain’, mainly because of its white houses closely bordering winding cobbled streets. I don’t know about that (Spain has many lovely towns), but I do know that Arcos is one of the most challenging for drivers. In the old town, the roads are so narrow and the turns so tight, you wonder how most of the bigger modern cars can get through. But to reach the parador, through they must go. And they do. But Smart cars, Minis, VW Beetles and Fiat 500s are best suited to the conditions.
The parador is beautifully located on one side of the Plaza del Cabildo, the most important square in Arcos. On a second side is the gothic Basílica de Santa María de la Asunción, erected after the Reconquista and declared a Bien de Interés Cultural in 1931. The façade facing the Plaza is mostly Renaissance and features a huge, dominating (and still functioning) neoclassical bell tower erected in the 18th century.
Across the Plaza opposite the Basilica is the famous Mirador de la Peña, giving really beautiful views out over the Guadalete far below and the Andalusian countryside. Of course, if you are staying in the parador, those views are equally as good from its terrace – especially, as we experienced it, in the evening with a lovely glass of cold cava sparkling in hand and with family close by.
Also very much in evidence from the parador, looking east along the cliff, is the late gothic Iglesia de San Pedro, with its great tower façade built in the early 1700s.
Arcos is the gateway for the Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos to the east, terminating in 90km at Ronda, famous both for its location astride a canyon that carries the Guadelevín River and for its contribution, through the Romero family, to the development of modern Spanish bullfighting in the 18th century.
To the south of Arcos lie Jerez de la Frontera (35km away) and, beyond Jerez, Cádiz (70km). We decided to drive down to Cádiz on the Saturday, where we wandered the streets, admired the cathedral (started in 1722 but not completed for 116 years) and gorged on a series of really tasty tapas sitting in the street adjacent to the bustling market.
Cádiz, Phoenician in origin, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Western Europe and, because of its location and fine harbour, has played an important role in much European history. It is well worth a visit all on its own.
Saturday evening, Helga, her two daughters Alison and Kerstin, their partners Paul and Robbie and I gathered to celebrate Helga’s birthday. Because in Spain only four people could sit together inside, we were located, after our cava on the terrace admiring the view, in the parador’s beautiful atrium. The food and wine were excellent, and the festive meal lasted for four hours.
On our way home the next day, we stopped in Spain’s strangest town – El Rocío. Nestled on the edge of the wild lagoons and marshes of Doñana National Park, the town looks like a film set from a spaghetti western. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Clint Eastwood might emerge from one of its taverns, unhitch his horse and ride off down the town’s dusty streets.
El Rocío is actually a town of about 700 population, no paved streets, lots of horses (but no cars) and site of a huge pilgrimage every year at Pentecost when up to a million hardy Catholic souls arrive from all over Spain to celebrate the Virgin Mary statue which supposedly was found by a shepherd in a tree trunk in the 13th century and which since has produced any number of miracles. After the serious stuff, the partying apparently gets quite wild!
This was truly a memorable and special weekend and a fitting way to usher in Helga’s next year.
By Larry Hampton
Photos: LARRY HAMPTON