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Arcos de La Frontera

A Dark Room in a White Town

sunny 23 °C
View Andalusia Spain on Jenniferklm's travel map.

We bid the Casa Grande Hotel in Jerez a fond farewell and hit the bike path again, headed our first Pueblo Blanco or White Town.

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From Wikipedia: “The White Towns of Andalusia, or Pueblos Blancos, are a series of whitewashed towns and large villages in the northern part of the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga in southern Spain, mostly within the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. The area has been settled since prehistoric times, and some of the local caves have ancient rock paintings. Iberian people, Romans, Visigoths and Berbers are some of the settlers who before the Modern Era left their print. It was precisely during Roman times that whitewashing was introduced, but it was later during the pandemic plague waves during 14th and later centuries when whitewashing exterior but also interior walls of houses and churches - the latter often visited by disease-affected inhabitants - became predominant.

All of the villages are characterised by whitewashed walls and red or brown tiled roofs. They commonly present narrow alleyways, steep streets, lookouts, and town squares with a church and town hall. Often local institutions manage archeological museums with Roman or Arab artifacts, as well as others dedicated to local customs, crafts or trades.”

We had a really lovely 37 km cycle on flat, quiet rural roads. It was a warm day, about 24 C. There were green or newly plowed rolling hills around us but our route was primarily flat. It is still odd to see vast expanses of agricultural land with palm trees. We stopped for a brief break by a very impressive country hotel. Judging from the few cars in the parking lot, we would have had no trouble getting a room.

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We approached Arcos through the lower and newer outskirts that included an enormous Carrefour. We could see the old town from some distance back, the old walls and church crowning the top and the white houses cascading down the high promontory with the river below. I saw the town described as a bride’s veil. Pretty good defensive manoeuvre putting the town way up there.

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Arcos de La Frontera certainly meets the criteria of a White Town: white buildings, tile roofs, incredibly narrow and steep and some amazing views of the surrounding bucolic countryside.

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We managed to ride part way up the main street but it eventually defeated us - old cobbles and steepness are a bad combination. A cafe presented itself just before we were about to get swallowed up in even steeper and narrower passages so we toasted our second full day of biking from one unknown place to another with a café.

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We then proceeded to find our little “no star” accommodation. I had had a little difficulty find a place - a couple I tried online, including the local parador (government owned hotel) in Arcos did not seem available for our one night so I leaped on the 39 E. a night Hotel Marques de Torresoto. Poetic name and there was an impressive photo online of their courtyard surrounded by Moorish arches and with tables set for what looked like a party of 100. We were early however to check in. We had done a stealth picnic pack again at breakfast back at the previous night’s hotel so found a nice sunny perch on the stone porch of the 15th - 17th C Church of San Pedro to have lunch.

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We ended up having a long chat with a couple of Dutch women with an elderly dog who told us that on retirement, they both sold their houses and now travel together with an RV and a car for all but 3 months of the year. Neither have children they told us and said that the Netherlands are too crowded, too expensive and too cold for them. We agreed that there are wonderful campsites in Europe with lots of amenities and better views than you get in hotels. They of course were most enthusiastic about our biking and told us where in Holland we should go. We exchanged contact info; after an hour we felt like we had new friends and in fact when we ran into them again in Arcos, it was like seeing old friends. They were on their way to Portugal and encouraged us to consider biking in a certain area on the coast there.

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It was time to check into our hotel. Hotel might be too generous a word for the Marques de Torresoto. A rather brusque woman opened the door after we were completely unsuccessful in understanding the man who answered the buzzer intercom. He kept saying what sounded like “dingdong, dingdong” but I could see nothing else we could push to get in. Maybe he was referring to us? She indicated we could park the ponies to the side of the courtyard, the tables still laid for 100 or more but from the look of the rest of the space, clearly a party was not imminent. We presented our passports and she gave us a key.

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You always have to show your passports when you check into a hotel in Spain. It all has to do with the Schengen Agreement, the name given to the group of EEA countries including Spain that allow border-free travel within it. Almost all EU countries form part of Schengen except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are currently in the process of joining the Schengen Area and the EEA states of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are also members. The UK of course after Brexit is excluded, no doubt to the extreme annoyance of Brits who regularly seek warmer climes or own property elsewhere.

Citizens who are EU nationals can travel within the area visa-free and with no restrictions on the amount of time they spend in each country. Non-EEA nationals can travel to Schengen without a visa, but they cannot stay for longer than 90 days in 180.

We paid our 39E and our host waved to some stairs. We climbed up a staircase to a dark hall with some old but not lovely furniture and then into our room at the end. Also very dark, small with no window but a door leading onto a very small also dark sort-of-balcony. No view except down to the street if you leaned over the parapet. Small bathroom but a decent sized shower and it all appeared clean if lacking any charm. It was quite cold in the room and I was relieved to see there was a functioning heat pump and warm wool blankets in the closet. The light fixtures worked though some bulbs were missing and I got a shock turning on my bedside light. OK, it’s not the lovely Casa Grande with our three sets of French doors over the square but hey, we have a warm bed in a White Town and it’s only 39E for one night. Let’s not linger in the room though.

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We walked all over the old town, really enjoyng the smallness of the spaces and the various decorative touches. On one street we came upon an odd sight and upon investigation discovered that it was a café with an array of beautiful live birds all on a big perch sid-by-side under a big umbrella. As soon as we approached, the owner was there and wanted us to put on a glove and hold them. We protested that we only wanted to look but he insisted and I ended up uncomfortably holding a beautiful type of owl that should have been flying free. They all looked well-cared for but it made me sad. We paid a few euros and made a hasty retreat.

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The town did not seem at all busy with tourists, so out of curiousity we went to the beautiful parador hotel a short walk from our “ hotel”. It was of course gorgeous with stunning views over the countryside. We asked if they had any rooms available for that night. Si! 117E with breakfast - qute a reasonable rate. To console ourselves we thought we would have a nice dinner out given our cheap accommodation. No! We could not find any place in the old town open for dinner - it seems it really was off-season in Arcos - so we picked up buns and fruit and then cheese, sausage and a local cookie we had seen advertised at a very nice specialty shop and had to content ourselves with a picnic in our dark little room, trying to feel virtuous about all the money we had saved.

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The “hotel” aside, Arcos was pretty spectacular. Only the cars of residents or hotel guests are permitted in the old town and the few streets are one-way and even then, so narrow you think the smallest vehicle will lose its mirrors.

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This seemed about the right size of car for theses streets. I felt so thankful for our bike transportation that allows us to easily go anywhere and never have to worry about parking. I really would not want to be in a town like this during the tourist season.

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The high spur of rock the old town sits on has near vertical drops on two sides, hence the cascading town buildings in the other directions. We found two spectacular view points over the Guadalete River and lush countryside below and watched the sun go down over the distant hills.

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Arcos, due to its own geographical location, has always been a strategic place. Prehistoric burials have been found in caves there. The name Arx-Arcis (high fortress) comes from its time as a Roman settlement. During the Muslim period, its name was Arkos, emerging as a prosperous and flourishing city and the town was walled. Until the definitive fall of the kingdom of Granada , Arcos was part of the second line of the defensive network on the border of Granada.

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The town reached its zenith between the 16th and 17th centuries with additional construction of convents, a hospitals etc. and expansion outside the Arab walls. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 changed its appearance, affecting the churches of Santa María, San Pedro and San Agustín, collapsing the north wall of the Castle, which when it fell into the moat and was buried, gave rise to Nueva Street, the street we first came up.

Also on this street was this interesting statue of 3 hooded figures. They have a creepy resemblance to the Klu Klus Clan hoods and I suppose their origin in no less dark as it dates from the 15th C Spanish Inquisition when it was decreed that those convicted of religious crimes had to wear the conical hoods so that everyone knew they had sinned. This symbol of imposed penitence was later translated into processions, their first use in processions thought to date from 17th-century Seville. The color of the robes depends on the brotherhood, which is why there are purple, red and white ones. We will not be here for the Easter processions that are such a huge thing everywhere but there are already preparations going on and we were lucky enough later on to encounter a group practicing carrying a huge heavy edifice down a narrow street.

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In the 19th century, both the yellow fever epidemic and the French caused damage to the castle and the square in Arcos.

During the second decade of the 20th century, there was population growth but the local economy was basically oriented towards agriculture. The ownership of the land, in the hands of a minority of the population, resulted in social conflict during the Second Spanish Republic.

Great political violence occurred in Spain during the general elections of February 1936. During the coup d'état of July 18, 1936 and the subsequent Francoist repression, at least eighty-seven Arcenses were murdered. Ahead awaited the Franco dictatorship and the years of hunger. ​ From 1936 until practically the sixties, Arcos was dominated by poverty and agricultural unemployment, resulting in a loss of population due to the emigration of a large number of its young people abroad or to the large Spanish cities.

It was not until the mid-sixties that an improvement in the quality of life began, linked to the development of the tourism sector. In the 21st century Arcos is the entrance to the White Villages route and is a top tourist destination in the province of Cádiz, which now forms the base of the economy along with the wine industry, notable for being one of the few Andalusian towns that produce red wine in modern times.

Sweets and all kinds of pastries seem to be a big part of life in Spain; the consumption of which is so easy to rationalize when biking. I loved this poster for various cookies that I saw in Arcos stating “All the sweets are elaborated with our hands “ and we did pick up these tradional Arcos ones to add to our splendid room service dinner.

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We slept pretty well in our very spartan surroundings but were happy to pack up the bikes as it was getting light, navigate the narrow little street with the full moon still shining over the white town, find an open café for breakfast and contemplate the unknowns ahead of a day on the cycle path in Spain.

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Posted by Jenniferklm 08:59 Archived in Spain

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Comments

What marvellous photos, Jen. Your riveting travelogue makes me want to be there. Some of the countryside you describe is quite reminiscent of southern France.

by fractallicious

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