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Arcos de la Frontera, Spain's Prettiest Town

Paul Herman

Deep in the south of Spain's southernmost province, Cadiz, hidden in the Gatidano mountain range, is Arcos de la Frontera the prettiest town in Spain. Although the old walled town of Arcos only holds 4000 people and is lost in a valley hidden in the mountains, its place in Spanish history is important because of the town's strategic placement in Catholic Spain's long struggle against the Moorish kingdom. Boabdil, the last Moorish king, finally fell in 1492, the same year Columbus sailed west for India. At Cadiz's tip, near Arcos de la Frontera, Africa looms large across a bit of water that seems a mere swim away.

A friendly town, Arcenses, as the population of Arcos are known, tend to ready smiles and obliging attitude to the visitor. There is a variety of restaurants from cheap to middle priced in the old town or by the lake where one can fish, sail, paddle or wind-surf. Many of its hotels, like its restaurants, are housed in beautiful and ancient stone buildings.

Arcos is built atop a sharp promontory with cliffs to either side in the middle of a wide valley surrounded by distant mountains. The only approaches to the town are at either end of its long, thin length and they are protected by heavy gates. One begins to see how its sheer impregnability made it an important stronghold in the constant battles against the Moors. Some of the churches still display the "infidel's" banners won in battle.

Arcos' coat of arms includes the legend: "King Brigo founded Arcos and Alfonso the Wise recovered it from the Moors", King Brigo being Noah's grandson and Alfonso the Wise the thirteenth century king that captured and held it against the Moors. The bit about it being founded around the time of the great biblical flood is surely legend but Arcos does, never-the-less, offer evidence of an ancient history. Beginning with evidence from pre-historic Iberia including skeletons, artefacts & cave paintings dating back as far as 150,000 years. Some of the caves in the cliffs of Arcos of unknown ancient inhabitants are still lived in today.

Later the Romans occupied the town for six hundred years until 400 AD, one of their more durable examples being the bridge at Ronda also near Arcos. Outside of Seville, in the town of Santinponce, is Italica, the largest city of ancient Rome after Rome itself and includes a 25,000 seat Amphitheatre.

After the Romans came the Visigoths for 300 years until 711 AD. Then the Moors for a further 500 years until 1264 AD. Architecture from each culture is still mixed with even later styles like the Spanish Baroque throughout the buildings of the town.

The town, despite its diminutive size, holds seven churches, two of which are Cathedrals! Santa Maria and San Pedro enjoyed an enmity based on their rivalry as most important Cathedral that lasted centuries. In the fifteenth century a bishop made the trip from Arcos to Rome on a donkey to ask for Papal dispensation on the matter of which had seniority. It was more than four years before he returned with the gift the Pope made him of a carved baby Christ (on view today) but no final decision.

As the feud grew each church tried to show its importance in whatever way it could like being the first to ring the bells upon the hour, which competition quickly led to very poor time-keeping! Finally in 1775 the Vatican made the decision the older of the two, Santa Maria, built between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, was the senior Cathedral.

A rich history, beauty of a kind that can only grow, evolve, over centuries and can never be designed. The gorgeous countryside that surrounds it including valley, forest and mountain for horse-back riding or trekking. Easy access to Andalucia's most important cities: Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Malaga. A short distance (2 hours) from Tangiers in Morocco and an hour from Gibraltar or Cadiz, Europe's oldest town.

Without mentioning the area's cultural roots in Spain's bullfighting, horse breeding and Flamenco - Arcos de la Frontera is still a largely undiscovered jewel and definitely worth a visit.

Paul Herman is a painter/sculptor now offering painting workshops hosted in a beautiful 18th century country mansion set on 1000 acres in Arcos de la Frontera, Cadiz, Spain. www.ArtWorkshopInSpain.com

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