It’s the middle of January; the middle of winter. But here, in Arcos de la Frontera, I can sit out in Plaza Boticas and enjoy my budget-watching ‘menu del día’ in the bright, warm afternoon sunshine, and count how many times Manolo, the ever-smiling waiter at Méson Los Murales, says ‘Muy Bien’ while I’m having my lunch.
Arcos is one of Andalucia’s famous ‘pueblos blancos’ and, although it’s larger than most of the others, it enjoys the same atmosphere. And, sitting in Plaza Boticas (‘The Square of the Chemist Shop’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it); I’m right in the heart of the old town, perched precariously high on the cliffs in a bend of the river Guadalete.
I’m sitting with my back to the Convent of the Mercurian Nuns, a closed order since 1642, where the sisters serve delicious freshly baked magdalenas and pine-nut cookies through an ingenious revolving door – so designed to avoid contact with their customers. To my right is the eighteenth century Jesuits’ House – which was never quite finished because Charles III expelled the Jesuits from the country. It’s now a small Pandora’s Box of a market, with the cheapest and freshest fish in town, amongst other things.
When I’ve finished my meal and drunk my cortado, I’ll wander up through the narrow lane to my left and visit the Plaza del Cabildo, the square which once doubled as a bullring but is now a much more dangerous car park. Here, the eleventh century sandstone castle, once the scene of strategic meetings overseen by Ferdinand and Isabela planning the Reconquista, now stands guard over the Church of Santa María and the town’s Parador. There is a mirador, or viewing point, that overlooks the river 330 feet below, but an equally spectacular, and much more comfortable, viewpoint can be found in the terrace bar of the Parador.
There is so much to see as you wander through the picturesque but frequently startlingly narrow streets of a town whose history stretches back to Neolithic settlements, but which offers more evidence from Roman and Moorish occupancy. It is easy to understand why, back in 1962, the old town was declared a national historic-artistic monument. But it would be incorrect to think of Arcos as a museum piece; on the contrary, it is a fun-loving, fiesta crazy, bull-running place – a photographer’s paradise for a multitude of reasons.
Arcos is easy to get to, whichever direction you’re from. About an hour’s drive on the NIV motorway south from Seville, about 40 minutes north from Cádiz and now, with the dual carriageway finally open after 15 years of promises, only 20 minutes away from Jerez airport. It’s a good place to begin any tour of the white villages or before you drive into the spectacular Sierra de Grazalema – as well as being worthwhile in its own right.
If you’re driving in, my advice would be to park in the big underground car park in the middle of the new town at the bottom of the hill. It’s well sign-posted and is underneath the Paseo de Andalucia. There are some bars here with outdoor tables for you to have a drink before you start the uphill slog to the Casco Antiguo –the old town. There is parking at the square by the Parador, but, believe me, the drive up there will test your skills and raise your blood pressure and the drive down the other side is even worse. Much safer parking down below – and you can pick up a Tourist Map, in English or Spanish, at the kiosk there. Besides, the walk up the main street will give you chance to see the elegant houses on the orange-tree lined street leading up to the Cuesta Belén, where the old town really begins.
Once there, you will be in a labyrinth of meandering lanes, some with elegant palacios built by 18th century nobles, with cool-tiled patios resplendent with plants and water features, and with buildings so close to those opposite you think you could pass items from one house to another. You can amble through the tiny lanes, many delightfully adorned with potted geraniums, and, as you turn a corner, you will suddenly have a spectacular vista across the lake towards the Sierras in the distance and have to take another photograph!
Needless to say, there are many places to stop for a drink or a tapas – or even a full meal. My favourite for atmosphere is Bar Alcaraván, near the Church of Santa Maria, where the bar runs into the old cellars under the castle and they produce some tasty tapas. I can also recommend La Cárcel –again for the food and you can watch football in a lively atmosphere.
For a real bargain, the Menu del Día at the Marqués de Torresoto can’t be beaten for 6.50 euros, and, if you like venison, then the place to go is Don Fernando, back at Plaza Boticas, which is next to Los Murales where I had my lunch. Obviously, the most expensive place to eat is the Parador, but, if you want something special, then it is worth the price – it’s a varied and inventive menu.
Arcos is especially popular with tourists at Easter, with its spectacular and moving religious processions and its bull running, but this ‘queen’ of the white towns is well worth a visit at any time of the year.