One of my favorite places in Spain is the little Andalusian hill town of Arcos de la Frontera (just south of Sevilla). My goal when I’m in Arcos: to connect with the culture of small–town Spain.
Travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, with so many of us stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
As I head out to explore Arcos, the entertaining market is my first stop. The pickle woman encourages me to try a banderilla, named for the bangled spear that a matador sticks into the bull. As I gingerly slide an onion off the tiny skewer of pickled olives, onions, and carrots, she tells me to eat it all at once — the pickle equivalent of throwing down a shot of vodka. Explosivo! The lady in the adjacent meat stall bursts into laughter at my shock.
Like the pickle section, the meat stall — or salchichería — is an important part of any Spanish market. In Spain, ever since Roman times, December has been the month to slaughter pigs. After the slaughter, they salt and dry every possible bit of meat into various sausages, hams, and pork products. By late spring, that now–salty meat is cured, able to withstand the heat, and hanging in tempting market displays. Ham appreciation is big here. The word to know: jamón. When in Spain, I am a jamón aficionado.
Arcos smothers its hilltop, tumbling down all sides like the train of a wedding dress. The labyrinthine old center is a photographer’s feast. I can feel the breeze funnel through the narrow streets as drivers pull in car mirrors to squeeze through.
Residents brag that only they see the backs of the birds as they fly. To see what they mean, I climb to the viewpoint at the main square, high in the old town. Bellying up to the railing, I look down and ponder the fancy cliffside hotel’s erosion concerns, orderly orange groves, flower–filled greenhouses, fine views toward Morocco…and the backs of the birds as they fly.
Exploring the town, I discover that a short walk from Arcos’ church of Santa María to the church of San Pedro (St. Peter) is littered with subtle but fun glimpses into the town’s past.
The church of Santa María faces the main square. After Arcos was re-conquered from the Moors in the 13th century, the church was built — atop a mosque. In the pavement is a 15th–century magic circle: 12 red and 12 white stones — the white ones represent various constellations. When a child came to the church to be baptized, the parents would stop here first for a good Christian exorcism. The exorcist would stand inside the protective circle and cleanse the baby of any evil spirits. This was also a holy place back in Muslim times. While Christian residents no longer use it, Islamic Sufis still come here on pilgrimage every November.
In 1699, an earthquake cracked the church’s foundation. Today, arches reach over the narrow lane — added to prop the church against neighboring buildings. Thanks to these braces, the church survived the bigger earthquake of 1755. All over town, similar arches support earthquake–damaged structures.
Today, the town rumbles only when the bulls run. Señor González Oca’s little barbershop is plastered with posters of bulls running Pamplona–style through the streets of Arcos during Holy Week. Locals still remember an American from the nearby Navy base at Rota, who was killed by a bull in 1994.
Walking on toward St. Peter’s, Arcos’ second church, I pass Roman columns stuck onto street corners — protection from reckless donkey carts. St. Peter’s was, until recently, home to a resident bellman who lived in the spire. He was a basketmaker and a colorful character — famous for bringing his donkey up into the tower. The donkey grew too big to get back out. Finally, the bellman had no choice but to kill the donkey — and eat it.
The small square in front of the church — about the only flat piece of pavement around — serves as the old–town soccer field for neighborhood kids.
I step across the street from the church and into a cool dark bar filled with very short old guys. Any Spanish man over a certain age spent his growth–spurt years trying to survive the brutal Civil War (1936–39). Those who did, struggled. That generation is a head shorter than Spaniards of the next.
In the bar, the men — side–lit like a Rembrandt portrait — are fixated on the TV, watching the finale of a long series of bullfights. El Cordobés is fighting. His father, also El Cordobés, was the Babe Ruth of bullfighting. El Cordobés uses his dad’s name even though his dad sued in an effort to stop him.
Marveling at the bar’s cheap list of wines and hard drinks, I order a Cuba Libre for about $2. The drink comes tall and stiff, with a dish of peanuts.
Suddenly the room gasps. I can’t believe the vivid scene on the screen. El Cordobés has been hooked and is flung, doing a cartwheel over the angry bull’s head. The gang roars as El Cordobés lands in a heap and buries his head in his arms as the bull tramples and tries to gore him. The TV replays the scene many times, each time drawing gasps in the bar.
El Cordobés survives and — no surprise — eventually kills the bull. As he makes a victory lap, picking up bouquets tossed by adoring fans, the camera zooms in on the rip exposing his hip and a long bloody wound. The short men around me will remember and talk about this moment for years to come.
But at the convent, located piously on the next corner, no one notices. Its windows are striped with heavy bars and spikes, as if to protect the cloistered nuns from the bull bar’s hedonism. Popping into the dimly lit foyer, I push the buzzer and the creaky lazy Susan spins, revealing a bag of freshly baked cookies for sale. When I spin back the cookies with a “no, gracias,” she surprises me with a few words of English — countering, in a Monty Python–esque voice, “We have cupcakes as well.” I buy a bag of cupcakes to support the mission work of the convent. I glimpse — through the not–quite one–way mirror — the not-meant-to-be-seen sister in her flowing robe and habit momentarily appear and disappear.
Saving my appetite for dinner, I dole out my cupcakes to children as I wander on. My town walk culminates at another convent — which now houses the best restaurant in town, Restaurante El Convento. María Moreno Moreno, the proud owner, explains the menu. (Spanish children take the name of both parents — who in María’s case must have been distant cousins.) As church bells clang, she pours me a glass of vino tinto con mucho cuerpo (full–bodied red wine) from the Rioja region.
Asking for top–quality ham, I get a plate of jamón ibérico. María explains that, while quite expensive, it’s a worthy investment. Made from acorn–fed pigs with black feet, it actually does taste better, with a bouquet of its own and a sweet aftertaste. It goes just right with my full–bodied red wine.
I tell María that the man at the next table looks like El Cordobés. One glance and she says, “El Cordobés is much more handsome.” When I mention his recent drama, she nods and says, “It’s been a difficult year for matadors.”
(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Andalusia.)