Ep 9: Arcos de la Frontera

As we approached Arcos, we encountered the first roundabout, which had five exits and so many signs that I had to drive around three times just to read them all – fortunately had Dad to do that while I concentrated on going round in the right direction. In the end, I took the wrong exit, which took us down the hill below the cliffs, but we were on holiday and there to look at Spain, so it made no difference – it was merely a meander and we were able to wonder at the towering cliffs and the gently winding river which had no doubt played a part in their creation.

       Back at the roundabout, I took the exit which led up the hill towards the old town, where the hotel we would be staying in for four nights was situated.

       As the hill got steeper, the road became narrower, eventually becoming so narrow that I thought I wouldn’t be able to negotiate an ancient Roman archway. Its sides were adorned with multi-coloured paint from vehicles that had not quite made it and I really didn’t want to scratch our hired car. I reversed from the entrance to make way for a man walking through the archway and as he passed us, he ducked his head in the window and said, “Lyk my jy’t bietjie van ʼn probleem!” (Looks like you have a bit of a problem.) Well, you could have knocked us over with a feather. An Afrikaans-speaker on top of a hill in Spain! He had heard us discussing how I was going to get through the arch and recognised our South African accents and thought he would give us a laugh; and of course we did – we seldom go anywhere in the world without coming across a fellow-South African. It seems we all love to travel.

       On his advice, I folded in the wing mirrors and he guided me through the gap – quite an interesting negotiation and the first of many to come. The next 90-degree turn was easy as the road widened slightly but further up, a three-point turn was required and I was profoundly grateful for power steering. At last we found ourselves at the summit in a fair-sized square which consisted entirely of a parking lot and was surrounded by imposing buildings and a large, ancient church. A handy car guard saw me coming and chased a tour bus from its parking spot. I pulled in, turned off the engine and left the car there for two days while I recovered. The car guard fortunately assisted us in dragging our luggage the 200 metres or so that we had to walk down to our hotel. It was not possible to drive there and the hotels don’t provide porter services. Very difficult for old people even though the luggage was on wheels.

       It was a relief to step through the heavy wooden door of the old house, La Casa Grande, and into the light, plant-filled atrium, where we were welcomed by the owner with a glass of sherry. It soon became apparent why we would need the sherry. Our room was on the top floor, up very narrow and unbelievably steep stairs, which varied in tread and width as it twisted its way to the rooftop some three floors up. Once again, there was no one to assist with the luggage. My parents would never have been able to get up there with the luggage if I hadn’t been there. Despite mentioning that they weren’t really able to climb all those stairs, the hostess told us that her 90-year-old mother visited regularly and could manage quite well. I didn’t think that was much of a response, but Mom and Dad hate to appear pathetic and so take much of what is dished up, much to my chagrin.

       At the top of the stairs, we had to climb through a kind of window and found ourselves on a lovely, sun-filled patio with the glass roof of the atrium in the centre and a wide balcony overlooking the cliffs, with a vista across a river, orange groves and cultivated fields, and in the distance, Jerez. A wonderful resting place if you didn’t look over the edge of the thigh-high wall and realise that you were on the cliff-top with a sheer drop of 180 metres to the slopes below! If you leaned over the wall, the up-draught was enough to blow a wig off, let alone a hat, and hundreds of birds were hovering below, in a kind of mass hang-gliding exhibition.

       To the left and the right, the two oldest churches vied for position, and behind us, Roman walls formed part of the buildings which had been tacked on rather than starting from scratch. The area is subject to earthquakes, I later learned, and I must confess that it wasn’t a place I would ever have bought a house, despite the magnificent views. Mom hit her head on the eaves which overhung the steps up to the balcony, and I followed suit shortly afterwards. Perhaps a sign on the ground would have helped!

       Our accommodation was very comfortable, despite the bathroom having only half a curtain for a door, but we had to once again remind ourselves that it was very old and we were looking for authenticity rather than city slick. There was plentiful hot water and towels, the most important thing on any holiday, and the beds were comfortable and clean. No tea or coffee was provided and only breakfast was served on the premises. We would have to go hunting again. Fortunately we had a good supply of nuts and energy bars for snacking.

       It was very warm out – about 40°C for a while, but we could see that the weather was going to change by the clouds that were gathering overhead. Once again, the streets were deserted and everything closed for siesta, so we would have to wait until 6 o’clock for beer, coffee or tapas. We strolled around the streets admiring the architecture and balconies overflowing with a profusion of colour, geraniums mainly. Occasionally a dog would bark and we would see him peering down from the rooftops. You have to watch where you walk, as there is dog pooh everywhere and no one seems to clean up.

       The oldest church in Arcos was built around 1470 and is filled with religious statuary and massive altarpieces which are overwhelming in their extravagant ornateness and rather disturbing in a way. There was a section behind glass which displayed jewellery that the devout had left in supplication – some very expensive-looking rings and necklaces.

       Outside, the flagstones were a makeshift football pitch, a poor substitute for the open fields far below – either they weren’t able to play down there, or the young boys didn’t fancy the long walk back up the hill after a game. And so the clamour of youngsters at play mingled with the clang of the church bell as it had doubtless done for the last six hundred years.

       We chanced upon our friend from the archway, and he invited us to join him for a beer and tapas. We were only too grateful to be with someone who evidently knew his way about, and learned that he was on a three-month walking tour of Spain, but torrential rain in the mountains to the east of Arcos had caused him to take a few days off to stay in the town. We then found out that he came from the same town as us, Fish Hoek, in Cape Town, although he had emigrated to Australia some thirty years before, and that we knew all the same people, and that his mother was in fact the Maths teacher at my high school when I was there. What a small place the world is! So we spent a very pleasant few hours with him, sampling our first tapas, and eventually parted ways to seek dinner.

       We were rapidly acclimatising to the Spanish way of life, possibly because the days were long – sunset was at 9.45pm – and we were used to having supper after 9 rather than at 6pm. We settled on a small, family-run and not at all touristy restaurant, Café St Marco. The young couple behind the bar/kitchen (space is at a premium in this ancient town) were extremely friendly and anxious to please, but spoke no English and the menu was in Spanish with English translations that left much to be desired. We pointed out a selection of tapas, but first they insisted we try their gazpacho, which was truly delicious and refreshing and we were glad of the opportunity to practice a few of the Spanish phrases we had learnt.

       Overall, the tapas were really good: goat’s cheese melted on crostini with raspberry jam and chopped almonds; cold rice with chopped onion, peppers, tomatoes, corn and crabsticks; fish fritters. Then something got lost in translation. Mom ordered pork loin in butter. A plate with a huge mound of what appeared to be mashed potato with shreds of meat in it was placed before us. I tentatively took a forkful of what was actually cold lard with pork bits! Thank goodness it was only tapas and not raciones. The waitress had arrived and she had a smattering of English. She laughed when we told her that we didn’t eat cold fat and explained that it was a delicacy and was usually spread on bread (hence the reference to butter) and eaten with a dash of tomato sauce. She took it away and brought us some very good coffee to compensate. The coffee in Arcos cost €1 – the cheapest anywhere.

       It was now dark as we set off through the narrow streets to the hotel, and it was wonderful to feel completely safe as we meandered towards the plaza where we had left the car, just to check that it was still there. As we approached, we heard music, a lively collaboration of brass instruments and drums, and were enchanted to see the musicians practising on the first floor of one of the buildings in the plaza. The windows had all been flung wide open for relief from the heat and there was much laughter and repartee coming from what was obviously a rehearsal. We leaned against the warm stone wall and enjoyed twenty minutes of free concert and when they stopped, we clapped in appreciation. How funny it was – applause came from all parts of the car park, where others had gathered to listen as well!

       Back in our room, or the penthouse suite, as we had dubbed it, we relaxed until after midnight before sleep overtook us. Our body clocks really had changed!

Mom’s diary:

       Up and up cobbled streets, getting very narrow, people wandering around, outside tables and chairs and very old buildings. When we came to a very narrow passageway, Pam came to a halt, afraid to go further. Lots of people milling around. We had the window open and a man popped his head in and spoke a few words in Afrikaans. What a surprise! It turned out to be Don, the son of a teacher at Pam’s school when she was in matric. How about that! With the help of various people, Pam was able to negotiate the narrow streets (mostly in reverse) and was helped to the car park and then helped to the hotel with our luggage.

       We are in the penthouse suite right on the rooftop; large, nicely appointed room and a lovely sitting area outside with plants and pots, with a lovely view of hills and farmland, farmhouses and the river. We are right on the very edge of the cliff – 180m down – a sheer drop. When you look over the edge of the wall, the updraught is terrific!

       The lady who owns this place is nice and we get breakfast. Two young girls see to the cleaning. Will be happy to be here for four nights.

       Wandered around the streets and enjoyed the balmy air. Met up with Don and had a beer together and a long, long talk. He moved off to Australia many years ago and is here on a walking tour.

       Heard a band playing and saw the musicians through the open window. We sat and listened and enjoyed some very good music. After 10pm their practice was finished and they disappeared, and we went to bed.

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