The enigmatic and serenely beautiful pueblo blancos of Andalusia are rightly famed as one of the highlights of any trip to this sultry southern region of Spain. Over the years, we’ve visited many of these hilltop villages. Moorish history, narrow cobbled streets, and ancient whitewashed buildings luminescent in the punishing sun, make them some of the most picturesque and atmospheric places in the whole country.
Boasting a dramatic cliff top location, Arcos de la Frontera is no exception. Looming over the River Guadalete and vast plains below, the towers of the churches of Santa María de la Asunción and San Pedro, and the Castle of the Dukes of Arcos, can be seen from several kilometres away. It doesn’t take much imagination to still see the frontier town seized from the Moors in 1255 by Christian King Alfonso X of Castile and Leon.
The drama continues inside the ancient defensive walls. Arcos de la Frontera is a labyrinth of narrow streets that seem only to wind steeply downwards or, to my mind, even more steeply upwards. The only flat piece of land in the town appears to be the plaza in front of the Basílica de Santa María de la Asunción, today it’s unceremoniously used as the town car park.
Not that we were foolish enough to drive into Arcos. I’d read enough horror stories about lost wing mirrors and scratched paintwork of cars attempting to squeeze through the Callejón de las Monjas, or Alley of the Nuns. A barely passable street, squashed between the Basílica and the Convento Encarnación, this is in fact part of the main road through town. It’s more suited to a donkey cart even today.
I wish I’d been driving a donkey when our satnav forced us on a route that took us through this excruciatingly narrow passage when leaving town – nerve wracking barely describes it. In the meantime though, we had three days to simply relax in this sleepy place. We stayed in La Casa Grande, a gorgeous house built in 1729 on the cliff edge. It has exceptional views and a roof terrace that is perfect for evening drinks as the sun sets.
The vista from the rooftop was only one of several panoramic viewpoints tucked at the end of narrow cobbled streets that stop at the sheer cliff edge. Stood at these vertigo-inducing spots, you can watch dozens of hawks glide past in their search for quarry. The pigeons of Arcos move at lightning speed. It’s a scene that could have been observed at any time since the Romans built a fort on these same cliffs.
Arcos acquired the ‘de la Frontera’ in 1255 when it was captured from the Moors. For the next two and a half centuries, until the fall of Granada to the Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, this was a frontier town dividing Moorish and Christian kingdoms. Five centuries of Moorish rule has left its mark on the town though – the Basílica de Santa María de la Asunción is built on top of a mosque, the castle on a Moorish fort.
It was early April and we had occasional rain showers, but mostly glorious sunshine. April is definitely the off season and we saw few tourists, and none of the coach loads of day trippers that can swamp this small place in summer. After a few days of over-indulgence in Malaga, wandering narrow streets, visiting ancient churches, and taking in exquisite views was very relaxing.
The Romans knew this place as Colonia Arcensis, the Moors called it Medina Ar-kosch, and it became Arcos de la Frontera during the Reconquista. Spend a little time here, and those centuries of history seem to seep out of the whitewashed walls. Arcos just might be my favourite pueblo blanco of all.