In October of 2011 I had the pleasure to visit Spain. Top on my list of places to see were Barcelona and Seville, but lucky for me, my travel buddy wanted to go to Arcos de la Frontera. I had no idea what this city was, or what I would or wouldn’t like about it, but what I learned was that it was pretty far south and really, really old. We decided to compromise by spending more time in Barcelona, less in Seville, even less in Madrid and two nights in Arcos.
If I remember correctly, we took a train from Seville to Jerez, then a bus to Arcos de la Frontera. Arcos is extremely remote, perched high attop a mountain overlooking the Cadiz countryside and cotton fields. The only way to access this city is via car or bus, and the bus only runs 3-4 times a day (if that).
We booked a hostel called Casa Blues for our 2 nights in Arcos de la Frontera. Arcos is a small town and there aren’t a whole lot of hotel options outside of some pricier ones, so we decided to take our chances with a hostel – well, we were extremely lucky. This hostel was more like a bed and breakfast. The owner lived in this Spanish home, decorated it with old Blues memorabilia, and opened the main, bottom and roof floors to guests. Our room was on the bottom floor complete with 2 twin beds and a private bath. The balcony overlooked the farm in the valley below and we could hear the animals during the day. It was all incredibly charming!
*the farm in the valley below our room at Casa Blues
After recuperating from the first half of our trip, we set out to explore this amazing city. Arcos de la Frontera dates back at least to the 1000s. Some locals even claimed that the roads were walked during Jesus’ time. The town has been run by the Moors, the Romans and of course, the Spanish. The large basilica in the heart of the town, Basilica of Santa Maria, is built on top of an old mosque. Arcos gets its name from its location – it was said to be on the ‘frontier of the Christian kingdom.’
The people were friendly in Arcos, but almost no one spoke English. The little bits of Spanish that I could remember from high school was useful when reading, but not for oral communication. I would respond to people in broken Spanish and all of a sudden they would strike up a very lively conversation with me and all I could do was apologize and smile (which will get you far in almost any foreign country!).
The Basilica of Santa Maria was open only during certain times during the day. The square in front of the church is a crowded parking lot, but the church itself is a marvel. The interior was amazing – unlike what I expected in this tiny little town. There were numerous alcoves with an abundance of Christian paraphernalia much of it gold and carved wood. I was in awe and definitely took my time in this tiny city’s amazing basilica!
One of my favorite and most unique experiences in Arcos was buying cookies from the nuns at the local convent. They are cloistered, so they do not leave the convent and are not visible to the public. The windows only have tiny peep holes to look out of and there are tall gates preventing anyone from getting in. During certain times of the day, you can purchase cookies made by the nuns. Once you enter the portico in front of the church a covered lazy Susan will become visible. You press the buzzer, put your money on the lazy Susan and the nun will spin it around and give you your cookies. At no point do you see a nun! They cookies were just ok, but the experience was memorable!
*avoiding a traffic jam!
There really isn’t much to see in this small city, but it’s architecture, winding streets, mountain top views, and white buildings are enough. Many of the buildings are tourist shops selling religious items and pottery. It is relatively inexpensive compared to the bigger cities in Spain. The restaurants are great, but they hold traditional siestas in the afternoons, so make sure you plan your meals accordingly otherwise you’ll be forced to eat convenient store food! Outside of the tourist areas the town seems down trodden, so keep this in mind if you are pinching your pennies – I’m sure this town depends on your tourism. The roads are all one lane and the locals are constantly battling each other for the right to drive, which was pretty interesting for all of us tourists!
To sum it up – if you are ever in Southern Spain, make sure you visit one of the Pueblo Blancos. I’m sure they are all different and each offer their own charm, but Arcos de la Frontera was the one that stole my heart!