Arcos: Guided Tour
"Enjoy this walk around the old quarter during your stay at Casa Campana. It takes about one hour." Jim, owner
1. Here we are in the Old Quarter of Arcos de la Frontera on the clifftop. It's a maze of narrow streets leading to small open squares, and its atmosphere is uniquely Andalucian. The myriad historical details in the heart of the Old Quarter, some of which are easily overlooked, provide us with a fascinating snapshot of the town's past. There's a lot to see, so come with us on our guided tour. Let's start at Cabildo Square - check out its stunning viewpoint (photo above) scanning the surrounding countryside. The square, which was once used as a bullring, is a natural focal point for the visitor to Arcos de la Frontera, lying as it does right outside St. Mary's church - the town's touristic centerpiece.
2. You are now standing in Cabildo Square and looking at St. Mary's church. Perhaps the best known sight for visitors to Arcos, St. Mary's is a mixture of many different architectural styles. It was constructed over a period of over six centuries, and stands in place of what was a mosque. The mosque was built by the Moors who occupied Arcos from 711 AD until 1262 AD. Look at the impressive, though unfinished neo-classical bell tower - the old one fell in the earthquake of 1755 (famous for destroying Lisbon). Its replacement was intended to be the tallest in Andalusia after Seville's, but the money ran out!
3. Towards the back of the square, take the steps leading up to the castle. Now in private hands, the castle dates back to the 11th century and was built by the Moors, who used it as a military fortress. Legend has it that the ghost of a Moorish woman still wanders along the castle embattlements each moonlit night, in search of her lover. Rebuilding work went on in the 14th and 15th centuries under the Christians, a time when the first Dukes of Arcos used to live in the castle. Spain's renowned Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, spent some time in the castle with the Dukes shortly before travelling to Granada for the surrender of the Moors in January 1492 (in the same year Columbus set sail from Seville to the Americas).
4. Back to the church. After passing the left hand side of the main façade of St. Mary's, you'll see a large block of stone (photo below).
Of Arab or Roman origin, the stone is inscribed with a centuries-old tree motif. Could this be the Tree of Life, that ancient symbol used in so many cultures? With its branches reaching into the sky, and roots in the earth, it dwells in three worlds - a link between heaven, the earth, and the underworld, uniting above and below. Do you see the face carved out in the lower part of the motif?
5. Go down the first flight of steps, and in the patio in front of the church you'll find a 15th century 'magic circle'. It is the only one to be found in the whole of Andalusia. You'll see there are 12 red stones and 12 white stones - the white ones have the different constellations of stars marked on them. The magic circle used to be kept inside St. Mary's, and when parents brought a child to the church for baptism they would employ an exorcist to stand inside the circle (which acted as 'protection') and cleanse the baby of any evil spirits. It was also a holy symbol during the Moorish occupation of Arcos, and though local people do not revere the circle any more, it is said that Sufis, a sect whose roots and mystic beliefs may even predate the Moorish period, still come here as pilgrims. Please let us know if you can provide more knowledge about this rare and fascinating magic circle. Does its history reach back as far as the Ancient Egyptian period?
6. Now go down the last flight of steps and turn to the right. Notice the impressive buttresses that were raised in 1699 to hold back pressure of the church wall, following an earthquake in 1696 which had cracked the church's foundation. It is quite likely that these additions saved the church from destruction during the later 1755 earthquake.
7. As you walk down Nuns' Street you come to a convent founded in the 16th century, on your left hand side. It had been a chapel and a hospital in the 15th century. The large doorway, framed by a flower-adorned arch, is Plateresque in style, while the small one next to it is Gothic. Inside there is a nave which still preserves important fragments from the 16th century.
8. Following the street you come to an attractive inner patio on our right hand side. You can wander into the patio if it's open. It belongs to the Torresoto Palace which was built in the 17th century. The Torresoto family were part of the nobility in Arcos and this helps to explain the private chapel you can see at the back of the patio. Only the wealthy could afford such a luxury in their own homes. Having your own chapel meant that the priests could come to you, rather than you needing to visit church. This one represents the Divine Shepherdess, a Marian image so familiar in Spain and Latin American countries.
9. Back out into the street, as you walk around the corner notice that the walls are scooped out on either side of the windows. It wasn't so long ago that women rarely ventured out of the house, but these 'window ears' at least gave them a good view of what was going on in the street. And the younger ladies could get chatted up by willing suitors, who would lean up against the wall (see the old photo below).
If you come to visit our guesthouse Casa Campana ask about the scoops on the windows that we have here on our house - they have a unique feature, found nowhere else in Arcos.
10. Lift your gaze and at the end of the street is the last remaining working convent in Arcos. It was founded in 1642 in the old prison. Though it is a closed order, at the far end of the building in the lobby, under the portico, you can buy speciality cakes and tarts (costing about 5 euros a box) made by the nuns. Just press the buzzer and place your order, which will then be delivered to you by means of a spinning cupboard!
11. The covered market at the bottom of Boticas Square (next to the convent) is sited on an unfinished church. It was being built for the Jesuits, but construction stopped in 1767 when Charles III, no longer willing to put up with the Jesuits' political antics, expelled the order from Spain. Charles III was also responsible for reducing to almost nothing the powers of the infamous Spanish Inquisition, though it wasn't until 1834 that this group of sticklers for Catholic orthodoxy (established by the Catholic Monarchs in 1478) was finally abolished. Before you move on, notice the pediments of Roman columns incorporated into the façade. Yes, the Romans occupied Arcos too (and in Casa Campana we have a Roman memorial stone embedded in the patio wall).
12. Continue straight on down Boticas Street. On your left hand side look for a souvenir shop. Look directly up from the shop to the edge of the tiled rooftop. Your keen eye will see a little face mask. It's one of the last surviving masks in Arcos - there are eleven in total - and it recalls a tradition that continued until the mid 1800s, namely to scare evil spirits from the house. Today, Halloween masks are thought to reflect much the same function.
13. Before you continue straight on, at the end of Boticas Street pop into the alleyway on the right. Here you'll see a building currently functioning as a junior state school. It was once a private house and in the 1700s it was a Jesuit monastery. Above the lintel is a Spanish Coat of Arms which symbolises different aspects of the Spanish Empire. The crown represents the Royal Spanish Kingdom, the lions are from the Kingdom of León ('Lion'), and the castles are from the Kingdom of Castille ('Castle'). If you get to spend some time in Arcos, why not hunt for other coats of arms. They are dotted around the Old Quarter
14. And now, just a few paces down Nuñez de Prado Street, you get a view of the Chapel of Mercy's Gothic façade (shown in the photo below).
It was founded around 1490 as a children's home, women's refuge and hospital. If the door's open take the opportunity to go inside and search for the carved images of the first Dukes of Arcos. They are at the back on the right. These days the chapel is used for exhibitions, concerts and the like. The white house (number 4) on the right just before the chapel is Casa Campana.
15. Directly to the right of the chapel is the Mayorazgo Palace - a grand building with an impressive history. Go inside if the door's open. The Palace was used as a private home until just a few years ago and these days it is occupied by local government offices. It also hosts the Association of San Miguel, a bar for local pensioners. Why not share a drink (they're subsidised!) with the friendly punters. The Palace's centerpiece is its 15th century courtyard - the oldest in town - with a series of Roman columns. There's a second, more modern courtyard just beyond this one which also merits a lingering look.
16. The first turn on your left after the Palace is Cuna Street, which marked the old Jewish quarter of town. Among the most picturesque streets in Arcos, it's where one of Spain's oldest public granaries existed until the 18th century (it had been established during the time of the Catholic Monarchs). Barcelona has paid homage to Cuna Street by including it in its suburb called 'Spanish Towns'.
17. Just beyond Cuna Street is Arcos' second church, St. Peter's. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a prolonged dispute between the parishioners of St. Peter's and St. Mary's. Both groups claimed theirs was the leading church in Arcos. The issue became so bitter that the members of St. Peter's refused to honour 'Mary, Mother of God', but prayed instead to 'St. Peter, Mother of God'! Their prayers were in vain, since the Pope finally ruled in favour of St. Mary's. Not long ago St. Peter's had a resident bellman, a local basket maker known for having brought a donkey into his residence. Eventually the animal grew too big to get back out, so he ended up killing and eating it.
18. Walking down the small street in front of St. Peter's you come to the recently-created Jardín Andalusí, or Andalusian Water Garden, on your right. Is there a more tranquil setting in which to meditate on Trees of Life and Magic Circles? Sit yourself down on the shaded stone bench and listen to water trickling by as you watch the flowers moving in the breeze. The garden's design reveals a strong Moorish influence and it bears a striking resemblance to the water garden found in the grounds of the famous Alhambra Palace in Granada. Opening times vary for the Jardín Andalusí.
19. You arrive now at Maldonado Street, one of the most attractive streets in town. It has boasted some of the grandest houses, including one which was shamelessly demolished in 1919 only so its doors, façade and panelled ceiling could be sold. Walking down the side of St. Peter's church, about half way along, lift your eyes and you'll see a beautifully preserved sevillano wall tile from the 17th century. It shows the Virgin standing on a pedestal with a ship in her right hand and a child king cupped in the other hand. If you know more information about the meaning of this wall tile please contact us; we think it has an association with the Spanish Empire (1492-1898). There's a similar tile around the corner which has suffered some damage over the years. Look out for it as you turn left, passing around the back of the church and towards your final destination on this tour.
20. Having gone right around the church, look for the little sign which says "Mirador" (shown in the photo below) and follow its arrow - it will lead you to a small but perfectly formed viewing area a little way down the street. From here you'll get a view of the countryside (and down to St. Augustin's church) which you might think surpasses that from the mirador at Cabildo Square. It's a nice way to end this short tour.