I’ve been on a bit of a jaunt! We packed the dog off to be cared for by friends and left a mound of food for the cat, and off we went! We drove west, and our first stop after some 240 km was in the elevated town of Arcos de la Frontera in the Andalucian province of Cádiz. This charming town of 28,000 inhabitants divided between the ancient quarter perched high above the Guadalete river on a narrow spine of towering sandstone cliffs, and the newer area lower down. The old town is choc-a-bloc with ancient monuments and fabulous characterful buildings dating back centuries. The town was declared a national historic-artistic monument in 1962, a well deserved accolade.
We stayed in the hotel Casa Mirador San Pedro with a roof terrace that overlooked a lake on one side and on the other it seemed that if I stretched my arm, I would be able to touch the tower of the San Pedro church.
I had done my homework and read the reviews which without fail recommended that we leave our car in the more modern area of town and take a taxi the short distance to the hotel. The very narrow roads are definitely not for the faint hearted (David is not so faint hearted and would have risen to the challenge – but I would most definitely not have been sitting next to him. It was sufficiently daunting in the back seat of the taxi – there was about an inch spare on each side of the car – quite an experience! It is a constant game of cat and mouse with pedestrians having to hop into doorways to make way for the cars. In high season it must be a nightmare for anyone who has to drive these streets on a regular basis – they would make extremely slow progress.
We had a lovely time mooching around, visiting churches and viewing points, and taking a drink on the Parador terrace. An impressive castle presides over the town, but unfortunately it is in private ownership and there are only four open days per year. The temperature was so hot that I needed to buy a hat to prevent my scalp from burning.
Semana Santa (Easter) is obviously very important in this town. The streets are decorated with giant Semana Santa posters from as far back as the 1970’s and, as it is now the lead-up to easter, we witnessed much activity in getting the huge thrones out of storage and into commission for the many processions that will take place over the coming days. We stopped to watch some such activity. A group of young-ish men were crowded around garage doors, obviously about to ‘do something’. We watched as they wrapped their mid-sections in long, wide sashes/scarves. They took turns to breath in and pull in their stomachs, (much harder work for some than others!) holding one end of the sash to their waist whilst another guy held on tight to the other end and the first guy would twirl around so that the sash wound around his waist to provide support. The end was tucked in and voila – instant corset. Many also put on a weight-lifter’s belt on top. They had padded yokes around their necks and then they were called in order to crawl under the curtain that surrounded the throne and when they had all disappeared from sight, the ‘jefe’ made a loud tapping noise and, as one, all the guys behind the curtain stood up and took the weight of the throne and then the very exacting procedure of leaving the garage commenced. They made tiny shuffling steps in precise time and, exactly like the cars negotiating the streets, the throne moved ever so slowly out of the garage doors with just an inch or so leeway each side.
Adornments (candle holders) were then placed on the platform and we wandered off back towards the hotel. The next stage for the throne would be to walk it to its church to have the statue put in place. There are a series of life-sized statues that are each placed on the throne depending on the day of the parade, including The Virgin Mary and Jesus in various poses.
Often the men carrying the throne are on view, shouldering huge cross bars protruding from the sides. I can’t imagine how hot it must be for the guys under the throne behind a curtain, wearing restrictive clothing and in very close proximity to each other with no fresh air, and often walking up very steep hills. It must be like doing weight lifting in a very hot and smelly sauna.
It was a privilege to watch these young men joining together to serve their community. I love the way that all ages pull together for public events in Spain. A real community spirit.
After we had changed and returned to the streets, we came across the throne again, with the hard-working men painstakingly making their way up the steps to the church. They were joined by another team lifting a second, unadorned throne, weighted down with sandbags. I guess there are two teams for each throne and they were both hard at work.
I made this little video that will give you some idea of the effort involved in shouldering these thrones. I didn’t notice it at the time, but when I was making the video I saw that one of the guys exited from the throne whilst talking on his phone – another great example of a man multi-tasking!
We ate a fabulous selection of tapas dishes for supper at the Taberna Jóvenes Flamencos, and wandered back to the hotel via the Parador square where we were treated to the sound of the town band practising for the forthcoming parades. I find the Easter music really rousing.
The next morning we took a stroll around the Palacio del Mayorazgo – a really interesting place with so many different exhibitions to see. We wandered down to the vaulted cellars where paintings were being hung, and back up to the beautiful internal patio and all the time entirely alone, without charge and seemingly without restriction.
We both absolutely loved Arcos de la Frontera and wouldn’t hesitate in recommending a visit.
We then moved around 30 km further west to Jerez de la Frontera. I visited Jerez (home of countless sherry bodegas) in 2015 with my daughter Ella and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to do all the same things again. We visited the fabulous castle and this time were able to enjoy the Camera Obscura, and then we took a tour of the Tio Pepe bodega, and afterwards ate lots of lovely food. I wrote about Jerez after my last visit which you can read here. It’s a lovely vibrant small city and well worth a visit. We stayed in the very central Hotel Doña Blanca, well situated to stroll to all the attractions.
The following day, we returned home via a different route and stopped off at Vejer de la Frontera, another small town perched high on a cliff. It boasts that it is the ‘prettiest village in Spain’ and it is indeed very charming, but I think Arcos would beat it in a beauty contest!
And as this trip was my birthday treat, I came home with a present – a beautiful hand-painted fan from Arcos. Something that I will treasure for years to come.