Most Andalusian villages are white since whitewash covers the walls of the houses but only one itinerary in the region is called the Route of the White Villages. It is mostly in the province of Cadiz but enters that of Malaga too.
The route of the White Villages begins in the town of Arcos de la Frontera which sits on top of a rock dominating the River Guadalete. It is a white town, full of surprises, with mysterious streets where arches abound, although they have absolutely nothing to do with the name (“arcos” meaning arches).
The origin of the town is lost in the mists of time but its foundation is attributed to none less than one of Noah’s grandsons. The city witnessed numerous violent confrontations. It was here that Rodrigo, the last Visigoth king lost his life and empire when attacked by the invading Arab forces. At a later date Arcos was one of the first towns to fall into Christian hands, those of King Alfonso X the Wise, in 1264. But the town’s Moorish past still lingers in the white houses with barred windows, where geraniums peek through the iron grilles. And, whether you like it or not, any of the children frequenting the tourist attractions on the look out for visitors will tell you the history of Arcos.
What to see
The historical quarter of Arcos, enclosed by the Cuesta de Belén (Bethlehem Hill) and the Puerta de Matrera (Matrera Gate), was declared a national monument in 1962.
In La Corredera, the street which crosses the town from top to bottom, entering from the N-342 road, you will come to the Hospital de San Juan de Dios, the old Vera Cruz shrine. At the end of the Cuesta de Belén is the Palace of the Condes de Aguila and nearby, lies one of the most precious jewels of the town: the castle, Arabic in origin, and later re-built by the Christians in around 1430. Unfortunately it is not possible to visit the castle since it is private property.
Going up Calle Deán Espinosa you come to the Iglesia de Santa María (St. Mary’s Church). This is the principal church of the town according to a decision made by a tribunal in 1764 which was set up to resolve the conflict over age and importance that was raging with the Iglesia de San Pedro (St. Peter’s Church). But the disputes did not end there. The two main parishes in Arcos got involved in rivalry over the arrival of the bodies of unknown martyrs from distant lands. Thus when St. Mary’s brought the body of St Felix from Rome, St. Peter’s managed to get the remains of St. Fructuoso and St. Victor. They had won the contest.
Historical anecdotes apart, the two churches are extremely valuable from a sightseeing point of view. St. Mary’s was built in the fifteenth century on the site of a mosque and the main façade is plateresque Gothic. For its part St. Peter’s looks more like a fortress and the style is Gothic.
The best way to see the rest of the area around Arcos is to leave the town by the N-342 and then to take the C-343 after about five kilometres. This will take you to Espera, one of the oldest of all the villages in these mountains. Later you will come to Villamartín, an agricultural town surrounded by rich fields due to the abundant supply of water.
As you continue the whiteness of the towns and villages gets brighter and brighter, in contrast to the surrounding fields. Leaving Villamartín by the local 523 road you will see the ruins of the Castillo de Pajarete on the top of one of the peaks after about three kilometres. Prado del Rey, a village founded in the eighteenth century by Charles III, is distinguished by the flowers bordering the majority of the streets.
El Bosque – the village which is considered to be the centre of this local agricultural area is also nearby. During the War of Independence the locals were the first of all the mountain dwellers to rise up against the French. The village suffered grave damage as a consequence. The Iglesía de Santa María de Guadalupe in the Plaza de la Constitución is worth a visit.
Take the local 524 road to Ubrique when you leave El Bosque. From the outskirts of the town you will already get a whiff of tanned hides as this town is the great centre for leather in Andalucía with a wide range of goods available.
Other areas worth a visit not far from Arcos de la Frontera are the Grazalema Natural Park, Zahara de la Sierra and the beautiful village and castle of Olvera.
To see the town of Arcos de la Frontera without having to rush around, it is a good idea to stay overnight. Although there is not a very wide choice of accommodation, the hotels on offer are good and reasonably priced. Try the Parador Casa del Corregidor in the Plaza del Cabildo. There is also the Cortijo Fain in the Carretera de Algar, kilometre 3. If you choose to stay in nearby Ubrique there is Pension Ocurris in Solís Pascual 49.
When eating out in Arcos and its surrounding area it is worth trying the local specialities. These include “tagarnines”, a type of asparagus found growing both wild and cultivated in the area as well as “berza”, a type of cabbage. Also try Algodonales cakes, Olvera stuffed fillet steak and a local soup made with wild asparagus (especially found in Zahara). Recommended restaurants in Arcos include El Convento and Mesón Curro el Cojo and El Castillo in Zahara.
In the nearby village of Algodonales visit the Valeriano Bernal guitar workshop. If looking for souvenirs in Zahara de la Sierra locally made basketwork and leather bags is in abundance and the village of Ubrique stands out for its local leatherware.
How to get there
To reach Arcos de la Frontera, take the A-92 from Granada in the direction of Seville as far as the Antequera crossroads. Then take the N-342 which will take you across the Sierra del Tablón. There are regular bus routes linking the towns and villages in the area with the city of Cadiz, although by far the best form of transport is your own vehicle.