Perhaps one of the most famous of the pueblos blancos or ‘white villages’ of Andalucia, Arcos sits atop its escarpment above the Rio Guadelete about 20 kilometers east of Jerez de la Frontera. Well worth a visit, we paid one recently with a friend and dogs.
Its twin peaks are topped by the church towers of the Santa Maria Basilica and San Pedro, which lie within the old walled Moorish town perched along the vertiginous edge of a sandstone escarpment. Today Arcos is a medium-sized modern town, but it is the medieval centre, with its astonishing views, which attracts the visitors. Be warned there are lots of them, of all nationalities, including Spanish.
Probably the best entry point is along the Calle Corredera, past the 16th century Hospital of St John and through a replica of what was once the old Jerez gate into the citadel. Along Belen, with the tourist information point on your right ( where maps in several languages cam be had at no cost ) you climb a steep gradient. The Moorish castle, which isn’t open to the public, is just before you approach the back of Basilica Menor de Santa Maria. Turn right and climb the steps into the Plaza Cabildo for a good view of the front of the Basilica, which is built on the site of a former mosque and, before that, a Visigothic temple. There are fabulous views from the railed edge of the escarpment. To the left of the square (facing away from the Basilica) there is a parador where tea can be taken on the terrace, which has even more stunning views.
If you return to the narrow street and walk along until you reach Plaza Botica, you will find the Convento de las Mercedarias Descalzas. This is the only remaining closed order in Arcos and the nuns there are famous for their sweets and pastries which are on sale in the porch of the convent via a ‘blind’ turntable. I can recommend the pestiños – very sticky with honey, at €7.50 for a large box. The square has a good and inexpensive restaurant where we ate an enjoyable lunch.
Turn right past the covered market, down by the Theatre and bear left and you’ll find a charming little Belenista exhibition, containing scenes from the Bethlehem story, made by the local Belen society. You’ll be walking downhill now, but soon start uphill again – good shoes, strong legs and capacious lungs are useful for walking about this town, its gradients are unforgiving. Thus you reach the other ‘peak’ topped by the 15th century church of San Pedro and a variety of old and fine palace buildings, dating from 15th to the 17th centuries. We didn’t enter the church, heading instead for the Calle Peña Vieja and another stunning viewing point from where to see the Guadalete, its lake and the high mountains of Sierra de Grazalema beyond.
Thence to the church of St Agustin (1539) a church famous in the locality for its miracle-working statue of Christ on the Via Dolorosa. The many metal badges found within are testament to the thanks of grateful beneficiaries.
There are many buildings to visit in Arcos as well as the views, and some are very fine, but one of the pleasures in being here is just wandering around the narrow, white-walled streets. Columns fill in the corners of buildings, some look very old indeed and there are certainly stones of Roman origin. This high hill, easily defended, with its vistas over the countryside for miles around, has clearly been the place to settle since the Stone Age. Given the ‘For Sale’/’Venda’ signs, people are doing it still (only rather more expensively).