Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Maybe he even paid tribute to Virgen de la Fuensanta. Maybe he tasted the local food in Plaza del Pescao. Maybe he visited the Hospital of Caridad or the Church of San Andrés, getting down his knees and saying a prayer or two. Maybe he strolled quietly down the streets. Maybe he drafted some of his novels, stories, or poems here. Maybe. It’s only speculation: travellers will never be sure of which streets were trodden upon and which corners were visited by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra when he came to Coín in 1594 as a Tax Commissioner. But dreaming is free, and it’s nice to think that today I might be stepping on the same cobblestones trampled on by Cervantes so long ago. It makes my heart flutter. I’m feeling like a Quixotic knight.

Arrival, Parking, Start

Coín has grown into a town squeezing new parts into old ones, in an interplay of antiquity and modernity, presenting visitors with a wide range of quality services alongside the decadent flavour of living history. Coming to the municipal area, I followed directions to the town centre, which took me to Plaza de la Villa and the surrounding area. As I failed to park here, I went to the public car park in the square, complementary to the outdoor shopping centre in downtown Coín. I wanted to find my way to a Tourist Information Office, get a map, and identify the sights of interest. Locals are kind and friendly. They easily directed me across the main avenue and Plaza del Pescado, past the Church of San Juan Bautista on the left, to the Tourist Office. A big sign showed where it was. My joy, however, lasted only a few seconds, since the office was closed (open Mon-Fri, 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.). I’d have to rely on street boards then. Anyway, it was a small town and I couldn’t get lost. Later I was to find out that you can get free maps in newsstands. I decided to take the Church of San Juan Bautista first, as I was standing opposite its side door.

The Church of San Juan Bautista and the Tiny Virgen de la Fuensanta

Warning: The main access to the Church of San Juan Bautista opening onto Plaza del Pescao, is usually closed, so you’re advised to use the side doors. I came in from the right, only to be met with the hustle and bustle of women working on flowers decorating the benches or tidying up a small chapel to the left of the high altar. I knew that Coín’s Virgen de la Fuensanta has thousands of devotees. The processions to Her chapel are major events. I also knew this minute Virgin –only 11cm tall– was found by an old Christian or soldier taking part in the Reconquista, in the late fifteenth century. But knowing is one thing and seeing is another. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at the chapel to the left of the high altar: a filigree gold and silver float carefully adorned with flowers and a crystal niche in the middle holding a tiny figure sporting an even tinier crown. The women who were cleaning the chapel invited me to climb the steps and get a closer view of the Virgin. It’s difficult to match the sculpture’s size and the strong feelings it aroused. “Do you like it?,” one of the women asks. “Yes, I do. I really do,” I reply. “At the procession we take the niche out and are allowed to kiss Her. We can see Her close up then. We can catch those little glittering eyes of Her,” she adds in ecstasy. “You’re really devoted to Her, aren’t you?,” I enquire. “Oh, yes. But it’s not just us who live in Coín. People come from all over the world to say their prayers, ask for their families’ well-being, make promises. We’re devoted to Her. Yes, we are.” After a few more minutes’ chat, we were told that the Virgen de la Fuensanta chapel on the outskirts of town can be visited on Wednesdays and Sundays, but no visitors are allowed to come in. “It’s very beautiful out there too,” one of the women concluded. I thanked them for what they’d told me and went out for breakfast.

Breakfast in the Square

Upon a local woman’s advice, I was not to lose sight of the church. So I sat down in its shade at La Cueva del Monaguillo, a bar serving breakfast from early in the morning and tapas after 1:00 p.m. I’d already bought my postcard and paid postage (€0.40 + €0.32), so this was a good time to scribble on it. I began with my usual opening: “My journey across the 101 townships in Málaga Province has brought me to Coín this time…” Between one sentence and the next I order a Cola soda, a beer, a Serrano ham and tomato sandwich, and a cheese and bacon sandwich. My bill = €5.30. While eating and chatting, I planned the rest of the morning. I could feel some cool air in this place secluded from the busy main street while still close to it. I finished my breakfast and went on.

La Encarnación, the Hospital of Caridad, and the Church of San Andrés

Down the road adjoining the Tourist Office I came to a plate announcing the family house of Antonio Reyna Manescau. According to the information given at García Agüera Foundation, Reyna Manescau was born in Coín in 1859 and died in Rome in 1937. He was one of the greatest nineteenth-century landscape painters in Andalusia. He showed his skill early on in life. Trained at the Málaga Academy, in 1885 we travelled to Venice, where he got acquainted with the corners that he never stopped painting in a refined style. This earned him the name “The Painter of Venice.” Walking on to the right along Santa María Street, I came to La Encarnación –originally, a mosque, then a Franciscan monastery, then a Baroque cloistered convent, and finally an art gallery, open only when exhibitions are on. This is the heart of Coín’s old quarter: lots of alleys beginning in little squares, lots of old houses rehabilitated or awaiting rehabilitation, lots of twists and turns, lots of broken or interrupted paths, lots of cool big patios shyly leaning onto the streets… This Coín must be quite similar to the one in 1773 which, following historians, had 700 gardens, 14 oil mills, 20 flour mills, and so on. The setting helped me created the right frame of mind to travel back in time. Walking down Doctor Palomo y Anaya Street, I could see the belfry of the Church of San Andrés and Hospital of Caridad: a white tower jutting out amidst modern buildings against the bright blue sky. The access to the church is low and narrow. I went in to find an extremely humble, low-ceiling temple. It’s one of the seven L-shaped churches in Andalusia –one wing for the ailing and the sick, the other for church goers. I was overwhelmed. I took my time to go about the church. I could see the old columns behind the newly erected walls, hidden behind a thick layer of lime and sand. The old stone and brick walls and elaborate columns were laid bare during rehabilitation work, which naturally came to a halt. Now they show, stressing the decadent atmosphere of the whole building. You can still attend mass in this church.

Virgen de la Fuensanta Chapel and Farewell

I came out of the Church of San Andrés and headed for Plaza de la Villa, where I’d left my car. Following the church women’s advice, I wanted to visit the Virgen de la Fuensanta chapel. I paid my parking fee (€2.50) and hit the road to Marbella, past Cruz de Piedra restaurant. Before reaching the crossroads, I turned right. The place is signposted but not clearly visible. Driving along the local asphalt road, I had to look for the next sign, indicating where the chapel was (to the right). I drove past an open-air cave featuring a replica of the Virgin’s image behind bars. This was the place where She first appeared. At the far end of the road I could see the empty structure of the marquees set up in the area for the procession in early June. The esplanade kindled ambivalent feelings in me. The chapel was perched on the slopes of a mountain, perfectly white and preceded by a little square. It was a quiet setting. The breeze brushed past the trees bringing echoes of distant fiestas, hand clapping, traditional songs, laughter, voices. The marquees were empty, but the festive atmosphere could be felt as a distant murmur. I could even feel the presence of pilgrims passing by, their devotional tears brought from far-away lands… I had a look at the immaculate pale chapel. I looked up at the bright blue sky. I gazed at the mountainous horizon beyond. I sat down and closed my eyes, wrapped in the mystic air.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do: The Tourist Office on Teniente Coronel de la Rubia Street is open Mon-Fri from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (Phone: +34 952 453 211.) You can also get free maps in most main street newsstands, though.
What else to see: In the vicinity of the town there’s Ciudad del Cine, a resort where TV series –like Arrayán by Televisión de Andalucía– are usually being shot. It’s like a traditional Andalusian village. When they aren’t being used, sets are open to visitors. Close to Ciudad del Cine there’s El Nacimiento, a recreational area around the source of the spring providing the whole town with drinking water.
Useful links: As usual, the website of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board is a good starting point. The Coín Town Hall website is also a useful source. To read more about painter Antonio Reyna Manescau, go to the website of García Agüera Foundation.

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. This is intended to be an open door, so the more things shown and said, the better. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.