Thursday, 17 February 2011

Long streets, slow and peaceful strolls. The winter sun warms the whitewashed and creamy-coloured walls. Everything is delicate and languorous. Some of the chestnut trees are bursting with white and lilac flowers, painting the fields. Archidona watches over its past from high up Pico del Conjuro. Archidona, the name that sounded “Ascua,” “Arx Domina,” or “Arxiduna” in old tongues. Archidona, home to the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans. Archidona, the town that witnessed Abd-al-Rahman being crowned as the first king independent from Damascus. Archidona, the town that belonged to the Umayyads and the Nasrids. Archidona, a town for unhurried walks. Archidona, Arxiduna, Arx Domina, Ascua. Archidona.

The streets of Archidona seem to extend in both space and time. They are long, like the arteries that carry the blood pumped from the heart of town: Plaza Ochavada. The town is wrapped in a morose, slow-motion atmosphere. I walk and look at the noble buildings, the stately homes, the shady hallways, the roofs and chimneys. The wrought-iron balconies and windows lean into the streets, insinuating worlds behind their rolled-up wood or reed blinds, painted in green. My tour today is peppered with history and monuments, church façades, museums and a town hall, faces where history has left its mark. I let go and the town guides me through. I smell the aromas, feel the elusive sun on my face, look at the sights, and never stop walking.

Starting Point: Plaza Ochavada

Park and start walking. This are the first two things you should do in Archidona. And the best things you could do, in fact. Then find your way to Plaza Ochavada and get yourself a street map at the Tourist Office. I’m surprised at the stately looks of so many buildings. They’re beautifully austere. Going through an archway, I enter a different world, a different time. The “Chamfered Square,” or Plaza Ochavada, was built in 1780 at the request of Charles III (the king responsible for the layout of modern Madrid). Life was hard in the eighteenth century too, and the square was developed with the aim of reducing unemployment. Designed by local architects Francisco de Astorga Frías and Antonio González Sevillano, the square was built in the Andalusian Baroque style to become one of its finest examples. It’s eight-sided (hence the name in Spanish, “Ochavada”) and each side is different. Throughout its history, it’s served multiple purposes: meeting point for local dwellers, home to taverns, town hall, schools –Colegio Menor Fray Martín de León–, markets and shops, cultural venue, and so on. It can be accessed from three different streets, going through three different archways. It’s majestic, some of the balconies decorated with geraniums. Take your time to go over the eight façades overlooking the centre of the square. A group of women are now talking right there, unaware of the gem where they’re standing. I smile at them. The Tourist Office is next to one of the archways. They provide me with useful information (hours and so on), brochures on Archidona’s historical, cultural, and religious heritage, and a street map where I can find the main sights (phone number: (+34) 952 716 479). I draw my route on my street map, following the Tourist Office assistant’s advice. Two main thoroughfares connect the square with Paseo de la Victoria. I better get cracking. I choose the archway leading to Salazar Street.

Up to Plaza de Santa Ana

As I walk, I can see that everything in Archidona has been taken care of. Everything looks so spic and span… The houses have kept their old flavours, courtesy of their wrought-iron balconies and windows. Moreover, all the walls are painted in only two colours: white or cream. The effect is not that of making every corner look just like the rest but quite the opposite: it brings out their distinct features –a chimney over there, a nicely decorated hallway here, a brighter flower pot across the street, and so on. The long Salazar Street leads to the Convent of Santo Domingo. It was the first convent built in Archidona, in 1531, but it’s no longer a convent. Now it’s a hotel school. The building has retained the external features of the old church and convent while boasting state-of-the-art facilities to teach all subjects related to catering and cooking. Guests can stay at the hotel and try the tasting menu at the restaurant. (For more info, check the website,, or call (+34) 952 717 070). On one of the side walls there’s a plate that reads, “In this house died Luis Barahona de Soto, one of the best known poets in Spain and the world. Scripta Legito.” Luis Barahona de Soto was a poet and a doctor. He even took part in some of the battles against the Moors in Alpujarras Granadinas. Born in 1548, he died in 1595. Here there’re some of his lines: “Las lágrimas salidas de los ojos / más bellos, que en su mal vio amor dolientes,/ y de los que siguiendo sus antojos / vagaron por desiertos diferentes, / entre las armas, triunfos y despojos / gloriosos, cantaré, de aquellas gentes / que tras su error, por sendas mil que abrieron, / del fin de Europa, un tiempo, al de Asia fueron.” (The tears coming out of the eyes / most beautiful, which in their grief love saw in pain / and of those who following their whims / travelled across the desert / amidst weapons, victories, and spoils,/ glorious, I will sing, about those people / who, mistaken, through a thousand opened paths / from the end of Europe to the end of Asia once went.) Santo Domingo Street, Plazuela de los Pollos, Carrera Street to the right. Only 20m ahead, across a narrow street called Dr. José Aguilar, there’s Plaza de Santa Ana –a secluded bunch of buildings that seem to exist in a parallel dimension, dominated by the impressive Church of Santa Ana. Built on a mound, the church is accessed climbing a flight of grey stone steps. It has a curious triangular belfry tower (there’re no rational architectural explanations to its shape). According to historians, it was built on the ruins of an old mosque in the outskirts of Medina Arxiduna. Designed in Flamboyant style in the sixteenth century, the church was renovated in the nineteenth century, when two aisles were added to the original nave. It’s an imposing building and it’s alive inside, brimming with paintings, sculptures, and religious images. Three brotherhoods –Cofradía de la Pasión, Cofradía de la Soledad, Cofradía de la Humildad– use it as their headquarters. The Church of Santa Ana peeps into the square, where several stately mansions stand without having lost a pinch of their original beauty. A few kids are playing with a ball as two women chat and a man climbs down the steps. Someone’s whistling the traditional tune of the knife grinder. Now I can see him, carrying his bike with the wood bench and whetstone he uses to sharpen knives and scissors. Surprisingly, he’s quite young. He’s wearing a white cap. The tune whines on. It’s the same everywhere. The soundtrack accompanies me as I walk across Don Felipe Street into Carrera Street.

The Church of La Victoria and the Town Museum

Archidona’s civil architecture surprises me at every step. The result of a long and eventful history, the town has managed to keep its essential elements in its stately homes: small palaces with elaborate lintels, black grilles with intricate filigrees… I wander about in no hurry, savouring everything I see. Suddenly, I stumble upon the Chapel of the Penitent. It could be a parish church in any other town, so big and great it is. It features a brick belfry tower, brick-trimmed whitewashed walls, and a façade where two big columns flank a coat of arms. Next to the chapel, connected by the umbilical cord of an archway, there’s the old seat of the Pious Schools (now a secondary school). The local atmosphere wraps me in. When it was still called “Medina Arxiduna,” Archidona had a few glorious days. It was here that Emperor Abd-al-Rahman I became an emir in 756 AD. Until the tenth century, the town was the capital of Cora de Rayya, a region whose boundaries coincided with today’s Málaga. Then, in the eighteenth century, the Pious Fathers led a cultural renaissance that earned the town a prominent place in the region, a place it kept for two centuries. The Pious Schools housed the father of Andalusia, Blas Infante. Archidona is a natural link between Granada and Seville. This makes it special. It’s always drawn merchants from different parts of the globe, and it still does. Now, in the early twenty-first century, Archidona is the central point of a “Y” connecting Málaga with Granada to the southwest and Málaga with Córdoba, Seville, and Antequera to the northeast. Archidona sees it all from Pico del Conjuro. The Church of La Victoria was a Minim convent built in 1555. Only the convent’s original façade remains, the paintings above the door and the three-bell belfry (with only two bells) being its most remarkable features. Inside, an image of Jesus has replaced Our Lady of Victories in the main altar. The church is the base of several brotherhoods and the Easter Brotherhood Association. Next to the church there’s the Edificio de la Cilla, housing the Town Hall and the Town Museum. The building has a curious history for, despite its stately appearance, it was first used as a granary. After renovation, it became the Town Hall building and then the seat of the Town Museum. The museum is open Tue-Sat from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. and from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Sunday and holidays from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. in the summer, and Tue-Sat from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Sunday and holidays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in winter. Admission is free, and the place is worth a visit. Besides going over Archidona’s history and prehistory, the museum houses popular customs and traditions: correr las latas (children running with tins to remind the Three Wise Men of their gifts) or the laces of St Blaise (tying a blessed lace, decorated with bread rolls, to protect your neck and throat). More customs and traditions in the Hall of Collective Memory, old items related to town history in the Hall of the Town (a wood and iron safe used by the town authorities until not so long ago, its three keys being in the hands of the Mayor, the Secretary, and the Administrator, or the outfits worn in major fiestas). In addition, archives, chairs, benches, and a table that used to be in the old Reception Hall, which is now used to throw wedding parties and other leading social events. A visit to the Town Museum is a visit to the memory of Archidona in which you don’t feel like a stranger but rather share in the town’s traditions. The museum’s assistant tells me everything about each item. I breathe in the air of past times and then go out.

The Minim Convent and its Delicious Sweets

There’s a before and after in my visit to the Minim Convent. Before: the town and its beautiful architecture. After: the sweets I’ve bought at the convent. The cloistered nuns of Archidona are famous for the sweets they make; I can now tell you their fame is well deserved. But this I’ll know later, when I taste their macaroons and almond cheese. The Convent of the Minim Nuns was built in 1551 in the site of an old palace owned by the Count of Ureña and a chapel. The façade is impressive, spanning a full block. Judging by its length, I can imagine the place where these cloistered nuns live. The church is a one-nave building with a barrel vault and an over-elaborate ceiling, plus a white and golden main altar. I look for the turnstile used to sell the sweets. It’s a little door on the right, some 20m from the main door. If you come off hours and the door is closed, you’ll get nothing. Bear this in mind. The nuns sell their sweets from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. As I get in, I’m faced with a dilemma: shall I ring the regular, electric bell or the traditional bell? The former. It rings three times. Nobody comes. The latter. I can hear an endless series of cogs and gears and then, in the distance, a bell. I wait. “Hi,” a young voice says on the other side of the turnstile. “Hi,” I reply. “What sweets would you like to get?” “What sweets would you recommend?” “Well, what can I say, they’re all so good.” I order a box of macaroons stuffed with sweet potato jam, a box of almond cheese, and some almond biscuits. The nuns also make fritters, sponge biscuits, and San Francisco rolls. A few minutes later, the turnstile moves and my sweets are there. “How much?” I ask. “€20.40,” the voice replies. I pay and say goodbye. “God be with you both.” How do they know I’m with someone else? I’m the only one who’s talking. I take a look at the small hall. A modern webcam is watching us. I smile at this strange mix of tradition and modernity.

The Chapel of Nuestra Señora de Gracia

I’m now ready to climb up Pico del Conjuro to see the Chapel of Gracia, the castle, the orchard of blooming chestnut trees, the green meadows, the natural balconies overlooking Archidona. I drive along Paseo de la Victoria and Virgen de Gracia Avenue and then Camino del Santuario to the right. There’re signs everywhere, don’t worry. You can park at the foot of the hill and walk your way up. The trail is in good condition, but it’s long and quite steep. Or you can also drive to the chapel. I drive up, past a pine orchard and the Virgen the Gracia Suburban Park. A misty veil hides the horizon, but the views are beginning to emerge, and they’re spectacular. As I park, I’m met by a flock of sheep. They’re bleating and ringing their bells. I walk around the remains of the old castle –a couple of wall stretches and the blunt stumps of a couple of towers. The chapel glitters in white against the bright blue sky, an abyss covered with olive trees in the background. The sheep are grazing. A two-day-old lamb (it still has remains of its umbilical cord) bleats in search of its mum. It seems to be lost. I look around: no signs of a shepherd. I try to catch the lamb, but it gambols and skips around. After several failed attempts, I manage to bring it to its mum. I smile with satisfaction. The sight of the lamb has prevented me from looking up and enjoy the views. I can barely speak. White chestnut trees silhouetted against the horizon. The town of Archidona at my feet, its heart –Plaza Ochavada– beating strong. The mountains of Málaga and Granada, and Antequera’s Lovers’ Rock in the distance. And, above it all, the chapel. A stunning landscape, indeed. The Chapel of Nuestra Señora de Gracia is the only one in Málaga that’s kept the interior arches of the original mosque. I enjoy its coquettish premises, the ruins of the old castle, the whole scene under the bright blue sky of February, the last strokes of winter. Unusually, I’m bidding farewell here today. I sit on a rock. The landscape before me is eternal and ever-changing. I have a little treasure in my backpack today. Not just the usual notebook and pen, camera, brochures. “Open them,” I ask my companion. Macaroons, almond cheese, almond biscuits. I can’t resist the temptation; I try them all. The air brushes past my skin. Green, blue, and white shades are still in my eyes. In the distance, I can hear the sheep bleating, some dog barking, the chestnut leaves rustling in the breeze. The macaroons are sooooooo good.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

The Lakes: Only 5km from the town centre, there’s a two-lake area known as Lagunas de Archidona. It’s the breeding habitat of several bird species, and a treasure for nature lovers.
Dog Fair: First held in 1993, Archidona’s Dog Fair has been designated as a Fiesta of National Tourist Interest by the Government of Andalusia. It has its roots in a traditional cattle fair that had been held since the early twentieth century and then swallowed up by the modernisation of farming. The Archidona authorities saw in the Dog Fair an apt substitute for the traditional cattle fair. Organised by the Town Council of Archidona, the Andalusian Hunting Society, the Costa del Sol Dog Society, and the Friends of the Dog Fair Cultural Association, this is a unique event at the national level, one of the leading dog and hunting exhibitions in the Iberian Peninsula, and home to the best Spanish dog breeds, especially the Podenco Andaluz. In fact, the Dog Fair was a turning point in the development of this breed, since it was here that the standards were fixed (information and photograph: Easter: Archidona has had Easter celebrations for 500 years. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, various brotherhoods carry their floats along the streets and flow into Plaza Ochavada. A special event is the “Embajá del Ángel”: an angel boy descends from the balcony of the Church of La Victoria to announce the Passion of Jesus Christ.
Useful links: To learn more about Archidona check the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Archidona Town Hall. All the other websites included in this article can be useful too.