ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA, Spain — As Christian armies pushed south to end the 781-year Moorish occupation of Spain there was always a frontier between rival forces, which accounts for this and other La Frontera towns in the southernmost region of Andalusia.
Beginning with the Moorish victory in the Battle of Guadalete in 711 until the fall of Granada in 1492 the Muslims brought much to Spain: the magnificent architecture and tile work of mosques and palaces, algebra (the Moorish word aljabr means "to find") and other advanced scholarship from renowned North African universities, plus food that survives in Spanish cuisine.
Beginning in 1478 this region was a hotbed of battles and intrigue as the Castilian armies of Ferdinand and Isabella pushed south, enforcing the Inquisition against Muslims and Jews.
Many Muslims had become so accustomed to Spanish life that they chose not to return to Africa. The beautiful town of Arcos even had a frontier within its hilltop bastions in the form of a massive gate that was closed at nightfall to separate the two factions.
Arcos was not only one of the most important towns of Moorish Spain, it is today considered one of the most beautiful on the entire Iberian Peninsula, with marvelous examples of architecture: medieval-Muslim, Mudejar (Muslim artisans working under Christian direction), Renaissance and baroque buildings riding its long hilltop above the Guadalete River.
It is also a sensible starting point for visiting Los Pueblos Blancos, the "white towns" that dot the mountains and coast of Andalusia from Arcos west to Ronda and south to the Mediterranean. Here you will discover the "pure" Spain of yore and lore.
To here: Fly Iberia nonstop to Madrid. TWA and American get there with stops. Spain's Aviaco flies to Jerez de la Frontera, a 20-mile drive from Arcos, or drive down from Seville in about an hour.
How long/how much? Give Arcos a full day, more if you use it as a base for day trips to Jerez, Cadiz and many of the white towns. Lodging prices are reasonable, dining on the high side of moderate.
A few fast facts: Spain's peseta was recently worth .0086, about 115 to the U.S. dollar. Weather is generally pleasant all year.
Settling in: Casa del Corregidor (Plaza de Espana; $82 U.S. double) is one of 88 Spanish paradors, this one a castle-like building on the main square with Moorish patio at the center, grilled windows and beamed ceilings, tile floors, some rooms with balconies and a terrace overlooking the vineyards, orchards, orange and olive groves of the Guadalete River valley far below. Everything about this place reeks of Andalusia.
Hotel Los Olivos (Calle San Miguel 2; $41 double) is a smaller version of the parador, with another central patio, tile floors, whitewashed walls, small bar and more views of the valley. Los Olivos serves breakfast only.
El Convento (Calle Dean Espinosa 18; $35 double) is built into a 17th-Century convent that was part of the old city walls. There's a small bar and restaurant in the lobby area, but you may dine on the terrace with Arcos' best view. Bedrooms are simple but spotless, some with balconies. And there's an apartment in a separate building with living room, bedroom, kitchen and terrace for $52, which may be Spain's greatest value.
Regional food and drink: Many Spaniards say Andalusians never eat a full meal, just nibble away on tapas (small morsels of just about anything) all day. On the contrary, the food of southern Spain is a delight, from hearty meat dishes in winter to lighter fare and chilled soups in hot weather.
Andalusia is the home of gazpacho andaluz, the chilled soup of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and green peppers, flavored with garlic and served with small bowls of chopped vegetables as garnish. We have it daily when we can't get ajo blanco, a chilled garlic soup made of almonds, garlic and olive oil.
Andalusia is home to two of Spain's best serrano hams (air dried and cured), which come from Jabugo and Trevelez. You will see them hanging by the dozens in bars and restaurants, a small paper cup affixed to the end to keep oil from dripping on those below. You may order it as a tapa or a racion , a larger portion .
Wines are always good down south, but sherry usually is served first with olives, almonds, bits of serrano or potato chips.
Good dining: Hotel El Convento's dining room has a steady flow of locals eating the wild asparagus, lamb chops a la plancha, heavenly partridge and wild hare. Vina Lucia tinto (red) and the white Tierra Blanca are good wines, and the owner has his own vineyards.