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Report 856: The Romance of Moorish Spain

By janie and geoff from Canada, Fall 2004

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Page 6 of 13: Antequera, Washington Irving pops up, Pre-HIstoric Spain

photo by Geoff Chambers

Courtyard of museum in Antequera once a mansion


Destination for the day was Antequera, with as many other spots as we could get in on the way back. Another beautiful cloudless day of driving through rural Spain, climbing up the hills away from the coast and it’s starting to feel like a road trip, with frozen water bottles in the back, maps and guidebooks being pulled out at points of possible interest. Again, we are enchanted by the approach to Antequera.

This was the city known as Anticaria, the “old town”, to the Romans, already old when they arrived. It is now apparently one of the architectural showpieces of the region, lots of 16th – 18th C mansions. Our first challenge was to find parking and then the tourism office to score some maps. The tourism office is on the plaza of San Sebastian, across the street from the Colegiata de San Sebastian, which was closing as we went in there. The tourism office also gave us the invaluable information that we could use the washrooms in any restaurant without being a customer, all the locals do it.

(And here I must digress and say that except for one place in Granada, every single washroom in Andalucia was spotless and had toilet paper. They may have been small, but whether they were in gas stations, at archaeological sites, in restaurants or museums, they were all as clean as or cleaner than you would find in a North American airport. After Shanghai, which had some disgusting facilities, I will never again take clean public facilities for granted)

Antequera is a perfect town for a walking tour. Every corner, every flight of steps down a cobbled street of the old city center is a delight. We first went to the plaza behind the tourism office where the municipal museum is located. There is a huge equestrian statue there, and the Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena is across the plaza from the museum. We peeked in the convent and there were novices practicing music, so we didn’t want to wander in like rude tourists and went to the museum instead.

The sun was now very hot and high overhead, and we were very dismayed to see the doors of the museum closed. Here however, with memories of Italy, we looked around the entrance until we spotted a small handwritten sign. “Guided Tours. Please ring bell.” So we rang the bell and sure enough, the gate opened and we stepped into the courtyard of the Palacio de Najera, a 17th C mansion. Now it contains artifacts from Roman times including the wonderful Ephebus of Antequerra, a 1st C bronze statue of a naked boy about five feet tall, whose hands are holding some object, perhaps a tray, that is now gone. He was found in a field by a farmer who plowed over him, and is truly beautiful. The curator took us through the rest of the mansion, which is apparently still a residence, and filled with religious paintings and artefacts of the type that non-Catholics would find mystifying because they border on idolatry, which Christianity is not supposed to condone.

Processions during holy days are a very big thing, and one of the eight brotherhoods in Antequera had their procession gear stored and on display at the museum while their own parish church was undergoing renovation. Procession gear ranged from heavily trimmed robes to silverware (crosses, incense burners, platters) to representations of the Madonna Dolorosa with crystal tears rolling down her cheeks. The litter that carries their main Madonna is carried by 60 men. Some of the robes are made with pieces of fabric from the battle flags of the Moorish troops that were defeated during the Reconquista. It was gear that we would never get to see unless we were there for a holy week procession, and we would never see it all so close up.

We then walked uphill towards the Castillo, which was closed, so all we could see were the walls from the outside. But first we stopped at a small plaza containing the Portichuelo Chapel, a small Mudejar-style church (also closed) with a porch above the entrance that sheltered a mural of the Madonna. Beside it was the church of Santa Maria de Jesus and the streets behind the plaza looked over the walls of the fortress. We followed the street down and met up with a crowd of schoolchildren on the way up. They all said “hello, hello” in English and after a word from their teacher, stood aside giggling to let us pass.

We passed a row of houses that faced the supporting walls of the terraced street above, and the residents had filled the street with pots and pots of flowers and small trees. Some were in clay pots, some were in old oil cans, but it was a riot of colour and they had turned the narrow space into a courtyard, and even the rusty old cans looked just right.

Finally, we entered the Plaza des Escribanos via the Arco de los Gigantes, or the Gate of the Giants. This is truly huge, and built using chunks of Roman-era masonry. The plaza itself contains the Colegiata (college) of Santa Maria la Mayor, and looking down from the walls that contain the plaza, there are wonderful views of the surrounding areas as well as the Roman baths below the Colegiata. I walked up the street to the right of the college, between the college and the walls, to see if there was a way to climb up, but decided against it.

Since there was so much that was closed, we decided just to have lunch somewhere. We descended back down to the town, making sure to peek into every open doorway. The lunch spot we picked had omelettes and salad going, and that’s what we had while watching their TV with fascination, some outdoors fishing show. Just as fascinating was the restaurants collection of plastic containers behind the bar that seemed to hold cheeses or chunks of something marinating in olive oil. There was a mad scientist-Frankenstein feel to the whole place, but it was air conditioned.

NOTE: at the tourism office, we found distinctly designed brochures called “Ruta de Washington Irving”, providing a route that followed his travels in Spain. They are evidently capitalizing on Irving’s association with Andalucia. There were two other Ruta brochures, the Nasrid route and the Caliphate route. All through our highway travels, we would see signs in the same design, declaring that we were on the “Ruta de Washington Irving,” which always struck us as extremely funny because Washington Irving is such an anglo-saxon American name, and to have it stuck beside “Ruta de” seemed so incongurous.

Outside Antequera were the Menga and Viera dolmens. The dolmens are just outside Antequera in a park-like area. As we headed following the signs on the trail, a stout old man in the regulation light-blue shirt of the cultural patrimony department beckoned to us, waving his pen and clipboard. It turned out that he was taking a survey of the nationalities of the people visiting the site, and also had the keys to the gates of one of the dolmens and so we followed. His little dog, something like a small spaniel with a curly tail, frisked ahead of us but sat quietly at the entrance to the dolmen (no perros allowed inside).

The dolmens are Neolithic, and the Menga dolmen is the oldest, about 4,500 BC. The chambers were made from upright slabs of stone that form an area about 70 feet deep, filled with earth. Then they were covered with flat stones that spanned the upright slabs, a kind of square arch. Then the earth was dug out of the chamber, and a mound of earth was heaped on top and the dolmens were ready for use as burial chambers. The dolmens make you wonder about a lot of things. I thought dolmens were like menhirs, large upright stones slightly pointy at the top, but these were almost exactly like the barrows in England, West Kennet Long Barrow et al near Avebury. This really gave us an appetite to see the Cueva de las Piletas for more Neolithic relics.

As an aside, we really didn’t do much shopping despite the many, many shoe stores. Clothing was either very expensive or else of mediocre quality. You could do better for the same money in the US or Canada. Plus, there didn’t seem to be anything in the stores that season that wasn’t floral, with a flounce, ruffled, embroidered or all of the above. Or maybe ruffles have just never gone out of style in Spain. We did more shopping in Farmacias for sunscreen products.

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