By Rick Steves
When tourists head south from Madrid, it's generally for Granada, Córdoba, Sevilla, or the Costa del Sol. The big cities have their urban charms, but the Costa del Sol is mostly a concrete nightmare, worthwhile only as a bad example. The most Spanish thing about the south coast is the sunshine — but that's everywhere. For something different and more authentic, try exploring the interior of Andalucía along the Route of the White Hill Towns (Ruta de los Pueblos Blanchos). This charm bracelet of cute villages gives you wonderfully untouched Spanish culture.
Spend a night in the romantic queen of the white towns, Arcos de la Frontera. Towns with "de la Frontera" in their names were established on the front line of the Christians' centuries-long fight to recapture Spain from the Moors, who were slowly pushed back into Africa. Today, these hill towns — no longer strategic and no longer — are just passing time peacefully.
Arcos smothers its long, narrow hilltop and tumbles down the back of the ridge like the train of a wedding dress. It's larger than the other Andalusian hill towns but equally atmospheric. Arcos consists of two towns: The fairy-tale old town on top of the hill, and the fun-loving lower (or "new") town. The old center is a labyrinthine wonderland, a photographer's feast. Viewpoint-hop through town. Feel the wind funnel through the narrow streets as cars inch around tight corners. Join the kids' soccer game on the churchyard patio. Enjoy the moonlit view from the main square, Plaza del Cabildo.
The thoughtful traveler's challenge is to find meaning in the generally overlooked tiny details of historic towns such as Arcos. A short walk from its Church of Santa María to the Church of San Pedro (St. Peter) is littered with fun glimpses into the town's past.
For example, in 1699 an earthquake cracked the church's foundation. Arches were added to prop it against neighboring buildings. Thanks to these, the church survived the bigger earthquake of 1755. All over town, arches support earthquake-damaged structures.
Lately the town rumbles only when the bulls run. Señor González Oca's tiny barbershop is plastered with posters of bulls running Pamplona-style through the streets of Arcos during Holy Week.
At Arcos' last remaining convent, step into the lobby under the fine portico to find their one-way mirror and a blind spinning cupboard. Push the buzzer and one of the eight sisters will spin out some boxes of excellent, freshly-baked pine-nut cookies for you to consider buying. If you ask for magdalenas, bags of cupcakes will swing around.
Around town, peek discreetly into private patios. These wonderful, cool-tiled courtyards filled with plants, pools, furniture, and happy family activities are typical of Arcos. Except in the mansions, these patios are generally shared by several families. Originally, each courtyard served as a catchment system, funneling rain water to a drain in the middle, which filled the well. You can still see tiny wells in wall niches with now-decorative pulleys for the bucket.
More White Hill Towns
From Arcos, the back road to Ronda is spiked with plenty of undiscovered and interesting hill towns. About half the towns I've visited here are memorable. Only Arcos (by bus) and Ronda (by train) are easily accessible by public transportation. Other towns are best seen by car. Good information on the area is rare but not necessary. Pick up the tourist brochure on the white towns at a nearby big-city tourist office, get a good map, and crank your spirit of adventure to high.
Along with Arcos, here are my favorite white villages:
Zahara, a tiny town with a tingly setting under a Moorish castle, has a spectacular view. During Moorish times, Zahara was contained within the fortified castle walls above today's town. It was considered the gateway to Granada and a strategic stronghold for the Moors by the Spanish Christian forces of the Reconquista. Locals tell of the Spanish conquest of the Moors' castle as if it happened yesterday: After the Spanish failed several times to seize the castle, a clever Spanish soldier noticed that the Moorish sentinel would toss a rock over the wall to check if any attackers were hiding behind it. If birds flew up, the sentinel figured that no people were there. One night a Spaniard hid there with a bag of pigeons and let them fly when the sentinel tossed his rock. Seeing the birds fly, the guard figured he was clear to enjoy a snooze. The clever Spaniard then scaled the wall, opened the door to let his troops in, and the castle was conquered. That was in 1482. Ten years later Granada fell, the Muslims were back in Africa, and the Reconquista was completed. Today the castle is little more than an evocative ruin (always open, free, and worth the climb) with a commanding view. And Zahara is a fine overnight stop for those who want to hear only the sounds of birds, wind, and elderly footsteps on ancient cobbles.
Grazalema, another postcard-pretty hill town, offers a royal balcony for a memorable picnic, a square where you can watch old-timers playing cards, and plenty of quiet, whitewashed streets to explore. Grazalema, situated within Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, is graced with lots of scenery and greenery. Driving here from Ronda on A-372, you pass through a beautiful parklike grove of cork trees. Plaza de Andalucía, a block off the view terrace, has several decent little bars and restaurants. Shops sell the town's beautiful and famous handmade wool blankets and good-quality leather items from nearby Ubrique. While the park is known as the rainiest place in Spain, the clouds seem to wring themselves out before they reach the town — I've only ever had blue skies. If you want to sleep in a small Andalusian hill town, this is a good choice.
Estepa, spilling over a hill crowned with a castle and convent, is a freshly washed, happy town that fits my dreams of southern Spain. It's situated halfway between Córdoba and Málaga, but it's light years away from either. Atop Estepa's hill is the convent of Santa Clara, worth three stars in any guidebook but found in none. Enjoy the territorial view from the summit, then step into the quiet, spiritual perfection of the church.
In any of these towns, evening is prime time. The promenade begins as everyone gravitates to the central square. The spotless streets are polished nightly by the feet of families licking ice cream. The whole town strolls — it's like "cruising" without cars. Buy an ice-cream sandwich and join the parade.