Arcos, Spain, where locals “see the backs of the birds as they fly.” (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Arcos, Spain, where locals “see the backs of the birds as they fly.” (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Arcos de la Frontera: Nuns’ cupcakes and donkeys in the bell tower

Rick Steves on connecting with the culture of small-town Spain — and creating treasured memories.

As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s one of my favorite European memories from the south of Spain — a reminder of the fun that awaits us at the other end of this crisis.

I’m in the little hill town of Arcos de la Frontera, just south of Sevilla. Today, my goal is to connect with the culture of small-town Spain.

Arcos smothers its hilltop, tumbling down all sides like the train of a wedding dress. The labyrinthine old center is a photographer’s feast. I can feel the breeze funnel through the narrow streets as drivers pull in car mirrors to squeeze through.

Residents brag that only they see the backs of the birds as they fly. To see what they mean, I climb to the viewpoint at the main square, high in the old town. Bellying up to the railing — the town’s suicide jumping-off point — I look down and ponder the fancy cliffside hotel’s erosion concerns, orderly orange groves, flower-filled greenhouses, fine views toward Morocco … and the backs of the birds as they fly.

Exploring the town, I discover that a short walk from Arcos’ church of Santa Maria to the church of San Pedro (St. Peter) is littered with subtle but fun glimpses into the town’s past.

The church of Santa Maria faces the main square. After Arcos was retaken from the Moors in the 13th century, the church was built — atop a mosque. In the pavement is a 15th-century magic circle: 12 red and 12 white stones — the white ones represent various constellations. When a child came to the church to be baptized, the parents would stop here first for a good Christian exorcism. The exorcist would stand inside the protective circle and cleanse the baby of any evil spirits. This was also a holy place back in Muslim times. While Christian residents no longer use it, Islamic Sufis still come here on pilgrimage every November.

In 1699, an earthquake cracked the church’s foundation. Today, arches reach over the narrow lane — added to prop the church against neighboring buildings. Thanks to these braces, the church survived the bigger earthquake of 1755. All over town, similar arches support earthquake-damaged structures.

Today, the town rumbles only when the bulls run. Senor Gonzalez Oca’s little barbershop is plastered with posters of bulls running Pamplona-style through the streets of Arcos during Holy Week. Locals still remember an American from the nearby Navy base at Rota, who was killed by a bull in 1994.

Walking on toward St. Peter’s, Arcos’ second church, I pass Roman columns stuck onto street corners — protection from reckless donkey carts. St. Peter’s was, until recently, home to a resident bellman who lived in the spire. He was a basket maker and a colorful character — famous for bringing his donkey up into the tower. The donkey grew too big to get back out. Finally, the bellman had no choice but to kill the donkey — and eat it.

The small square in front of the church — about the only flat piece of pavement around — serves as the old-town soccer field for neighborhood kids.

At a nearby convent, the windows are striped with heavy bars and spikes. Popping into the dimly lit foyer, I push the buzzer and the creaky lazy Susan spins, revealing a bag of freshly baked cookies for sale. When I spin back the cookies with a “no, gracias,” she surprises me with a few words of English — countering, in a Monty Python-esque voice, “We have cupcakes as well.” I buy a bag of cupcakes to support the mission work of the convent. I glimpse — through the not-quite one-way mirror — the not-meant-to-be-seen sister in her flowing robe and habit momentarily appear and disappear.

Saving my appetite for dinner, I dole out my cupcakes to children as I wander on. My town walk culminates at another convent — which now houses the best restaurant in town, Restaurante El Convento. Maria Moreno Moreno, the proud owner, explains the menu. (Spanish children take the name of both parents — who in Maria’s case must have been distant cousins.) As church bells clang, she pours me a glass of vino tinto con mucho cuerpo (full-bodied red wine) from the Rioja region.

As I sip the wine, Maria asks how my visit is going. I tell her that the entire town is a mucho cuerpo experience … creating memories that will be a treasured souvenir.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves ( writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, For the Love of Europe. You can email Rick at and follow his blog on Facebook.

Talk to us

More in Life

Pinto greens and beans, in this case, spinach, is a Hispanic take on a favorite Pittsburgh Italian dish. (Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS)
The classic Italian ‘beans and greens’ gets a Latin spin

A charred tomatillo salsa adds a bright and zesty finish to this traditional comfort food.

Ancient White Park cows belonging to Burt Degroot Wednesday afternoon on a pasture on Ebey Island April 1, 2020 (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Snohomish rancher raises an ancient breed of cattle

The distinctive British horned livestock have been around since the Middle Ages.

Public Health Essentials! (Snohomish Health District)
How employers can help defeat this pandemic through vaccination

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

According to Toyota, the 2021 Sienna minivan’s front design was inspired by the Shinkansen Japanese bullet train to impart a sleek, speedy and confident appearance. (Manufacturer photo)
2021 Toyota Sienna might be a game-changer for minivans

All new from the ground up, this fourth-generation version is styled to the nines. Seriously.

A pile of shoes by the front door can be annoying, but it is also evidence of loved ones living together under one roof. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Remembering to cherish the things a mom takes for granted

Here’s to the noise, the mess and the laughter that fills life between now and when the kids are grown.

Dr. Paul on battling adversity when it feels like a ‘dark night’

The Dalai Lama says: There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done — yesterday and tomorrow.

In the Netherlands, pot users go to coffeeshops — not jail.
A coffee shop conversation about marijuana in Amsterdam

If you pass a shop in the Netherlands full of plants displaying a Rastafarian flag, it doesn’t sell much coffee.

TAP Air Portugal rescheduled my flight — can I get a refund?

TAP Air Portugal reschedules — and then cancels — John Schmidt’s flights. He wants a refund, but the airline is offering a voucher. Who is right?

Eric Adler, the mystery man who is on Twitter as @EdmondsScanner (E. Wong)
Revealed: The mystery man behind the @EdmondsScanner tweets

He’s a 50-year-old mail carrier who dusted off his English degree to curate 6,000 tales on Twitter.

Everett Public Library presents “Introduction to Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest” April 13 via Crowdcast. (Herald file)
Outdoors classes and activities around Snohomish County

The listings include Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest updates and REI Lynnwood workshops.

Book-related events in Snohomish County.
Author events and poetry readings around Snohomish County

The listings include Third Place Books, Everett Public Library and Neverending Bookshop events.

Potting Shed Creation's seed starts are the ideal way to get your plants growing. (
The 14 must-have tools for both new and seasoned gardeners

OK, so you didn’t plant that pandemic garden in 2020. Here are the best tools and essentials to get you planting this spring.