...mainly on the plan

Arcos de la Frontera Travel Blog

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Southern Spain is pretty damned cool. By which I mean blazing hot. I was privileged to find a place among a number of Martinez Academy students who recently traveled there for a week of Spanish rapier and knife, followed by a few days of leisure in Seville. The flight(s) there were long and tiring, though Iberia had quite decent food, I thought. There was some brief excitement when a woman passed out near my seat, but it turned out to be a minor thing. Alas.

We spent most of our time in Andalusia, specifically in the small town of Arcos de la Frontera just south of Seville.
For the first week, we had Destreza classes with the maestros Martinez from 8am to 11:30am, followed by a couple hours of Navaja instruction from Maestro Loriega. I say "we" advisedly, since I punked out on the knife classes to conserve my arm and my sanity in the broiling midday heat. The hacienda at which we stayed was quite nice indeed: a cluster of rooms and small apartments enclosing a central courtyard and commanding a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

Every Andalusian city I visited sported a beautiful cathedral or imposing fortifications or both. Arcos falls into the "both" category (also the "on a cliff" and "mobbed with swallows" categories). After a wrong turn that led us driving through the old part of town, I can also attest to the quaint, beautiful, and terrifyingly-narrow nature of its curvy little streets.

The weather was sunny and the temperature hovered just below 100F for most of our trip (indeed, it rained only on our last morning in Spain), which meant a constant effort to remain hydrated.
We managed to avoid death through liberal ingestion of "Tinto de Verano", the local form of lazy-man's sangria that requires the kind of minimalist effort possible in that heat. Recipe:
  • 1 bottle cheap red wine
  • 1 bottle Lemon Fanta
  • Mix and serve.
Tastier than it sounds, believe me...especially in that heat. Andalusian cuisine leans heavily toward pork products--not surprising in an area known for its hams. Surprisingly, the fish was not always a good choice, though the squid never let me down. And they are not at all big on vegetables; the traditional Andalusian vegetable must be ham. In fact, we on the first day, we bought a whole Iberian ham and brought it back to the apartment, where we hung it from the loft by it's little hoof and cut slices off of it through the week.
The ox sirloin (avec foie), however, was fantastic. I'm told that almost all of the "ox" served in Seville is from bulls killed in the fight, so I like to think that my meal had been trying to disembowel some pushy bastard with a cape earlier in the week.

Indeed, I might have seen my meal die. The Sunday after our arrival, Cecil, Steph, Andrew and I went to see a bullfight in Seville. The area itself was very attractive, and small enough that everyone had a good view. We sat in the more expensive, shady part. There were six fights in the event we saw, pitting novice bullfighters against as many bulls. There is some downtime at first while the bullfighters warm up. As they were stretching, I prodded Andrew. "Say, either I've suddenly turned gay, or the ass in that set of tight pants is not a man." Sure enough, one of the novices was a (kinda hot) woman. Hooray for gender equality! For those of you who, like me, have not been to a bullfight before, the basic anatomy can be found here.

After watching a single bullfight, it is hard to think of anything beyond the last few minutes. A sheet of blood runs down the bull's flank from his punctured neck muscles--stabbed repeatedly by pretty much everyone in the ring--and his head hangs low from fatigue and wounded neck muscles. Then the matador goads him into one last charge, during which he delivers the estocada by driving a sharp sword down between the bull's shoulder blades. The bull probably stands for a few moments, staggers, and then drops reluctantly to his knees before collapsing. If the assault was poorly made, he may continue standing until someone removes the sword or, worse, require a second thrust to bring him down. Once on the ground he lies dying in a pool of his own blood, sometimes vomiting great crimson splashes, until the puntillero shoves a dagger into his spinal cord. Only then does he shudder and die, and even this can require a second thrust to finish the job. A three horse team, covered in bells, is then led out to drag his carcass out of the ring by his horns.
This is the unpleasant and disturbing end to the bullfight. And there were five more bulls, some dispatched smoothly, others less so. It left me horrified.

And yet.

It is often argued that bullfighting should be done away with because it is primitive, inhumane, and reflects an attitude that has no place in the modern world. I would reply that it is precisely because bullfighting is all those things that it should be protected and maintained. I cannot think of a better window into the the Spanish Andalusian Medieval and Renaissance psyche. The bravado born of intimacy with death, danger and the pitiless requirement that one maintain grace and style--Art--in the midst of that violent embrace is a quality no longer encouraged in young men (or women) outside of anachronisms like the bullring. For me the bullfights served as a sobering reminder that the art I had come to Spain to study was, at its historical heart, just as bloody and demanding and unforgiving.
Men are not bulls, but the outlook and bravo of the toreador (if not the theatrics) seemed well worth emulating.

I found myself thankful that I had attended the bullfight when, later in the week, our group took an afternoon trip to a school for bullfighters. The facility itself was mixed-use, with a beautiful dining hall--complete with oak paneling, antique furniture, and tapestries on the walls--in the main building and a small bull ring in the back. As luck would have it, they had not remembered our appointment, but the owner very kindly came from his house to give us the tour. The toreros-in-training that afternoon were a quartet of young boys between thirteen and sixteen. One would hold a pair of horns and bend low while another would take the cape and practice leading the "bull" through his paces. It was clear that they had done these drills more than a few times. After that, they brought out a two-wheeled framework of tubular steel into which had been fitted a couple of hay bales.
Just forward of the wheels, some rubber mats had been laid on the bales to represent the bulls shoulders, and a pair of horns were lashed to the "head". One student would assume the proper posture and lower his cape. The student holding the "bull" would raise the handles, lowering the head, and the first student would make the estocada, driving the sword through the rubber and into the hay. We were offered the opportunity to try this, and who was I to say no. It's harder than it looks, since in order to void the horns you have to thrust as you pivot onto on the left foot, a motion which is not something widely encouraged in rapier...indeed in that circumstance we are trained to secure the opponent's weapon with our left hand as we make the assault. I successfully managed to avoid grasping the bull's horn as I thrust, but I was surprised by the relative lack of resistance to the blade. As was the poor kid holding the cart's handles. All the force of my thrust went straight into the hay bale, driving the shoulders of the "bull" down and the handles up, leaving him wide-eyed and stretched up on his tiptoes to reach them.
Oops. Sorry, Rock...Don' know m'own strength.

The master of the school was very forthcoming and willing to answer questions, cigarette hanging from his mouth the whole time. After we'd had a chance at the bull, we demonstrated some destreza (sword, sword and dagger, sword and cloak) and some navaja (knife, knife and cloak) for our hosts. There followed a general round of playing with swords, matador cloaks, faux horns, daggers, and the tunnel-visioned edges of heatstroke before we said our cheery goodbyes and sought out our air-conditioned cars and separate dinners. I'm told that the boys had nicknamed us in asking questions, since they didn't know our names. Jared was "El Grande", Cecil was "El Gordito", and I was "El Fuerte".

A few days later we had the chance to see another aspect of Andalusian character at a flamenco class in nearby Jerez de la Frontera.
After some adventures, we located both the instructor and studio. Our instructor [whose name I regret I did not note] was quite willing to answer questions and help us relate the attitude of Jerez flamenco with the bullfight and more general local culture. She also led us through some basic choreography. It was very cool, and I wish I could do it, but I have reached the conclusion that flamenco is just not a good fit for someone of my, er, proportion.

Earlier in the trip, we had made an excursion to Ronda, where we did some knife (among other things) shopping. I bought a couple knives for souvenirs and gifts, along with a nice little cane and a white planter's hat.
The hat served me very well indeed until it was apparently raped by bears in the overhead bin of Iberia flight 6251 somewhere between Madrid and New York. I wore that hat a lot, since the sun was so brutal and we were often shaking our tourist bootie right through siesta. After a few days of funny looks and the sudden realization that I'd seen no long-haired men in Spain at all, I decided to keep my hair in a ponytail.

The amount of attention I received from other folks--tourists and Spaniards alike--was kinda disconcerting. The Seattle contingent as a group are snappy dressers, and we got the "Are you guys in a band?" question at least six times by my count, but I seem to have stood out the most. To be fair, I am a man whose raw animal magnetism has been known to erase hard drives from as much as ten feet away, but it was weird to have someone took a picture of me when there was a beautiful cathedral a dozen paces away.
I saw the camera and politely stepped out of their shot, but they would have none of it. The combination of white shirt, brocade vest, and planter's hat seemed to be very pleasing to the Spanish aesthetic. On the way back from flamenco I was complimented, in Spanish, by two separate natives. I only got the barest gist of what they said, and I hope my smile and murmured "grathiath" did not give me away as a tourist. Weird, but gratifying.

We also day-tripped to Cadiz (Cah-dith, if you are not a dirty tourist), where I learned that I have mixed feelings about topless fourteen-year-old girls on the beach. Clearly I am getting old. There is a beautiful series of parks along the seawalk, and the museum has some lovely art. We stopped for lunch at a nice little cafe, where we munched tapas and drank tinto for an hour or so in the shade. Shortly after we sat down a man walked over and squatted down beside me.
It took him a few minutes and a translator to communicate that he wanted to know where I had gotten my vest. That's me, friends: William Elder, fashionista. Later in the evening Michael, Andrew and I sang "Spanish Ladies" as we strolled along the boardwalk to the parking garage. Fortunately, no one lynched us.

In fact, I remember that at some point in the trip those of us who knew it sang "The Duchess and the Scholar"--in all its risqué glory--at a sidewalk cafe in Seville. Apparently no one else spoke English.

We spent the last few days in Seville, shopping and relaxing. Half of the Seattle contingent stayed in a charming little hotel near the bullfighting arena (Hotel Simon? I'm not sure), while the rest of us (including the Arcatians) stayed at the Petit Palace Santa Cruz, which apparently was trying for a "Space 1999"-themed decor.
In Seville we were delighted to discover a knife shop that had a wide selection of navajas and other traditional Spanish knives and am owner who was more than happy to chat with us at length about them. In return, we bought a bunch of knives. We also spent a lot of time in clothing stores. Flamenco, riding, and dress clothes were purchased, along with fans, shawls, sashes, and other bits of traditional Sevilliana that tourists often collect. We also visited the Arabic Baths, which are more awesome than I can convey in mere words.

It was also at this point that I was served the biggest bowl of snails (a regional thing, they are about as big as your thumbnail) I have ever eaten. Musta been a hunnerd'n'fi'ty o' them suckers, along with two brimming shot glasses of what I can only assume was snail pot-liquor.
And a big brochette of beef, and calamari. But, for a miracle, no ham.

Dear eyes,

Kindly stop being stupid. I will kick your ass.

The Stomach

On our last morning, as if to urge us back to Seattle, the skies opened and it poured. This was okay, as two weeks of sun had undoubtedly left me with dangerous levels of vitamin-D poisoning. Do not speak of the trip back, and the hours spent trying to sleep in upright, too-narrow seats. Let us instead bid a fond farewell to the sunny, topless, ham-drenched, lisping, beautiful land of southern Spain. It was good to us.

~El Fuerte
aelder2259 says:
I wish I would have gone with you, Love, but my knees would have really been in pain after all the running around.
Posted on: Jun 14, 2010
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Arcos de la Frontera
photo by: pacovera