Taking advantage of a day that wasn’t rainy over Easter Week, we drove to visit a castle that has always generated great stories and legends. It rises up above an incredible cliff overlooking the Guadalete River in the town of Arcos de la Frontera. For hundreds of years, it was the scene of many frontier battles between the Christian and Moorish Kingdoms of Andalusia.
We were truly lucky because this castle is privately owned, and we were only able to visit it because of the generosity of the owners, who not only gave us a tour, but also told us many stories about it.
This castle belonged to Ponce de León’s family until the beginning of the 20th century when its current owners’ family bought it. The castle had been abandoned for many years and was going to be torn down because of the danger it represented. One of the current owners’ ancestors, who was British, purchased it before it could be torn down and dedicated heart and soul into the complete reparation of the castle, something which the family has continued with great care and dedication for generations. I think their efforts deserve praise from all of those who enjoy it, even if only from the outside.
This picture is of the Ponce de Léon family’s coat of arms. It’s important to note, however, that much older populations also settled here and artifacts have been found that connect this location with the Tartessians, the Romans and of course the Moors.
The views from the castle are truly spectacular. It is, without a doubt, an impressive defense tower, and it is understandable that it was used as a position for battle and defense for so many years.
The castle is rectangular and had four towers battlements with merlons in each of its corners, though today only two remain: the Tower of Homage, which was built by Rodrigo Ponce de Léon, the first Marquis of Cadiz and the first Ponce de Léon to own the castle, and the Tower of the Secret. In the Parade Ground there remains one well, and in what was once the western entrance there are another three wells and a door with a horseshoe arch. This was probably originally the main entrance to the castle, but it has been walled in by alterations over the years.
Arcos was at one point a taifa principality until it came under Al-Mutamid of Sevilla’s rule. In the 13th century, it was won by the Castilians and then lost again until 1264. In the era of Alfonso X “the Wise,” it was finally won back as a Christian city that formed part of the Frontier, giving the city of Arcos its full name, “Arcos of the Frontier”.
There are infinite medieval legends associated with the fortress’ walls and passageways. One of them, referring to the conquest of Arcos by Alfonso X, narrates how the Christians conquered the city using a hidden channel that connected the castle to the Guadalete River. This channel was used at night by the lady of the castle, a beautiful Muslim woman, to bathe herself in its water, and for that reason the channel is called “the Queen’s bath.” Another legendary story is about Arcos’ Muslim kinglet, who left his favored woman locked in the fortress with provisions to wait for his return from an expedition. When he never returned, she remained a prisoner forever in what became named the “Chamber of Love.” It is said that on nights with a full moon,the unfortunate woman’s soul takes the shape of a vulture that wanders amongst battlements and pits.
Many of the inhabitants of Arcos speak of the dragon that sleeps inside the Peña de Arcos and when it wakes, it makes cliffs sound. In fact, the owner of the castle told us about it, saying that the he sometimes wakes up in the night because of the sound of the rumbling of the ground below him.
In the 18th century, this castle had to be restored because of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. One of the walls of the castle was totally destroyed, completely covering the moat that surrounded the castle, creating what is now called the Calle Nueva de Arcos (New Street of Arcos). Two of the towers were also lost.