Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Grey Bear in a White Village

As you probably know, many bears are agnostic and consequently we don't like to take sides in religious debates. Having said that, those of us who are more spiritually inclined like to keep things close to home and worship at the altars of the two Celtic bear goddesses Andarta and Artio. Personally, I'm drawn to Hinduism which would make me a yogi bear. That's a little bear humour.

Constitutionally, Spain is a secular country but its history was shaped by, among other things, the Roman Catholic church.
Visit any town, city, or village here and you'll be face to face with the splendours of Catholicism as well as its less salubrious side. But in my role as freelance Good Will Ambassador, I prefer to think about the more positive bits. At least today.

Last weekend, my bipedal attendants and I took a road trip to the pueblo blanco (white town) of Arcos de la Frontera. The grandson of Noah (who remembered to bring two bears aboard his ark) is claimed to be Arcos' founder but I think that's just
a local legend. The Romans were definitely there. And for over two centuries (1011-1264), the precarious hilltop town was a taifa (a Muslim-ruled principality) but was retaken by the Christian king Alfonso the Wise (opposed to Alfonso the Brave or Alfonso the Magnanimous) in the 13th century. The town once again became Christian.

Although there are many churches in town, there are two which demand your attention: the Mudejar basilica of Santa María de la Asunción (top left & right) and the Gothic Parroquia of San Pedro (bottom left).

Santa María dates from the 15th century and was built over an earlier mosque. Historically, Christians and Muslims like to do that sort of thing: build their own places of worship and palaces on the smoking ruins of their predecessors' places of worship and palaces. But I don't want to say anymore because bears don't like to take sides in religious debates. Santa María's original bell tower was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 which flattened Lisbon. Work was begun on a new bell tower but the "new" one remains unfinished. After only 3 years of reconstruction, the money ran out. The one thing I learned from my days as an international fashion model is to always retain a good accountant.

The ch
urch of San Pedro was built in the 16th century on top of a - wait for it - a Moorish fortress. Unlike Santa María which was closed for renovations, we were able to visit San Pedro. There are two leathery undecomposed bodies on display which had been found in local Roman catacombs. Their outfits were quite nice (I know, always the fashion model!) but these tableaux were a little grisly (not grizzly). They're touted to be saints but I think they only received saint-status because of the condition of their bodies. I don't know what the secret to their peaches and cream complexion is but it just shows you how important a good moisturizer is.

Many years ago a rivalry for supremacy developed between the two parishes of Santa María and San Pedro. The congregation of San Pedro refused to say the phrase "Maria, mother of God" in their prayers, using instead "the divine shepherdess" or "Saint Peter, mother of God" in their prayers. Saint Peter, mother of God? My how silly religion can be. Santa María eventually won the God War when, in 1764, a decree of the Holy Tribune in Rome gave it major parish status. I think the two parishes have since made up.

There were many many things to see in Arcos - convents (inclu
ding a closed convent whose silent nuns sell cookies through a revolving window), palaces, mansions, a Jesuit house, and of course other churches. There's also a castle (see right) which started out as an Arab fortress but after it was seized it was converted into a palace for the Duke of Arcos. Now it's owned by a private individual and is pretty much out of bounds to the public. I could hear a TV playing from behind the massive door I'm sitting in front of. I don't know what they were watching because it would have been rude of me to peek through the keyhole - although one of my bipedal attendants sneaked a peak. Some people.

We decided to leave shortly after lunch because bus tours were pouring into the casco antiguo (old town) and I find that camera wielding tourists often don't make a distinction between my former international fashion model days and my current role as Freelance Goodwill ambas
sador. Sometimes I feel so conflicted about my celebrity.

What I like about the town is that in spite of the church's attempt to erase all traces of its former Muslim conquerors, glimpses of Islamic architecture, gardens, tilework, iconography, art and culture can be seen everywhere. At least it's pretty obvious to me. I guess that makes me a Raider of the Lost Arcos.


Mats said...

Good Post Mr.Bear. I look forward to hearing more about all of your travels!

Anonymous said...

Wow, Grey Bear, you really are informative aren't you.
Are there other grey or grizzly bears in Spain?
Have you travelled to other countries in Europe?
I hope you tell us more of your adventures.
Whatta guy !

Grey Bear said...

There are some bears left in the north of Spain. There is also El Oso in Madrid and of course me. But no grizzlies. We're doing our best to keep bears uppermost in everyone's minds.