Estepa, a watchtower overlooking the andalusian countryside

The city of Estepa, along the Route of Washington Irving, had witnessed many historical episodes of the Middle Ages carried out by armies, orders of knighthood and monastic communities.

When, a long time ago, one took the old road, which is now a highway, he got to Estepa out of the blue, without even having glimpsed it. Nor can you see it once you get into it and go around it like the backstitch that borders a wide and rare white cape. But not now: half a world has seen from the Autovía 92 (Highway 92) that unfolded the village over the mount and constrains it, that watchtower from which we can spy the lands of Seville, Málaga, Córdoba, Jaén and Cádiz. Now, there is a direct dialogue between the city and the traveller.

This winter sun is not that of York that Shakespeare alluded to through the voice of Richard III; it is the gently warm sun of the end of January producing the miracle of snowfall of the almond blossoms, harbinger of the fruit with which the Christmas sweets, that make Estepa so famous, will be baked. Its aroma has replaced that of the cinnamon and sesame that a few months earlier, as every year, filled the air of the squares and small, secluded streets, shaped as a chess board pattern, almost from the very foot of the hill of San Cristobal to the fortress that tops it.

En Estepa, el sol tibio de finales de enero produce el milagro de nevar los almendros con flores que son presagio del fruto con el que se hornearán los dulces navideños por los que esta ciudad es tan famosa, y que cada año por estas fechas la inundan de tan goloso aroma.

Its mass and towers of solid beauty charts the paths of History: a passage of The Decades in which Livy tells of a similar episode in Numantia, when the whole population preferred death before surrender. The account surely was coated with legend, for it has little to do with the place, as apparently it was about another village, not far from there though. Its path through the pages of the true facts begins in the nebulous years of the early Middle Ages in Andalusia, those of the first Umayyads and the revolts of Umar ibn Hafsun, reluctant about the unification process undertaken by Abd-er-Rahman I.

From that time until the beginning of the 15th century Estepa would always be a wall dividing two lands: between those Mozarabs and Córdoba, later ̶ after the fall of the caliphate ̶ between the Sevillian Abbasids and the Granadan Zirids, and finally between the lands taken by Castile from the Almohads and the Nasrid kingdom. Estepa started to go down the scarp where it sat, to become a proper city, during the years that followed the arrival of Ferdinand III’s militias, by the mid-13th century, and the marching of Prince Don Ferdinand’s troops to the conquest of Antequera in the early 15th century.

This plain of constricted walls ruled up to there, its walls jointly prevailing: those of the Homage Tower and the church of Santa Maria, a temple with the same strength as a castle, like those that Bernard of Clairvaux commanded to be raised by his white Benedictines, the Cistercian monks. He was one of the few who were really half monk and half soldier, and he was also an economist: the attention to detail and the programming that the Cistercian Order used to administrate its lands made him an essential arm of the papacy, continuously pitting his strength against the emperor: kings who measured alongside the nobles and military orders, following commands as in the movie “The Big Red One”.

This is what was going on in Estepa until the castle stopped being a true one; this happened when the Prince of Castile and future King of Aragon took Antequera; it was then when the ruin that led it to nearly dissapear began; today it is being restored little by little but thoroughly. By contrast, the church, built over a mosque, remained upright by the method consisting of being built and being demoslished simultaneously, a new chancel was raised, supported by the former building, and then this was disappearing gradually as the new construction was progressing. It was a well proved method in the territories given to the Military Orders. Here it was the Order of Santiago, the heir of the Templar’s goods, that was charged with custody of Estepa, because in half a century Castile had doubled its territories, but, of course, it was not able to double the population.

By contrast, the church, built over a mosque, remained upright by the method consisting of being built and being demoslished simultaneously, a new chancel was raised, supported by the former building, and then this was disappearing gradually as the new construction was progressing.

This regime of property led the knights of the Order de Santiago to make Estepa an island in the middle of an ocean of the nobility, a sort of a free city which did not even rely on the Sevillian diocese until much later, being run by its own rules and provided with clergymen directly, without having to go through the bishop’s palace. Perhaps this was what gave this city the singular character it keeps still.

This is what comes to the walker’s mind when he is going around the castle’s wall stepping towards the convent of Santa Clara, a monastery of Franciscan nuns which survives thanks to a small-scale industry of handmade sweets. So, one enters the atrium of the convent through an ancient gateway and knocks at the door before a nun pronounces the required salute “Ave María Purísima”.

The sweets are good, although the ones which are totally artisanal are made only upon request. The encounter also enables us to obtain the keys of the church to be able to enter it and read in its architectonic style the changes of history.

Its dome, arches and decoration are the antithesis of the church that we have seen shortly before: a new political climate had arisen, and the successor of the Order of Santiago was a fledging noble house, the Centurión, traders from Genoa who were enriched by the emperor’s debts thanks to which they started to buy entrusted estates, from Monesterio on the slope of mount Tentudía, in Badajoz, to these Estepa mountains.

 

They were the builders of this convent in whose church the Baroque shines resplendent, like in the church of San Francisco at the other end of the plateau.

Francis and Claire, the brother and sister who in Assisi swapped poverty for contemplation, are the two wings of this vegetal bird that crowns the olive groves. They expand beyond our sight, which is downwards, and which has given it the name of the “Balcón de Andalucía” (the Balcony of Andalusia).

No doubt the name is exaggerated, but the panoramic view has the grandeur of a metaphor and unveils those mythical lands of Andalusia’s bandits whom French writers mythologized in the literature of the 19th century: everything down there were called “the holy places”, for they were shelter for outlaws that regular forces avoided.

The Cueva del Gato (Cave of the cat), oil on canvas by painter Manuel Barrón y Castillo (1814-1884)

TheCueva del Gato(Cave of the cat), oil on canvas by painter Manuel Barrón y Castillo (1814-1884)

The image depicts a romantic scene in this cave used as a bandits’ shelter. This cave is one of the most important and spectacular in Spain, as it has water continuously and have several lakes and springs. It is especially hazardous due to the variability of the subterranean watercourses when there are heavy rains. It is located between the municipalities of Montejaque and Benoaján, (some15 km. from Ronda) in the province of Málaga, and it is included in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park.

From Estepa was Juan Caballero, the top deputy of José María el Tempranillo’s gang of bandits, born in a hamlet whose skyline can be sensed from here: Jauja. He rode with him on horses known to everybody, they both received together the true forgiveness given by couplets as well as by the romantic compliments in couplets’ lips. Still today, Sevillanas sing and dance referring in their refrains to his affaires:

Juan Caballero
A lady’s dark black eyes
Made of him a bandolero

Breaking vertically in two the earth and sky rises a paradigmatic tower: the one chosen by Don Antonio Bonet Correa for his monumental work “The Andalusian Baroque”. At first sight, we could say that it is the Torre del Concejo (city hall) as in some other cities like Aguilar de la Frontera. But this is only a misleading impression: it was that of the church of the Virgen de la Victoria, another convent of the Franciscan family who the Italian patricians brought here in the 16th century. The monastery only kept a few walls with the look of romantic ruins that any veduttista could have captured on canvas, but the tower has remained as the symbol of the city, and how gracefully can it be when transferred to brick.

Important remains from the church of the Mínimos are distributed in other temples as if they were relics. The lateral façade of the church of San Sebastian belonged to it, now located in a place that earlier was outside the walls and now in the core of the residencies of the bourgeoisie of Estepa. The front of the foot of the building, of a Renaissance style so primitive that still bears Mudejar traces, reveals its former construction as well as its humble origins. But now it is totally enshrined, at both the level of construction as well as, social, and sentimental ones, in the set of houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, with bombastic windows and balconies, aligned in the flat streets that belt the hill. Each of them represents a mark in time that indicates how the population growth took place. The ones located on slope, on the contrary, support and sustain it, which is explained by the many arches that were built to withstand the weight of the walls.

Façade of Marqués de Cerverales palace

Baroque corner of the palatial home known as “Marqués del Oro”

They protrude from all the houses that boast about reaching the very line of a palace and palaces of graceful exterior features such as that of Marqués del Oro; streets without trees as in old cities where only the window grilles break the straight lines of whitewashed walls. Every now and then they open onto a square, like the one which enclosed the church of El Carmen, a jewel box of the Baroque where there is no truce for the straight line, nor limits for the combinations of marble colours.

The row of houses is spotted by small shops that keep some remnants of a nineteenth-century society, showing in their display windows unusual trousseau pieces, breads of other times, which still exude the splendour of artisans, hermitages keeping intimate devotions, the old granary that had, as a labourer, the most different roles.

This follows up to the Salón and Plaza de Abastos, places of entertainment and provisioning for the generations that made Estepa an industrious place that now focuses, together with the city hall, in the blocks where the hustle and bustle finds its daily endeavour.

View of the central yard in Plaza de Abastos ©Estepa City Hall

View of the central yard in Plaza de Abastos

View of the central yard in Plaza de Abastos in a market day

The workshops that made this miracle possible have become factories that have moved to the lower part of the city, next to the motorway, allowing the city to keep the scents of other times and enjoy a peaceable life.

Clausewitz could have said also that in life nowadays, Estepa is the continuation of the past by other means.


By Antonio Zoido

Writer

 

Acknowledgements:
Department of Tourism of the Town Council of Estepa.

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