Antequera: The town that’s ‘all heart’

LAST UPDATED: 7 Feb, 2015 @ 20:26
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The town surrounded by Andalucía’s Big Three cities is also at the centre of a ‘love triangle’, writes Jack Gaioni       

THERE are many reasons why Antequera is known as ‘el Corazon de Andalucia’ (the Heart of Andalucia) and not only because it’s close to the region’s geographical centre.

The major cities of Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada and Malaga are all roughly equidistant from it, and a good system of east-west and north-south highways makes them easily accessible. In the very near future, when the high-speed Transverse Axis Rail passes through Antequera, it will be even more central.

Antequera also lies at the heart of Andalucia’s history. The town of 40,000 residents has a surprisingly extensive archaeological and architectural heritage. Europe’s largest Bronze Age dolmens (burial mounds) can be found on the outskirts. Recent archeological evidence suggests that Antequera had sophisticated cultural and economic ties with the Phoenicians, Greeks and Celts. Under the Romans, ‘Antikaria’ (its Latin name) was an important commercial centre known for its quality olive oil, hence the many Roman ruins you can see in and around the town, while a well-preserved alcazaba (fortress) speaks of its Moorish history.

Additionally, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Antequera was at the ‘heart’ of a flourishing arts scene, attracting many intellectuals, writers, humanists and clergy, resulting in an inordinate number of churches, convents, schools and civilian palaces. Collectively, it is not difficult to understand why Antequera has been assigned the moniker of ‘heart of Andalucia’.

But there’s another, less well-known reason. Antequera has a key place in the region’s literary tradition concerning ‘matters of the heart’, as home to more than a few enduring love stories. Consider the following examples.

Tazgona and Tello – Star-crossed lovers

Dominating the landscape of Antequera is an enormous limestone rock formation that soars 880 metres over the town. Known as Peña de los Enamorados, or Lovers Leap, this mountain crag literally lies at the heart of local folklore. One widely-accepted legend tells of an impossible love affair between a young Christian man and a seductive Moorish princess named Tazgona. During the Moorish-Christian conflicts of the 15th century, a Christian soldier named Tello was captured and imprisoned in the dungeons of the alcazaba. He was visited by the beautiful daughter of the Moorish King and the two were instantly smitten. Tazgona visited daily and the couple plotted Tello’s escape but both lovers knew that neither Arab nor Christian culture would welcome their union. One morning, they made their bid for freedom but the King sent troops in pursuit. Rather than renounce their love, the star-struck lovers chose to hurl themselves off the top of the Peña de los Enamorados into the abyss below. This romantic tale has been passed down through the generations as an integral part of Antequera’s oral tradition.

Santa Eufemia – Dream woman

Another local legend from the same century tells of a young Don Ferdinand (later, King Ferdinand) who struggled with the Arabs to gain military control of the fertile Antequera valley. One evening, while camped in the area around the Peña de los Enamorados, an alluring young woman with long hair, dressed in a white robe, appeared to Ferdinand in a dream. She implored him to ‘fear not’ and to show courage ‘because the sun rises in Antequera’. So bewitched was Ferdinand by his ‘dream woman’ and her message, he was inspired to march into Antequera the next day and conquer the town for the Christians. Locals believed the woman was Santa Eufemia and, from that day in 1410 onward, Santa Eufemia became Antequera’s patron saint. She is still worshipped in candle ceremonies throughout the community and the phrase ‘because the sun rises in Antequera’ is a popular local saying today.

Robert Southey – the Goldilocks connection

Curiously, another enduring love story associated with ‘the heart of Andalusia’ was penned by a famous English poet. Robert Southey (1774-1843) was a biographer, literary scholar and historian but, most notably, England’s Poet Laureate for over 30 years. He was a contemporary of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charlotte Bronte. Perhaps his most recognisable contribution to literary history is the children’s classic, The Story of the Three Bears, the original Goldilocks fairytale.

Southey made a habit of visiting Spain for what he called ‘poetic inspiration’. During one visit, he wrote a poem called Laila and Manuel in which he expands on some of the legends inspired by Antequera’s ‘Lovers Leap’, using the backdrop of the infamous limestone crag to tell his own version of a tryst between Christian and Moorish lovers. The poem has contemporary resonance and is still read by many British schoolchildren today.

While Antequera may lack the singular munificence of Granada’s Alhambra palace, Cordoba’s mosque or Sevilla’s cathedral, its rich history and romantic folklore gives it deeper significance as the ‘heart of Andalucia’. If you like to follow your heart, I can highly recommend a visit. Who knows what might happen!

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