On Cars in Arcos de la Frontera

The matter of transportation in Arcos de la Frontera is a more multi-faceted and microcosmic issue than one might think. Reflection on this subject reveals a phenomenon highly emblematic of several important social tendencies. In the tradition of a small, easily manageable European city, the majority of arcenses moving about town elect either to walk, to wake up everybody within a one kilometer radius with the putt-TT-TT-TT-weeeeeaaaaAAHHHHGGGGG of their ugly, 12 year-old, muffler-deprived motos, or – in the case of an errand on the other extreme of the cliff – simply catch the city bus. I will address the the latter two modes of transportation in a later entry, but what is of more concern to me at this moment are the two decisive traits of the cars in my southern Spanish town: size and color.

The first aspect of the typical coche (pronounced in the Cádiz province, contrary to everything you’ve ever learned about the Spanish ‘ch,’ “co-shay”) is the inexplicable penchant for surprisingly large vehicles. For the average American – that is to say for someone having become desensitized to outlandish and excessive car frames – this statement will certainly require qualification. Firstly, it is necessary to understand that in all of Europe the standard automotive size is small. In American terms, this means very, very small. I remember leaving the Madrid airport on a bus with my high school exchange group almost seven years ago, having arrived in Spain for the first time, and looking out over a highway full of cars. Not one of them boasted the ostentatious and ominous opulence your token American SUV, which tends to be more spacious than the average kitchen in the Spanish capital. This was one of the only true “culture shock” moments I’ve ever experienced in this country.

Now, I cannot claim to understand this puzzling situation. Even if all of Europe weren’t so hooked on the super-mini stuff, I would think that a place like Arcos, pure Old Spain down to the human wingspan-sized streets, would be quite low on the “neat places to tool around in my big-ass off-road gas-guzzler” list.

I would be wrong, though, because the strong presence of over-sized automobiles is undeniable. Perhaps the explanation lies no further than a simple, somewhat isolated Spanish population proving that it, too, can turn its sights abroad in a nation striving to reach the rest of the continent in globalism. This seems unlikely, though, as the Andalusian people tend to be a people who not only value, but revel in routine and tradition. A more likely possibility is that Arcos used to rely much more heavily on agriculture, and therefore those who owned cars owned larger cars. Its geographical isolation would have prevented the invasion of urbane European trends such as space-efficient cars in the town. That being said, one walk through the Old Town of Arcos will inevitably find a visitor pegged into a doorway awaiting the passing of a vehicle whose rear-view mirrors clear the medieval walls by microscopic distances. For now, this issue remains one of the many subtle curiosities of this region of Spain, and a paradox worth pondering in a country replete with contradictions.

The second notable characteristic of automobiles in Arcos can best be appreciated between the hours of about 12:30 and 4:00pm, when the relentless Iberian sunshine is at its strongest. Arcos de la Frontera is one of the so-called pueblos blancos of the Cádiz province, an historic collection of hill towns bathed in tremendous layers of white, and which, when observed from a middle distance, are described by a markedly cubist geometry. And so, when one forgoes the obligatory siesta in favor of a walk through Arcos’ lazy midday avenues, they will undoubtedly notice that the blinding sheets of white light radiating from building after building are anchored by the ghostly silhouettes of white cars, as if bulky, clumsy creatures camouflaged to reduce their visual impact in a recently adopted habitat.

What is especially striking is that the people of Arcos are actively making the decision to purchase predominately white and off-white (silver and gray may be included) automobiles. It is not as if that is the only color offered in local dealerships. Keeping in mind Arcos’ standing as one of the region’s cherished White Towns, it stands to believe that the reason for the white cars is a matter nothing short of unspoken civic responsibility; the population of this town seems to possess an innate aesthetic value which is offended by unnecessary deviation from the city’s trademark color. People even wear white more than anywhere else I’ve seen. I see on a nearly daily basis workers painting white walls even whiter. (I should also point out that the role of the color red in not just Arcos, but in all of Andalucía, is integral, and please refer to my photo on this page of a portly lady dressed in solid red against a completely white apartment building facade – titled “Very Spanish” — to see just what I mean). The Andalusians are a proud people, and it is fitting that they would uphold and respect the visual harmony of their public spaces with the discreet integration of their vehicles into this 1,300 year-old labyrinth of whiteness.


~ by lincolnbrody on December 17, 2007.

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