Named literally for being ‘opposite the enormous lime rock’, Antikaria now Antequera, is also affectionately called ‘the Florence of Andalucia’.
Established by the Romans, it became a Moorish border fortress defending Granada from its hilltop Alcazar, built in the 13th century, on top of the old legion’s camp.
After the fall of Granada and the settling of a Christian community in the town, the fortress became a meeting place for poets and scholars who formed the Antequera Poet Group and attracted like-minded intellectuals to the town.
By the 17th century Antequera had welcomed many religious orders, and its landscape was transformed from white-washed streets to Baroque elegance. A ‘golden age’ was ushered in with the arrival of noble families who built palaces and large houses, still used as homes in the old centre although mostly separated into apartments.
It’s a splendid place to wander around, although getting about is made quite tricky along extremely narrow and slippery, tiled pavements.
We found ourselves being launched into the constant traffic by bustling packs of school children and ruthless elderly locals determined to stay up on the pavement at all costs. Which apparently included me in one near miss with a speedy car!
Escaping the dangers, we headed into a couple of the many churches. Antequera has more than thirty of them packed into its compact centre.
A striking feature, new to us, was the illusion of decoration inside. Santiago Church was swathed in sumptuous wall hangings at first look, but everything was a trick of the eye as the folds of gloriously coloured and patterned fabrics were in fact painted onto the walls.
We weren’t surprised by the elegance of the town’s bull ring at the Plaza de Toros.
Prettily painted in gold and cream with a terracotta-tiled arcade on top of its tiers of circular seating, it was the loveliest of all that we had seen so far. Which makes its purpose all the ghastlier. We were starting to learn about the culture of bull fighting as a sport and finding it hard to stomach.
Doubtless there is bravery shown on the part of the matadors, but the viscous methods used to goad and ultimately kill each bull in front of a baying audience seems to our, English eyes, unnecessary and cruel.
Gentler moments were to be had waterside at Laguna de la Fuente de Piedra, north of Antequera, which we cycled to.
This shallow saltwater lake teams with birdlife and at this time of year with huge flocks of flamingos, newly arrived from over-wintering in West Africa. Up to 20,000 mating pairs rest, refuel and breed. We weren’t surprised to see so many of them asleep, perched on one leg with their long necks looped back onto their bodies, and heads tucked deeply into pink wings.
Some of the flamingos were stalking slowly through the shallow waters with their heads fully submerged for feeding on krill.
A flamingo’s beak is lined on both sides with a set of ferocious barbs that lock together and act as a sieve, draining out saltwater and capturing inside the tiny shrimp-like creatures for immediate ingestion. It’s not a great life, being a krill.
Other wading birds amused us with their constant dispute. Far from seeming a happy gathering the various individuals squabbled noisily, some flying at each other in angry charges and others simply stomping, rather elegantly, off.
Up in the skies, thousands of blue-sheened swifts were performing acrobatics as they hunted and swooped on clouds of flying insects.
Dashing down to head height we marvelled at their ability to wheel speedily away from each other, and us, when collision seemed unavoidable. We took refuge in a wooden hide, together with some excited Belgians and watched gigantic green dragon flies flash along the waters’ edge amid colonies of smartly coloured and dabbling ducks.
It was interesting to see so many visitors to the lake, cars were registered to France, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and Italy as well as from locally. The flamingos’ annual arrival is a spectacle that is looked forward to with pride by the local community and we were lucky that our visit timed with theirs.