Although it’s known as El Corazón de Andalucía (“The Heart of Andalusia”) because of its central location within the Spanish region, Antequera is still a relatively unknown destination. But this beautiful Spanish town has plenty to offer the curious traveller, including enchanting squares, Roman ruins and a lively bar and restaurant scene.
Situated within easy reach of all of Andalusia’s “Big Four” – Málaga, Seville, Granada and Córdoba – Antequera is the perfect spot for a weekend or day trip when exploring this beautiful region. An attractive, friendly town that featured on the New York Times’ list of 52 Places To Go in 2017, Antequera is still fairly unknown among visitors to southern Spain, which means that you may be able to explore it all by yourself. Below, Culture Trip takes you on a tour of this often-overlooked destination, exploring its fascinating history and impressive architecture and stopping for tapas in its prettiest squares along the way.
Dominating the hilltop above town, Antequera’s Alcazaba was built in the 14th century to defend its Moorish inhabitants from Christian invaders. Owing to their citadel’s formidable location and sturdy defensive towers – one of which was among the largest in Moorish Spain, along with those of Granada’s Alhambra – the defenders held off their attackers until 1410, when Prince Ferdinand of Aragon finally conquered the town. A fascinating audio tour, which features some unusual ‘re-enactments’, costs just €6 (£5.50) and enables you to look out of the archers’ slits, walk the ramparts and climb the bell tower that was added in 1582.
The audio tour of Antequera’s Alcazaba finishes on the Mirador Plaza Santa Maria, leaving you free to enjoy views of the Roman baths that were discovered in 1988. They were built in the first century and used by the inhabitants of Antikaria – as the Romans called the town – until the fifth century. Their separate rooms, which maintained varying temperatures for the bathers, are still visible, as are some richly detailed mosaics. The remains of a large Roman villa, discovered in 1998 by the train station, are still being excavated, but several artefacts taken from the site are on display in Antequera’s Municipal Museum.
Reached by a 10-minute climb from the main drag of Calle Infante Don Fernando (named after the prince who took Antequera from the Moors in 1410), Plaza Portichuelo is a great spot for tapas in Antequera. It’s dominated by the 17th-century Iglesia de Santa Maria de Jesus and a compact 18th-century chapel, under the arches of which Bar Socorrilla has several tables. A specialist in carrillada (braised pork cheek), this friendly tapas joint is the first stopping point in Antequera if you’re walking from Villanueva de la Concepción on the Camino Mozárabe, which starts in Málaga and leads all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Also known as the “City of the Churches”, Antequera is home to over 30 iglesias – more per inhabitant than anywhere else in Spain. Particularly of note are two dating from the mid-16th century – namely, the Real Colegiata de Santa María, which overlooks the Roman baths, and the Parroquia San Sebastián, the magnificent bell tower of which was added in the early 18th century (and which is best admired from the terrace of Restaurante Leila). But there’s a beautiful church on practically every one of Antequera’s backstreets and squares, as you’ll see when you stroll up Calle Madreruelos, just behind Plaza San Sebastián.
Wait until the afternoon heat has subsided before heading up to Plaza Espíritu Santo, a pretty square where children play football and adults chat by the fountain. It’s the focal point of a close-knit residential barrio situated high above the centre, from where you can look out over the dramatic landscapes that surround the town. Drinks and tapas at friendly Bar La Perdiz are cheap, even by Antequera’s standards (a glass of house wine is just €1 / £0.92), and are best enjoyed out on the square. If there’s no free table, the owner will happily put one out for you, or you can sit on one of the benches.
The Menga, Viera and El Romeral Dolmens – 5,000-year-old burial chambers that are among the most important megalithic structures in Europe – are situated on the outskirts of Antequera. Built between 3,500-3,000 BC, the 30-metre-long (98-feet-long) Menga Dolmen is the largest on the Continent and is walled in by stones weighing as much as 180 tonnes, which support the 250-tonne slabs used for the roof. If you’re wondering how the tombs’ prehistoric architects moved colossal weights with such precision, the 10-minute video shown in the interpretation centre reveals their ingenious techniques. All three Dolmens are free to visit.
Antequera’s covered food market is situated on Plaza San Francisco, where you’ll also find El Mercado, a popular restaurant with a large terrace and varied menu. Standout dishes include the wonderfully tender carrillada and the bacalao mozárabe – a feisty cod dish devised by Mozarabs, Christians who lived under Moorish rule in medieval Spain. Just down the road, on Calle Obispo, is Bar La Paz, a venerable establishment plastered with images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Try the moscatel – a sweet wine from Málaga – and accompany it with Manchego cheese.
Arte de Cozina’s owner and head chef Charo Carmona specialises in rediscovering and reinterpreting ancient Andalusian recipes, all of which are prepared in a kitchen visible from the dining room. Charo’s menu changes in accordance with seasonal ingredients but is always focused on hearty broths and stews known as caldosos, sopas (soups) and cazuelas (casseroles). Next door to the restaurant, there’s a smart tapas bar where you can enjoy smaller bites and superb wines. Prices average around €15 (£13.85) for a main course and €3 (£2.75) for a tapas, but Antequera’s best restaurant is worth the extra outlay.
Although not as famous as the bullrings of Ronda or Seville, Antequera’s whitewashed plaza de toros (bullring) is one of the most attractive in Andalusia. Built in the mid-19th century and renovated in the 1980s, it has seating for over 6,000 spectators and houses a bar-restaurant with tables next to the sand. Antequera only holds a few bullfights every year, for the ferias in June and August, but the ring is also used for markets, exhibitions and concerts. Tickets are purchased at the taquilla and are more expensive for the shaded seats (sombra) than those in the sun (sol).
Antequera’s biggest annual events occur in June, when springtime is celebrated with the Feria de la Primavera, and in August, when the Real Feria de Agosto (Summer Fair) is held. Running for three and five days, respectively, both see the town transformed into a giant open-air party: casetas (marquees) serving drinks and tapas line the Paseo Real – a tree-lined promenade in the centre – and colourful decorations adorn the Alameda de Andalucía, where the terraces are packed with revellers all day, every day. There are also several bullfights in the plaza de toros and a fairground on the outskirts of town where you’ll find rides, bars and food vans.