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domingo, 6 de junio de 2010

Memories of Alcalá 36: The Plaza Alta, or Plaza San Jorge

Original Spanish version, with photos

If we were going to run through the entire history of our town, we would have to begin and end with the Plaza Alta [lit. “high square”]! Alcalá was born at its highest point, on the summit of la Coracha., as were other noble towns, with a citadel, surrounded by palaces, churches and coats of arms. Alcalá has two parts: the old, with the castle and the old churches, and the new, with the Alameda and the Playa.

The dogs and the children liked the Plaza Alta. The dogs, because they could go through its narrow streets chasing vermin in the ruins of the big old houses without anybody bothering them; the children, because there was sufficient space to play fantasy games in the castle, the walls of the church and the ruins of the old houses. There were found the history, the fantasy, the wind tunnel, the Moorish water-tank, Father Viera's Beaterio, the cemetery, the castle, the tower, the lookout point over the valley of the River Barbate, the enclosed nuns, the palace of the dukes, the house of San Juan de Ribera, the old Town Hall (by then a hospital), the house of the priests or Rectory, the brothel, the summit of the Coracha, and the main gate of the old town.

It is the highest point and the centre of the old Moorish Alcalá. But previously it was Roman, when it was called Turris Lascutana. We can still see the Roman wells of the Fuente de la Salada, from the 2nd Century BC. Next to them passed “La Calzada” [paved highway], and a temple dedicated to the divinity of the water source, now disappeared. The basement of the castle is also Roman, which was finished in the Moorish period and is now considered as such. Between the 12th and 13th centuries they built the ramparts, of which now only the door of the ancient villa remains. And in the 16th century were built the old Town Hall, known as the Casa del Cabildo, and the church of St George over a Moorish mosque. All this history was converted by the children into a game, Moors and Christians.

All around were situated the dwellings, constructed to fit around the terrain of the hill. Each house was unique, taking advantage of the complexities and corners created by nature and the other old houses. The higher up the houses were, the grander were the buildings. Their stone façades emulated those of Medina, Vejer, Arcos, Jerez … But in my time they appeared to have been forgotten about, because people sought to live around the Alameda and the Playa. So the Plaza Alta and its surroundings became more and more deserted. Its streets were like a filigree of pearls from an Arabic rosary, raised during the centuries when they were populated by the Moors.

There were three churches, corresponding from the time of the Christian reconquest: San Jorge, the main parish church of the town; the convent of the nuns of St Clare, today converted into the SAFA education centre; and the Beaterio of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, founded by the Venerable Father Viera as an infant school and old people's home.

The Plaza Alta was the heart of the old town, and the Alameda that of the new town. When we go up there, time appears to slow down, as if an ancient breath of life is preserved in the stones and the nooks and crannies of the old buildings.

The streets which form the Barrio Alto have the flavour of the Moors, the Andalucians and the Christians: Antigua Puerta de la Villa, Plaza de San Jorge, Puerta del Sol, C/ del Castillo,Soledad, las Monjas, Calzada de San Vicente, San Juan de Ribera, San Francisco, Villegas, Plaza Collado, Alonso el Sabio, Arcipreste Roa, Sánchez Díaz, Miguel Tizón, San Pedro and Levante. Fortunately almost all the houses have been restored and the streets have been renovated. In summer, zt dusk, the people come out into the streets or sit in their doorways to take the air and socialize.

The oldest building is the castle, the “castellum” of the Romans, the citadel of the Moors, the fortress of the Christians. The only remaining parts are the tower of Homage and the a wall from the water tower. Few towns have offered a location better suited for nurturing children's fantasies. But little by little the buildings were abandoned; the castle, the Town Hall, the Church of St George, the Rectory …

Fortunately today the noble buildings of the Plaza Alta can be seen in their true context. The church is the spiritual home of all Alcalainos. The baptismal font,like a silent witness, is where the inhabitants of Alcalá are baptised.

In the Visigoth period, in the 7th Century, the bishop Pimenio from Medina Sidonia built the hermitages of the New Saints and the Cortijo de la Higuera, near the Puerto del Vizcaino, today called Puerto de la Parada, 16 km from Alcalá. Both can be found near the settlement of la Mesa del Esparragal. The Bishop Pimenio ordered an inscription to be made on the remains of altar stone, which was actually an ancient Roman pedestal, today conserved in a side wall behind the choir in the church of San Jorge. The Latin text says: “In the name of the Lord, here are preserved the remains of Saints Servanto, German, Saturnino, Justa and Rufina, martyrs, and of John the Baptist. On the 5th day of June of the year 33 of the Episcopate of Don Pimenio, 700 of the era” [662 AD].

With the arrival of the Moors, Christianity continued but was relegated to second place. With the Reconquest, it grew again under the protection of the Military Orders and the presence of the Kings Fernando III, the Holy, and Alfonso X, the Wise. In 1263, Alcalá was converted into a Christian town.

Next to the Church was the old Town Hall or Consistorio. At some point it was decided to abandon the building, convert it into a hospital and move the Town Hall to the Alameda. That was the point at which, for many years, the Barrio Alto was abandoned.

Today the square has recovered old and new connotations, such that we can call it the Plaza Alta, Plaza de la Historía, Plaza de la Religión, Plaza de la Educación, Plaza de las Fiestas and Plaza de San Jorge, or the Patron. At the time of writing, Alcalá is celebrating once more, in the year 2010, the festivals of the town: proclamations, religious celebrations, festivities, music, bull-runs, and home-cooked food will all form part of the “Year of Grace” which the Pope has conceded to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Saints. And those of us who live away from the town feel proud to be Alcalainos.

JUAN LEIVA
Translated by Claire Lloyd

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