|Our hotel is located between two Catholic churches. The Church of Santa Maria is a minutes’ walk away to our west, overlooking the square where we park our car. After Arcos was taken from the Moors in the 13th century, this church was build atop a mosque. About two minutes walk in the opposite direction from our hotel is Arcos’ second church, St Peter’s. It dates from the 14th century and was built on the remains of a former Moorish fortress. We hear its bell chiming the hours from 7am until 11pm. In the 1700s, the parishes of St Mary’s and St Peter’s had an argument over which church was Arcos most prominent and most distinguished. In 1764 the Pope decreed that St Mary’s deserved that honour. During the battle for that title, the congregation at St Peter’s refused to say the words ‘Mary, mother of God’ in their services, substituting ‘The Divine Shepherdess’ or ‘St Peter, Mother of God’ in their prayers!
St Peter’s is a crumbling edifice from the outside. But upon entering the church, we were astounded by the elaborate detail and decoration of the numerous altars. We were particularly taken aback by displays under two golden altars: the bodies of two 3rd century saints, retrieved from the catacombs in Rome and now on display in glass cabinets, dressed in bejewelled finery. They were described as being the ‘incorrupt’ bodies of the saints they were supposed to be, but they looked very dead and rotten to me. I could not imagine sitting in church each week and seeing these ghastly skeletons staring back at you as you listened to the priest giving his homily. Pretty morbid stuff.
The building next to our hotel is a convent for cloistered nuns. It’s a large building, with small, high, spike-grilled windows for the nuns to peep through. Today there are apparently only eight nuns left, but I imagine there were once many more inside. In the lobby of the convent there is a spinning cupboard though which you can purchase cakes the nuns make without them actually revealing themselves. We decided to give it a go. We pushed the buzzer and eventually a nun spoke to us from behind the cupboard (she could see us through a one-way mirror and I could just make out part of her image by getting close to the glass). We requested a box of freshly baked cookies and fed our money as requested through the slot. The cupboard then turned to reveal three boxes of cookies for us to choose from. After making our selection the nun spun the cupboard back into its original position. It was a bizarre experience. We ate some of the cookies as we sat on our terrace and watched harrier hawks riding the wind and soaring out from the cliff. I thought of the nuns who made the delicious goodies we were enjoying. I wonder when they last felt the breeze and marvelled at birds soaring in the wind.