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Spanish Shilling

Some stories and experiences after a lifetime spent in Spain

Spain's Frontier Towns - Near no Modern Borders
09 December 2020 @ 19:33

Vejer de la Frontera


What do Jérez, Arcos, Morón, Vejer, Chiclana and a number of other Andalusian towns have in common? Their full and proper names are ‘ la frontera’. They are all ‘on the frontier’, and yet, since nothing is simple in Spain, they aren’t. The Cádiz city of Jerez de la Frontera, for example, is 242 kilometres away from the nearest frontier – that’s to say, Portugal.
One could argue that early Spanish cartographers were not very good at their jobs, or that the Royals were never wrong, but the fact is, the place names make perfect sense when you roll back a few centuries to the time of the Moors and the Kingdom of Granada.
The Christian forces of Aragon and Castile were slowly (oh, so slowly) taking the country back from the Moors. These North African colonists had been in control of almost all of Spain for anything up to seven hundred and fifty years (depending on which bit we happen to be talking about) although, by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the writing, whether in Arabic or in Latin, was definitely on the wall. Granada, as we know, capital of the ‘Nazarí Kingdom’, fell in 1492, the same year as Spain discovered the Americas. 
This would be known as Spain’s greatest time. 
Stood between the Christian and Moorish territories while leading up to the final push in the later XV Century were a number of frontier towns which watched uneasily over a no-man’s-land (or ‘Terra Nullius’ as it was officially known – an unclaimed space between the two forces). During its existence, this border strip had great military, political, economic, religious and cultural importance. Beyond being a border like many others, it was for more than two centuries the European border between Christianity and Islam. It was, therefore, a place of exchange and barter, which kept alive in both territories the spirit of the Christian crusade and the Islamic jihad together with the chivalric ideal, already anachronistic in other European territories.
It also made possible illicit economic activities, such as trade in oriental products, as well as regular military incursions, aimed at taking booty, as well as the captivity of hostages with whom to maintain the slave business, or simply to negotiate the redemption of captives. Religious orders took sides in this regard. The border was a key element in the formation of the identity of Andalucía and in the formation of the vision of Islam throughout Spain. 
While another culture might have dropped the Arab names once conquered, the Spanish have appeared gracious enough to keep them. Such towns as Vélez-this and Alhama-that are quite common (the first comes from the Arab word for ‘land’, the second for ‘baths’). Indeed, anything beginning in Al – comes from the Arab prefix ‘the’: Alhambra, Almería, Alpujarra... 
Al-Ándalus, as far as the Moors were concerned, means and meant anything which was under Moorish control in the Peninsular – at some point, almost as far north as Pamplona. 
Of all of the ‘frontera’ towns, mostly located in Cádiz, the largest in Jerez de la Frontera, with its magnificent Alcazar, an XI Century Moorish fortress. The Moors called the city ‘Sherish’ and held it until 1264, although the Christian forces controlled the surrounding lands from 1248. The town would become a ‘frontier’ with the Granada kingdom. 
Jerez is the largest non-capital city in all of Andalucía, with a population of around 210,000 souls (larger than Cadiz – its provincial capital – as well as Almería, Jaén and Huelva). It is known for wine, horses, flamenco and motorcycles. 
Morón de la Frontera, in the province of Seville, owes its appellative to having a major garrison, once it had been conquered in 1240 by Fernando III, from which the Christian forces could harass the Moors.
Morón de la Frontera may not have a frontier, but the nearby American-controlled air-base of Morón (actually located in the next-door municipality of Arahal) – which has been going since 1953, of course does. You’ll need a passport to make it past the heavily-armed gate and on to the PX store... 
Another town on our list is Chiclana de la Frontera. It is just up the road from both Conil de la Frontera and Vejer de la Frontera. There must have been a gleam in the eye of King Fernándo IV when he got into the swing of naming his towns in the Most Loyal Province of Cádiz... 
Chiclana is just 24 kms south of the city of Cádiz and has become a tourist resort with the largest number of hotel beds anywhere within the province. With a population of over 84,000, the town is only marginally smaller than its nearby capital city. The town is noted for its monuments and its wineries. 
Next door’s Conil de la Frontera, again in reference to the far-off ‘frontier’ with Granada, is a beautiful resort which grows five-fold during the summer season. 
The ‘frontier’ town with the most charm must nevertheless go to Vejer de la Frontera, a small coastal town with a view of the Atlantic. Vejer is a member of the ‘Prettiest Towns in Spain Association’ and is a maze of narrow streets and white houses.
I like the story of how a Moorish prince and his Christian damsel were forced to leave Vejer as the enemy forces arrived. She tearful, he defiant. ‘I’ll build you another town as pretty as this one’, he promised her and, back in North Africa, that’s what he did, building in her name the beautiful turquoise-blue town of Chauen
Moving beyond the frontiers of Andalucía (well, barely), mention should be made of Murcia’s frontier town. Puerto Lumbreras, the Port of Lights (roughly), may have been a trading or military port, but it is around 32 kilometres from the coast and thus its name refers to its frontier status, as it is separated from Almería’s Arab-sounding Huercal Overa on the other side of the wide no-man’s-land strip, in this case some 23 kilometes, and was a heavily-garrisoned fortress-town. 
For two hundred years, the sometimes uneasy border between the Christian and Moorish cultures stood until Spain’s famous ‘Catholic Kings’, Fernándo of Aragon and Isabela of Castille, brought the ‘re-conquest’ to an end in 1492, and Spain was born from the ashes.

Like 2


PablodeRonda said:
10 December 2020 @ 05:42

I think this is a fascinating article. I've often wondered about the significance of la Frontera in many place names. Now I know. Thanks, Lenox.

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