I had originally intended to write about Granada in this next post of my Spain series, but with Christmas only days away, my mind is wandering to a remarkable nativity display that we stumbled upon in Arcos de la Frontera. Arcos might just be the most dramatic of the Andalusian Pueblos Blancos (white villages) that dot southern Spain. The old town, perched atop a high cliff is renowned for its spine-tingling views, and impossibly narrow streets. It was along one of these tiny streets, that we came upon a small, unassuming door with a sign that read “Belén”. Truth be told, “Belén” did not immediately register with us, but “Free”, posted underneath, sure did.
We entered an eerily quiet, cavern-like room. Around its perimeter was the most amazing nativity display I have ever seen. The Belén (nativity scene in Spanish, from the word Bethlehem) was so life-like, I felt like I was walking through the streets of Bethlehem.
The construction of the miniature sets, in a series of small caverns, with clever use of lighting, renders an astonishing depth of field. Up close, the carved figures of villagers and animals, and all the trappings of life more than 2000 years ago, are intricately detailed. There are even babbling brooks and fountains. In the distance, a small village glows in the sunset. Visually, it looks like it is several hundred meters down the path.
The display depicts scenes from the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census registration, looking for a place to stay, the birth, the announcement to the shepherds, and the journey of the three kings.
I was so mesmerized by the artistry and detail that I was shocked when the lights suddenly dimmed, almost to complete darkness. My initial reaction was fear. We were the only ones there, or so I thought. Crap, what have we gotten ourselves into. Then, on the other side of the room, tucked in a corner, I spotted an elderly man sitting on a chair. He had been there the whole time. Maybe this was his subtle way of telling us that we needed to put some money in the donation box.
I asked him to turn on the lights so we could see. I don’t think he understood me, or he correctly pegged me as an ignorant tourist. In halting English, he explained that the lighting system goes through a daytime cycle, followed by a short sunset and a very brief night. The complete cycle is about 6-7 minutes. I felt a bit foolish.
We stayed for another cycle, watching the town of Bethlehem come to life at dawn and settle into stillness at dusk. There was something incredibly peaceful about this beautiful artistic display and the simple rotation of light and dark. I’m so glad we stepped through the door and found this little gem .
Peace! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah!
If you go:
The Belén is located on tiny Calle Maldonado, very close to Plaza del Cabildo in beautiful Arcos de la Frontera. It is open throughout the year.
If you find yourself in Arcos in mid-December, the town reportedly has the best and longest running “Belen Viviente” (Living Nativity) in Spain, a live reenactment of the Christmas story.
Stay tuned for a post about our driving adventure on the narrow streets of Arcos de la Frontera. And, Granada is coming too.