Écija: 100% Andalusia
The road between Córdoba and Sevilla is dominated by the vast Andalusian sky, lined only by barren hills, give or take a few goats and sheep, and occasionally interrupted by seemingly infinite rows of gnarled olive trees and golden expanses of wheat. The temptation to hurry straight from point A to B, thereby missing one of Spain’s hidden stars is all too real.
The ancient town of Écija, about one hour west of Córdoba and approximately the same distance from Sevilla is nestled along a wide bulge in the A4 freeway, making it a perfect stopover for those enjoying authentic Andalusian cuisine, Écija’s surprisingly rich cultural heritage or simply to absorb some of the laid back Spanish lifestyle that has been largely lost in Écija’s bigger sisters Córdoba and Sevilla.
Go with the Spanish Siesta
Everyday life in traditional Spain revolves around the extended lunch break which lasts from about 14:00 to 17:00. Strictly speaking ‘siesta’ does not describe the break itself, but the short nap some take during those hours. Still, siesta hours remain meaningful because in towns like Écija you will have to change the focus of your stay accordingly. If you stop by during siesta most shops and sights will be closed, but some great tapas bars are open for business and vice versa. If you can, try to spend a few hours to do both, sightseeing and a few bites before or after. You will not regret it.
Brief History of Écija
Due to the presence of water in the shape of the River Genil humans started settling in Écija at least some 3000 years ago, during the Iberian tribal period. Around 200 BC the Romans arrived in the village of Astigi which gained favor by siding with Julius Caesar during his war with the Roman establishment in the mid first century BC (battle of Munda). The town developed subsequently into a proper Roman colony, extravagantly named Colonia Iulia Augusta Firma Astigitana by emperor Augustus. It prospered on its olive oil industry which could use the Genil river as an export conduit into the entire Roman empire.
The Roman province of Hispania Baetica succumbed to invasion by the Germanic Vandals (note that the term Andalusia is derived from ‘Vandalusia’), Alans and Suebi in the 5th century AD but were displaced by the Visigoth under Theodoric II soon after. The Visigothic Kingdom in Spain, known towards its end as the Catholic Kingdom of Toledo lasted until the Muslim invasion in the early 8th century which itself was followed by the lengthy Reconquista of Christian lands culminating in the liberation of Écija by Castillian king Fernando III (the Saint) in 1240. The name Écija is incidentally based on “Istija” an Arabic pronunciation of the Roman Astigi.
Fernando’s warriors and the Church were compensated for their loyal services through generous grants of the fertile land around Écija which concentrated economic power in this still relatively small town (which was only officially conferred the rank of ‘town’ in 1402). During Écija’s golden Baroque 18th century about 40 noble families and 7 convents settled in this humble town competing with each other for prestige by erecting a collection of palaces and churches which continues to impress to this day.
Strolling through Écija
Click this embedded map – Écija: 100% Andalusia – to see where we are going.
Iglesia de Santiago
After leaving the A4 freeway, head, for example, for the Avendia Andalucía (opposite the playground) for street parking in the Southern sector of town. You can start your tour at Iglesia de Santiago (Church of Santiago) a few meters West of Avendia Andalucía. The entrance to this beautiful Mudéjar-Gothic church is through a monumental Baroque stone gate on Calle Santiago which opens into a pleasant, cool court yard. Travelling through Andalusia and Spain you will regularly encounter the term Mudéjar. It stands for the Muslims (Moors) who were tolerated in Spain following the Reconquista, but also describes the fusion of Islamic and Christian elements in the architecture of the Iberian peninsula which developed during the coexistence of the two religions. At the Church of Santiago Mudéjar influence can be seen, for example, in its wooden coffered ceiling.
Like most old churches in Europe, the Iglesia de Santiago underwent many transformations since its initial construction at the end of the 15th century. The tower, for example, had to be replaced in the 18th century after the original one had sustained earthquake damage. The current tower is a fine example of Écija’s trademark combination of creamy brickwork with vividly colored tiles. The interior of the church, too, went with the times. The main altar with its depiction of saints and scenes from the passion of the Christ is considered the best in Sevilla province (outside of Sevilla cathedral) and was created in the mid 16th century in a transition style between Gothic and Renaissance by Jorge Fernández Alemán and others. The 17th and 18th centuries saw some of best architects, artists and builders of their time (among others Pedro de Silva) add extravagant plaster work in the right-hand chapel and redecoration of chapter house and sacristy.
The Church of Santiago is open for visitors Monday to Thursday from 9:00 to 13:00 (but not on public holidays) at no charge. It is not appropriate to visit the church during its opening times for worship – unless you want to attend mass, of course. Unlike many other churches in the Western world this one is not mainly a museum, but still has an active parish.
The Municipal Museum
Leave the church grounds the way you came, swerve to the left along Calle Santiago and Calle Cava and take a sharp right onto Plaza Puerta Osuna into Calle Cánovas del Castillo to reach after a few minutes the “Museo Histórico Municipal de Écija”. I am actually no ardent museum goer. My attention wears thin quickly when passing through masses of smudgy, reflecting showcases and the yellowed labels full of academic scribble which I forget as soon as I have read them. I also cannot stand clumsy audioguides full of sticky buttons (by the way, where is the ingenious IT start-up replacing these dinosaurs with an universal smartphone app?).
However, I make an exception for Écija’s little historical museum. It is small enough to be covered in under an hour, it is housed in the delightful Palacio de Benamejí and its collection is definitely worth a look, especially for the Roman era items on display. Those include some beautiful floor mosaics and the famous sculpture of a ‘Wounded Amazon‘ which is actually a Roman-era copy of an even older Greek masterpiece (major museums in Berlin, Copenhagen and New York hold three more specimen). The Écija amazon is renowned for its superior state of preservation and – uniquely – chemical analysis of its surface revealed traces of its original coloration including the tunic in ‘Egyptian blue‘.
Other highlights are a well-presented reconstruction of a typical Roman living quarter giving you a genuine feel for what it must have been like to live in Astigi and a number of exhibits devoted to explaining how the production and distribution chain of Astigi olive oil worked during antiquity.
Just in case you are wondering where all those Roman treasures had been discovered and whether it is possible to visit the excavation site like in other centers of Roman Spain e.g. in Italica and Mérida, many of the artefacts have been unearthed when Écija’s central Plaza España (known as “El Salón”) was dug up to build an underground car park starting in 1998. In fact, a Roman forum, including baths, a gymnasium, a temple and several private residences were literally brought to light and many works of art as well as objects of everyday use were salvaged. Yet the ensemble of ruins itself was in 2006 bulldozed and concreted over on orders of the municipal authorities and is thereby forever lost. Only a small token section of Roman Astigi at the Western end of Plaza España has been left intact and can be viewed by the public.
While it is sad that the ruins have been razed, remember that the population of Roman Astigi is estimated to have been some 30,000, not a lot fewer than today’s. Chances are that anywhere you start digging in Écija you bump into Roman ruins and if it all was to be preserved you had to evacuate the entire town. In the case of the forum, maybe authorities could have considered moving the most interesting sections to another area, at huge costs, of course. My own main qualm about the infamous Plaza España episode is the drab design of the remodeled plaza. Lifeless, dark granite slabs simply don’t do justice to Écija’s humble glory. At least the public benches could have been kept in traditional style.
In any way, Écija’s Municipal Historical Museum is a beautiful place full of interesting exhibits and simply also a great spot to hang around and enjoy a coffee or a meal in a superbly relaxing ambiance. Entry is free and opening times are listed here.
After stepping out of the museum’s main gate, turn left and keep walking for a few minutes until you reach the infamous Plaza de España main square. You will be passing a couple of interesting shops including a nuts and bolts barber shop on the left, where I have by the way had an excellent hair cut (only military style short cuts available, but well executed) and a tourist knick-knack store on the right that, for example, stocks those multicolored Andalusian flower pots (from nearby La Rambla) you keep seeing in patios all over the Sevilla and Córdoba region. Once you reach the Plaza España turn left again and walk a few meters under the arcades until you reach tiny Plaza de Santa María, easily recognized by the extravagant 18th century statue of Écija’s two patron saints, the Virgin of the Valley and St. Paul, at its center.
Its sober, neoclassical design makes Santa María probably less endearing than the playful Baroque churches in Écija. Still, it is well worth a look.
The church dates back to the 13th century (Gothic-Mudéjar), was redesigned in Mudéjar style in the 16th and 17th centuries and strongly modified again during the 18th century, Écija’s golden age. That last phase in the evolution of Santa María was disrupted by the offshoots of the famous Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which damaged parts of the main building and caused the upper sections of the newly erected tower to collapse – speeding up the reformation of the church and inevitably resulting in a blend of styles typical for many of Europe’s ancient churches. For example, the main chapel of the Gothic-Mudéjar construction was destroyed, but the old sacristy has been kept in place and reused as a sanctuary chapel. The impressive gate of the church, made up of a huge two-winged door of precious mahogany studded with bronze nails, is spanned by an ornate Mudéjar lacería ceiling pointing to an earlier origin than the church you enter through it.
I will spare you an exhausting list of the many architects, artists, builders and patrons who created the treasures of Santa Maria over the centuries, but for those interested in all the details, the Santa María website provides plenty. Instead click through the gallery below to take in some of the drama of Spanish religiosity.
The church also contains a small museum, remnants of the convent it once housed and is the base for one of the brotherhoods of El Rocío. And it even sports a record of miracles performed and stories of repentance admitted and faith found, for example, that of society lady Doña Sancha Carillo who turned into a hermit (and later royal advisor) inspired by the sermons of the Apostle of Andalusia, Juan de Ávila. Of course, the history of Christianity in Écija dates back a lot further than the time of the Reconquista. Saint Paul (San Pablo) of Tarsus himself is said to have been to Astigi in the first century AD.
Visits to both the church and the museum are free of charge. Opening hours are listed here.
Alas, one article of reasonable length is not enough to cover this amazing and highly undervalued Andalusian country town. So stay tuned for part two of our excursion into the heartland of Andalusia which will drag you along a few more landmarks to finally indulge in another Écijan highlight: its glorious food.