"A Tapas Tour of Antequera" by John Campbell

Most Spaniards will eagerly proffer an opinion on the best tapas in their area, and also in Spain.

Seldom will any two Spaniards agree on where the best tapas is to be had. And even if they do agree on that, they will invariably disagree on what to have.

So, in the true Spanish tradition, let me proffer some of my opinions.

I have taken tapas from Barcelona and San Sebastian in the North East to Gijon and Santiago de Compostela in the North West.

In the cause of research, I have slaved over drinks and tapas in the cities, and little villages, of the interior from Castilla-Leon, La Rioja and Aragon in the North to Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha in the South.   

I have sought out the bars tucked away in the great Andalucian cities of Cordoba, Granada, Sevilla, Cadiz and Malaga.

Then, almost by chance, I stumbled across a tradition in tapas that produced that feeling of satisfied contentment. Of years of research and training coming to fruition, much like the golfer's swing clicking to produce the perfect drive, or hitting a home run.

And it was all due to a chance meeting with Manolo, now a close friend.

After another of our mammoth trips through Spain, we had stopped at the Parador in the monumental city of Antequera, slap bang in the centre of Andalucia. Manolo was manning reception when I asked about estate agents in town. The next day I found myself being driven around the city (more of a large town) and its surrounding villages by Manolo. He had sacrificed his day off to give me an insiders view of this very traditional and unspoilt area of Andalucia.

At the end of the tour Manolo uttered the words that have been etched on my mind ever since: "now we take tapas?"

We stopped at a little nondescript bar near the Plaza de Toros (Bull Ring).

I wandered up to the display cabinet to assess the offerings. Manolo, pointing at the cabinet, asked if I wanted to take cold tapas or take tapas "from the kitchen?"

That was my first lesson: in good tapas bars only cold tapas is on display and available most of the day; hot tapas is freshly prepared in the kitchen and available from about 1pm to 3pm and again in the evening from 7 or 8.30 (winter/summer) to about 10 or 11pm. There are very few bars in Antequera where a dollop of some pre-cooked 'tapa' is dumped on a plate and stuck in the microwave.

In many of the surrounding villages, not even cold tapas are on display. The only sign that tapa is on offer is the crowd tucking in; although invariably there will be a small blackboard somewhere listing the day's offerings.

After Manolo had ordered two canas (little beers), there followed a ritual that I have seen played out over and over again in the bars in the Comarca (area) of Antequera. No-one has yet explained to me why this happens.

It goes like this: After ordering a drink the barman (camarero) asks, "tapa?" or "tapita?"

The customer, usually ignoring the display cabinet with the cold tapas, asks what there is.

The camarero inspects the cold tapas, and goes through each.

The customer, ignoring the blackboard, then asks "de cocina?", literally, "from the kitchen?"

The camarero then appears to gaze into space, as if trying to remember, and rattles off a list of hot tapas on offer that day. After a time I realised that the camareros were looking at the blackboard and reading off the offerings.

Fully informed, the customer then places the order. No por favor's (pleases) or gracias' (thank you's), just what is wanted. In our case that day, boquerones plancha (tiny grilled fish).

Remarkably, the camareros do not yell at the customers to look at the display cabinet or read the blackboard; not in the traditional bars anyway.

Now many a tapas 'connoisseur' may snigger at the suggestion that boquerones could rank as one of the greats amongst tapas. But that is to miss the point. The point is freshness, preparation, accompaniments and flavour. In Spain, unlike France, the quality and skill is not in the sauce but the ability to maintain the original flavour and freshness of the dish in as simple a fashion as possible.

The boquerones we ate had been filleted and lightly marinated in olive oil, garlic and herbs then grilled on the plancha (traditional iron grill). The garlic and herbs served only to bring out the flavour of the fish, which was accompanied by a tiny lettuce salad with a 'secret' and subtle dressing. A couple of little breadsticks provided the contrast in texture.

In my exploration of tapas bars throughout Spain I had tried umpteen versions of boquerones, so it would not have been my tapa of choice had Manolo not insisted that that particular bar did "very good boquerones". He was right.

Over the next three years I visited as many tapas bars in Antequera and the surrounding villages as time allowed. And my estimation that this area has the best tapas in Spain has only grown in conviction.

So, let's take tapas in Antequera!

Before we visit some of the bars (and in a short article, we can only visit some), let me say that the Andalucians in this area do not simply have a favourite tapas bar. They have their favourite tapas bar for particular tapas. So when I mention a particular tapas in this bar or that, it does not mean that nothing else is on offer or worth trying. It only means that that bar excels at that particular tapas (although it may not always be available).

Let's start where I started with Manolo. In the Plaza (Square) Castilla, opposite the Bull Ring, there's a little bar called the El Parque. It's hidden behind the trees towards the end of the Square. As in most tapas bars in Antequera, tapas is not served on the terrace, although it is served at the tables inside. (In the villages you will generally be served tapas wherever you sit). So best head up to the bar.

If you speak fluent Spanish and can get to grips with the unique Antequera accent, you could adopt the Andalucian way, waiting for the barman to tell you what's on offer. If not, have a look at the cabinet and read the blackboard (specials for that day). The menus under glass at the tables inside also list regular tapas on offer.

For cold tapas on those hot summer days, try porra. Porra is an Antequeran speciality. It is like a thick gazpacho topped with chopped jamon (ham) and boiled eggs (also eaten as a starter with fried breadcrumbs). The pipirrana pulpo (chopped fresh salad of mixed peppers, tomatoes and octopus) is also an excellent cold tapa at the El Parque. If you go for the tapas de cocina (delicious at all times of the year) the mero or rosada frito or plancha are delicious: small pieces of fried or grilled firm white fish with a type of garlic mayonaise called Ali-Oli. Both are usually accompanied by a lettuce salad and small crunchy breadsticks.

If you prefer meat, the El Parque does delicious conejo al ajillo (rabbit stewed in olive oil and garlic). Usually this is accompanied by sauteed potatoes, the best I've ever tasted.

The only tapas I suggest avoiding is the bacalao frito (fried cod): unlike the mero or rosada, my bacalao has always been too bony.

From the El Parque, head back towards the Bull Ring, then right into the main street, Alameda Andalucia. At the beginning of the street there are two tapas bars. The first, Aurora, is a regular haunt of the Guardia Civil (across the road) and the second is the Cafeteria Plata Bar. Both are trditional Andalucian bars and definitely worth a stop, although I strongly advise against jumping in your car after a few beers and tapas in the first (in fact, I advise against beer, tapas and driving full stop - there are plenty of taxis in Antequera, one rank is across the road from the Plata Bar).

Further up Alameda is the Noelia. Many Antequerans swear that this is the best restaurant in Antequera. It does do limited tapas in its tiny bar but I recommend sitting under the umbrellas outside and going for a one of the large selection of raciones or medias raciones (portions or half portions). The Jamon Iberico (ham from acorn fed pigs) melts in your mouth. The Jamon Serrano is also delicious and is half the price of the Iberico, but you do get what you pay for.

Further up the Alameda the street forks. Take the right fork and head up the Infante Don Fernando. At the beginning of this street, on your right, is the Iglesia (Church) de San Juan de Dios. A little further up, on your left is the Iglesia de Ntra. Sra. de los Remedios. Both are worth a visit. There are also a number of little bars as you stroll up, but if time is not on your side, keep going until you get to the Bar Castilla (attached to a small hotel of the same name - the bar, remarkably, closes for holidays for a couple of weeks in July). Some in Antequera claim this is the tapas temple. It is excellent, especially for its fried and grilled fish. Calamares certainly deserve to be sampled.

From here, keep going down the Infante (passing on your right the Convento de San Agustin - do take a minute to have a look) and you get to the wonderful Plaza San Sebastian with its ornate central fountain. The bar attached to the new Hotel Plaza San Sebastian has an outside terrace where you can soak up the ancient city all around (Iglesia y Torre de San Sebastian is directly across the Square) and gaze up at the castle walls. This bar does have tapas on display, including 'hot' tapas. But I must confess, the tapas are good and the bar is popular with the Spanish. It also has Tapas de Cocina, listed on a menu, which you can order from the tables inside.

If you go up the street next to the Tourist Office (don't forget to grab a map of Antequera as you pass) you get to the Zona Monumental (Alcazaba etc). There are several tapas bars here worth visiting (if you have the energy to climb). I can recommend Bar Carmen, near the magnificent Iglesia del Carmen. Another is at the end of the street (Calle Herradores) down from the Alcazaba in the square opposite Iglesia de Jesus. It's the only bar there. The tapas is excellent, and it is one of the few bars that serves tapas outside on its little terrace in the square. There are others tucked away in the maze of narrow streets, well worth exploring if you have a few hours to spend before lunch or dinner.

But to continue with our tapas tour we need to go back to the Bar Castilla.

Take the side road down from the Castilla. About twenty meters along you get to the Cafeteria Castilla. It is excellent for Churros in the morning. It also does a full range of tapas (hot and cold), and I recommend it highly.

Following the street (Calle Comedias) down from Cafeteria Castilla you get to a junction. If you turn left (into Calle Cantareros) you will find a little bar about ten meters up (next to an Estate Agent, Talavera - just in case you're thinking of buying a property by this time). This is the Bar Central. The tapas is good, especially the paella.

If you turn right at the junction, follow the road down to the next junction and turn left. Across from the church (Convento Madre de Dios de Monteagudo-well worth a peek in) is the Florida Bar. Don't let the name put you off.

It is especially worth visiting this bar on a Friday or Saturday. The whole bar is turned over to a tapas festival. Even on other days it's worth a visit. The Rabo de Toro (stewed bull tail) is delicious as is the Callos (tripe with chick peas). Excellent cold tapa is tortilla and huevos rellenos (stuffed eggs). The big chunks of cold roast chicken (pollo asado) are great for the kids.

On leaving the Florida, turn right. About thirty meters up the road you come to Numero Uno. If you like prawns, do not miss this bar. The gambas plancha are simply delicious: they would not tell me what marinade was applied to the prawns before grilling. No wonder. For meat, go for the alitas de pollo (chicken wings with a slightly chili coating).

Turn back towards the Florida when you leave Numero Uno. At the junction after the Florida turn left into Calle Diego Ponce. Go all the way down. When you get to the Square (Plaza San Francisco) turn right into Calle Zapateros (the municipal market is across the Square on you left). Fifty meters along, on your right, you will come to the Madrona (a hotel, fairly basic, and bar).

The Madrona has a wide range of tapas. My favourite is the chopo plancha (a very small grilled squid). The fried and grilled fish (rosada or mero) is also excellent. For a meat tapas try the pinchito (moorish kebab) or ternera en salsa (beef in sauce).

If you are too tired to make your way to the bar, grab a seat on the terrace or the inner patio. Although you can't get single tapas here, the Madrona is moving with demand and serves tapas variadas on the terrace or in the patio. You get a mixture of the cold and hot tapas of the day for 4.80 Euros. It's worth every penny.

After the Madrona, there is an excellent bar called the Bar Carrera, in Calle Carrera. It is a little bit of a walk (head to the market, turn right before you get there, go down to the T junction and turn left. You will find it a little way down on your right. Another favourite with many in Antequera.

Otherwise, jump in a Taxi (rank just outside the Madrona) and head back to where we started, the El Parque. From there walk to the far side of the Square (away from the bull ring) and turn right. Go down until you find a little bar called the Bocao. It is renowned for having the best gambas cocido (cooked prawns, cold) and jamon in Antequera. From the kitchen (tapas menu on the tables) do order a nido de cordoniz (the nearest you will get to an English breakfast in Antequera). It is a little piece of mollete (Antequera type roll) toasted and topped with panceta (a type of bacon) and a fried quail's egg. All the tapas here is excellent. It is a 'Mama and Papa' bar.

After leaving the Bocao, turn left towards the Sports Centre. At the T junction, left again. Opposite the Sports Centre is the Parque Sol. This is a great place to take tapas while other members of your party do some shopping at the nearby Mercadona supermarket.

Go left as you leave the Parque Sol. At the first junction turn left again and head up the hill until you get to the second set of traffic lights. On your left on the corner is bar Ladron. Do make the effort, it is worth it. In my opinion some of the best tapas in Antequera. The tapas at Ladron is more like a mini meal. The mero plancha is topped with a delicious olive oil, garlic and mixed pepper marinade. The meat simply disintegrates off the costillas (stewed ribs). Other usuals, like paella and fried fish, are just that little bit bigger, and seemingly fresher than elsewhere. Always ask what fresh fish or seafood is available. You will strike a chord with Paco, the owner. This is the traditional Andalucian family run tapas bar: Papa, Mama and hijos (sons). They do enjoy a good argument, even in front of their patrons. And they do not fuss over you, until they believe that you appreciate the distinction between good fresh food and the rest. If you do decide to try a meal of the fresh fish or seafood, do get the price before you tuck in: the fresh fish and seafood is not cheap, but it is excellent.

On leaving the Ladron turn left and walk up past the impressive Convento de PP Capuchinos on your left. After a quick look round the church, to digest the Ladron tapa, keep going until you come to Avenida de Picadero. Turn left into the avenue and walk down the hill until you get to Bar Capuchinos on your right. Ten meters down from the Capuchinos turn right into a little street called Pizarro. Immediately on your left is the immensely popular Bar Pizarro. On a tapas tour of Antequera, neither should be left off your itinerary.

There are many other good tapas bars in Antequera, but a little off the route I've laid out. Wondering around the maze of streets, almost every block will have a little door into another bar; and as I have said, it is often the most nondescript that have the best tapas.

Here are a few important points to note when you are planning your tapas trip. Almost all tapas bars close one day a week for descanso (rest). The most popular days for closing are Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. So if you want to be sure of sampling all the bars mentioned, take tapas between Friday and Sunday (bearing in mind that the Bar Castilla closes for holidays in the first few weeks of July and most other bars close for 1 to 3 weeks a year as well, usually between September and October). But even if you take tapas at this time of the year there will be more than ample bars open to satisfy your quest for the perfect tapas.

So what does all this cost? Well, actually, that's the best part. Surprisingly little! If you took a cana and tapas, by which I mean one cana and tapas, in each of the 19 bars I've mentioned, you should have change out of 25 Euros (excluding taxis of course).

This is how it works. A cana (small beer) and tapa cost between 1 and 1.30 Euros. A cana on its own costs 90 centimos to 1 Euro. If you have an additional tapas with your cana, it will cost you between 30 and 70 centimos more. But note that a tubo (larger beer) cost a little more (1.20 to 1.30 Euros) as do bottled beers. Foreign bottled beers are quite expensive, although oddly, cheaper than in their countries of origin.

One final word of caution: please remember that the Andalucians normally only take one or two tapas before lunch and dinner. So I would advise that you do not try to do the whole tour in one afternoon or evening. Take a few days, interrupting your tapas with a bit of sightseeing. I have noted a few of the historical attractions readily accessible on your tapas route. You will not regret taking a bit of time to visit some of these magnificent Andalucian treasures.

But if you do decide to go the whole hog, make sure you have the telephone number of a taxi in your pocket before you set off; and do stick to canas!

That said, go get stuck in!

Copyright © John Campbell 2003 All rights reserved.