Kings and queens, princesses, knights, vassals and pages, what today are storybook figures were once part our world. Spain might be compared to a great chessboard, with more than 6000 castles, towers, palaces, fortresses and watchtowers set upon it; defensive pieces of the Peninsula’s towns and beaches that entertain children and adults while recreating history.

To visit Spain’s castles is to step back into the history and culture of the peoples of Europe: Greeks, Romans, Celts, French, English and Turkish. Standing far from the main roads with their Keeps ever watchful on the hilltop, they seem still to defend themselves from the passage of time, which has left its mark on many of them. There are medieval castles, many of which were built as the Christian Reconquest gained strength and designed as a place of refuge for the townspeople; there are Renaissance and Baroque constructions as well, and fortified towers built opposite the sea to prevent attacks by the Berbers or, in the 16th and 17th centuries, from the fearsome pirates who assaulted the coasts.

If this were a legend, what better way to begin it than with the Alhambra of Granada? A true fortified city surrounded by palaces, fountains and gardens right out of A Thousand and One Nights. The Alhambra--for which King Boabdil wept after turning over the city of Granada to the Catholic Kings. Then you might turn your steps towards the Castle of Mondújar, now in ruins, where his wife was buried.

Also of Arabic origin are the Castle of Calatayud (Zaragoza), conquered by Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, el Cid Campeador, after his exile from the Castilian court. The battle is described in the Cantar de Mío Cid; the fortress of Mérida, built on the order of Abderramán II, with its imposing walls and lovely cistern conserved in the center of the building; or the Palace of the Aljafería in Zaragoza, converted into a fortified palace by Abu Jafar.

The Middle Ages saw the rise of knights and knightly orders throughout the Peninsula such as the Knights Templar, much feared for their strength and daring in battle. It is said that the Castle of Ponferrada, the most widely known medieval fortress in Spain, is linked to the castles of Cornatel, the Castle of Monforte de Lemos (Galicia), and the Monastery of Carracedo by tunnels, by which the Templars fled when they were under siege. The Order of Calatrava had its headquarters in the Castle-Fortress of Calatrava la Nueva (Ciudad Real), which was one of the largest buildings of its type in Spain.

Perhaps the most important of the medieval castles, however, is the Castle of Loarre (Huesca). Built on the order of Sancho Ramírez I of Aragon upon the remains of a Roman building, this castle served as a royal palace until the 12th century, when it was converted into a convent of the Order of St. Augustine.

The history of the Castle of Arévalo (Ávila), which is surrounded by the signature ochre-toned landscape of Castile, is linked to the history of poor Blanca of Bourbon, daughter of the Duke of Bourbon and Isabel of Valois. Three days after marrying Pedro I “the Cruel”, he abandoned her for another: María de Padilla.

During the Renaissance, Spain’s castles underwent important modifications to their structures as it was necessary to resist the widespread use of firearms. They were made smaller with rounded towers, and spaces were made in the walls for canons. Examples of these modified castles include those of Berlanga de Duero (Soria), a fortified city that, if at one time served to protect the Christian advance to the south, was transformed in the 16th century to a lordly residence; the Castle of the Counts of Cabrera in Chinchón (Madrid), and the 16th-century Castle of Grajal de Campos (León), an artillery fortress par excellence. It has a large quadrangle protected by towers at each angle, as well as many circular lookout points opened in the walls that are crowned with parapets and battlements.

It was Rodrigo de Mendoza, Marquis of Cenete and son of the great Cardinal Mendoza, who had La Calahorra (Granada) built, This is a fantastic construction in the purest sense of the word, isolated in the middle of a bleak plateau with Las Alpujarras Mountains as its backdrop. This fortress’s rather inhospitable exterior hides a Renaissance palace containing all of the amenities of that era.

The coasts of Spain are scattered with castles and watchtowers, always on the alert for attacks by sea from pirates and enemy ships. In A Coruña, the Castle of San Antón is famous for fiercely defending the city from the bloody attacks of English pirate and privateer Sir Francis Drake, who was eventually forced to flee by María Pita, the city’s heroine. The Castle of Santa Bárbara in Alicante has repelled French, English, Arabs and even the Cantonalist or decentralist rebels of Cartagena (Murcia) from its coasts.

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