With a long and colourful history of invasions, conquests and Reconquista, it is not surprising that Spain is a country of castles, 2,500 of them in fact. As the battle lines raged across the Iberian Peninsula, castles were constructed to protect or dominate a territory.
Giles Brown dons his finest chainmail and sallies forth!
As well as being strategically important, castles were natural objects of prestige, since the noble who controlled a castle could dominate the surrounding countryside. The stories and characters that built battled and besieged the castles are an eclectic mix of Moorish invaders, Caliphs, Christian Kings and warrior knights whose influences can still be found in Spain today.
Alcázar de Segovia, Castile and León
“Alcázar” is Arabic for a castle or palace, but the Segovia structure owes its shape to the Christian rulers of Castile. Alfonso VIII of Castile began converting the former Almoravid fort in the 12th century, while John II added its most distinctive feature the “new tower” in the 15th century and Philip II decorated the castle with tall spires in the 16th century. It is those spires that are said to have inspired (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) Walt Disney when he was constructing Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland.
Alcázar of Seville
The Alcázar is the oldest royal residence still in use in Europe, with the Spanish royal family reserving the upper floors of the palace when they are in Seville. Game of Thrones fans will also recognise the Alcázar as the Palace of Dorne, while the Baths was also the setting for a bloody rebellion.
Constructed as a fortified residence for King Pedro the Cruel of Castile in the 14th century, the Alcázar of Seville is an outstanding example of Mudéjar architecture, a Christian style that adopted, adapted and generally ripped off elements of Arabic art. Many of the Alcázar’s inscriptions are in Arabic, with the castle being built on the site of an earlier Muslim fortress. Beautiful it may be, but the Alcázar was also more than capable of withstanding a siege. The most critical need for a castle under attack is a secure water supply but with the Alcázar lacking a river or other water source, the designers built a huge rainwater cistern. They named it the “Baths of Lady Maria di Padilla” after Pedro The Cruel’s mistress.
La Alhambra, Granada
Built on the order of the Emir of Granada in the mid 13th century, the Alhambra is widely regarded as the 8th Wonder of the World and is perhaps the best-known landmark of Al–Andalus, the 700-year period when much of Spain was under Moorish control. The roots of the castle go back even further, with the magnificent structure constructed on top of a 9th century fort, which was, in turn, built on a Roman castellum. The Alhambra takes its name from the red clay of its construction, although the walls were originally whitewashed, which lead to Arabic poets referring to it as “the Pearl”. The Alhambra was the official residence of the emirs of Granada for the century and a half before the Christian conquest of Granada in 1492 of Isabella and Ferdinand. Banished to the Alpujarras, the last emir of Granada, Bobadilla, turned to look back at the Alhambra from a pass now called the “Moor’s Sigh” and began to weep. His formidable mother-in-law began to scold him “Do not cry like a child for what you could not defend like a man”.
Castillo de Tarifa
Originally built 960 by the Caliph of Cordoba, Add-ar-Rahman III, the strategically important castle of Tarifa was handed over to Alonso Pérez de Guzmán when the King of Castile conquered the town in 1292. Although you might associate Tarifa with windsurfers and general laid back beach lifestyle, back in the 11th century things were a little more intense than wondering where to source the perfect mojito. A rebellion by Moorish forces loyal to the King’s brother Don John besieged the castle in 1296. The rebels also held Guzmán’s son hostage and threatened to kill him unless Guzmán surrendered the town. Unfazed by the threats, the commander threw down his own dagger to do the deed, with the words “Should Don Juan put him to death, he will but confer honour on me, true life on my son, an on himself eternal shame in this world and everlasting wrath after death”.
What the son’s words were upon hearing this have, alas, been lost in the mists of time…
Castillo de la Estrella
Head up the fertile Guadalhorce valley and just past the lakes of El Choro you’ll see the tower of the Castillo de la Estrella from the road. Situated on a hill above the village of Teba and with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, the Castillo del la Estrella is the backdrop to one of the most brilliantly bonkers stories of the Reconquista. In 1331 the Christians under Alfonso XI fought a battle against the Moors on the plain below the castle. Fighting for the Christians was Sir James Douglas, who had been tasked by the dying Scottish King, Robert Bruce, to have his heart taken to the Holy Land. Taking a rather roundabout route, Douglas found himself involved in a spot of Moor bashing, with the King’s heart in a silver case around his neck. At a particularly frantic stage of the battle, Douglas took off the silver case and threw it into the midst of the seething Moorish horde, shouting out to his knights to follow the heart of The Bruce to victory.
They charged after the case and were promptly cut to pieces.
The battle, however, was won and the case recovered (it was taken back to Scotland) but the people of Teba never forgot the Scottish knights. In the Plaza de España rests a block of Spanish granite to remember the exploits of Douglas, and once a year the bagpipes play and the Scottish flag flies proudly over the pueblo blanco!