Over the course of the past three years we have made several forays into the interior and have had plenty of opportunity to visit some of the castles with which Spain is littered. In this article, Xoë describes a few of these fascinating monuments and reaches back in time to trace their origin and purpose.
The smell of heat and dust, and the tired blue of the sky. The juicy green plates of cacti were heaped and jumbled around a paved path patched with concrete. Whitewashed houses piled up to the knob where we stood, and below us the reservoir was a stain of bright, artificial blue in the dry thirsty brown of rocks and prickles and earth. Above us the castle squatted. We were in Záhara, in the region of Andalucía, southern Spain. The sturdy little fort which sits above the red tiles and white walls of the village dates from the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Muslims.
In 711 AD, the Arabs invaded Spain, which was then inhabited by the Christian Visigoths. The Muslims attacked from the south, and drove the Visigoths right back to the Pyrenees, the north border of the country. The Muslims could not subdue the Christians in the north of Spain. In 718 AD the Christians won a decisive battle against the Moors, and were able to found their own state, Asturias, on Spain’s north coast.
There was internal struggle in Al-Andalus, the Muslim part of Spain, and there was fighting between the Arabs and another Islamic tribe, the Almoravids or Berbers. Thus the Muslims were somewhat preoccupied, and launched no serious campaign against the new Christian kingdom, limiting their resistance to a few random raids. Asturias was able to expand, and other Christian states were formed in the Pyrenees. In 801 AD the French conquered a large area in the north of Spain, and this region gradually separated from France. In 987 AD it was formally made independent.
In 1009, the death of the Arab chief minister led to a power struggle in Al-Andalus, and Muslim Spain collapsed, disintegrating into around three dozen small states. These states were reduced to paying tribute to the Christian kingdoms, in return for which they received protection. The Christians grew rich on the payments which the Arabs delivered to them. They began to expand, but in a haphazard fashion; far from joining against the Muslims, they frequently fought with one another in defence of the Arabs who paid them.
In around 1100, the Almoravids conquered the Muslim states, uniting them. This was a setback for the Christians, who were driven back by the Almoravids.
In 1142, a struggle began between the Almoravids and another group of Muslims, the Almohads. The Christians took advantage of the situation and expanded. The Almohads succeeded in expelling the Almoravids, and the Muslims joined together again. This delayed the Christian advance for some time. However, in 1224 the Almohad kingdom fell apart due to internal troubles, and separated into small states once more.
Muslim Spain did not reunite. From 1224 onwards, the Muslims were pushed south by the Christians. By 1350, the Islamic area was limited to what is now the region of Andalucia, in the south of Spain. The Christians continued their campaign. In 1492, Granada, which was the main remaining Muslim city, was conquered by the Christians. This was seen as the end of the Reconquista. In the years that followed, the last few patches of Islamic resistance were destroyed.
However, although the Muslims were pushed out of Spain centuries ago, their influence on the country can still be felt. Traces of their culture still remain, and so do traces of their language. Even the famous “Olé! Olé!” has Islamic roots, deriving from “Allah! Allah!”
The Reconquista is the theme of many of the noisy and colourful fiestas which dot the calendar of every Spanish town. The battle between the “Moros y Cristianos” is re-enacted, with mock fights and processions in the streets.
But perhaps the greatest reminder of the Moors and their conflict with the Christians is in the castles and buildings which date from the Reconquista. Among these is the Castle at Záhara.
This fortress was built by the Moors. It was captured by the Christians, who held it for some time. Then the Muslims launched an attack on the fort and succeeded in regaining it. This prompted the Christians to begin their final campaign against the Muslims, in the course of which they recaptured Záhara and went on to besiege Granada.
During the siege of Granada the Muslims took refuge in the Alhambra. This sprawling stone complex of city and palace can be visited today. It began as a castle, and was enlarged by Islamic rulers into a walled citadel. It incorporated the luxurious Palacio Nazaríes, where the Muslim caliph lived. After the Moors lost Granada, Christian kings took over the palace, replacing the mosque with a church.
Today, the citadel of the Alhambra is largely ruined. All that remains are the ramparts, and some of the towers. However, the Palacio Nazaríes has been restored to its original state, and is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is hugely popular, attracting around 6,000 visitors per day.
The Alhambra was not as crowded as usual when we visited it. We went on a wet, sulky day, with the sky soggy and grey. It rained in a stroppy way, scattering showers. The gardens were wet and drooping, and groups of glum tourists gathered together on the paths, the girls with fur-edged hoods fluffed around their faces, suede coats smeared with damp, dark-stained denim.
Even on that sullen day, with the light in the palace dull and dreary, we enjoyed the Alhambra. Slender pillars, walls woven with a moulded pattern of stucco symbols, arched windows, tiled blue roofs. Sculpted fountains splashed up a spray in square courtyards. A long sheet of leaden water lay before one line of curves and columns; in another place a ring of stone lions supported a broad basin.
We visited the Alhambra during the winter. In contrast, we went to Andalucía’s other famous monument, the mosque at Córdoba, while the temperatures were over 40ºC.
Córdoba’s mosque, the Mezquita, stands on the site of a Visigoth church. When the Muslims conquered Córdoba, they were tolerant towards the Christian population, allowing them to continue worshipping in the building. After a while the Moors decided to buy half of the church from the Christians, so that it could be partitioned between the two religions. For some time the church was shared; then, in 785, the Muslim ruler bought the half which still belonged to the Christians, and turned the whole building into an elaborate mosque, the Mezquita.
The Mezquita was improved and expanded by subsequent caliphs, eventually covering 23,000 square metres. It has been reduced in size since this time, and today there is a small cathedral, dating from the 16th century, inside the mosque.
Our leaflet on the Mezquita, which was presumably translated from the Spanish, tells us that, “The visit to the Cathedral of Córdoba may awaken the demand for a greater Beauty that will not wither with time. Because beauty, as truth and righteousness, are an antidote for pessimism, and an invitation to take pleasure in life, an impact that stirs the nostalgia of God.”
I wouldn’t describe the mosque in quite those terms, but it’s an impressive piece of architecture. We struggled through the streets, in a throb of heat and white light, to find it. The sun spilled a liquid hole in the parched sky, and bleached buildings cut hard shadows against the pavements.
The mosque was long and faded, and gold doors were shut into it at intervals, framed by interlocking of coloured brickwork. We found the main door and bought some tickets. Soft shade settled on us as we went in.
Rows and rows of candy-striped arches, red and white, curved between tall slim posts. Here and there an electric light spurted yellow into the gloom. Groups of tourists, Japanese mostly, muttered among the lines of pillars, unfolding brochures.
We wandered amid long files of columns, and we came upon the cathedral, a block in the middle of the mosque. I went through the little door, and found a high, hushed ceiling, all carves and curls of pale stone. Stained glass windows jewelled the light which welled in. dyeing it in bright reds and blues. Pews of dark shiny wood tiered up against the walls, and the altar was draped in velvet.
Andalucía certainly has some of the most memorable monuments of the Reconquista and of the Muslim period. This is because, being on the southernmost coast of Spain, it was the first region to fall to the Moors and the last to be taken from them. It was the last remnant of Al-Andalus, the Muslim part of Spain, and its name derives from this word.
The next region along from Andalucía, that of Murcia, is where we live. It is much smaller than its neighbour, and it is not so far south, being set back a little. Murcia lacks the impressive examples of Moorish architecture which Andalucia possesses. As it was the front line of the fighting between Moors and Christians, its reminders of the Reconquista are castles rather than temples and palaces.
One of Murcia’s better-known Reconquista sites is that of Caravaca de la Cruz. The main point of this town is that it possesses what is reputed to be a piece of the True Cross. Apparently this splinter of wood was brought down from the sky by a brace of angels. The Vera Cruz is now kept in a golden casket in the church.
Crosses and cherubs are painted, in a bulging, amateur style, on the front of every shop in Caravaca, and they fill the tourist office with leaflets and the market stalls with tacky rosaries. But, leaving aside La Vera Cruz and all its paraphernalia, we find that the fort on the hill dates from the Reconquista. This castle was built by the Christians, and was a key point in the fighting against the Muslims.
There is a legend that the Christians were besieged in the fortress at one point, and they had run out of water. They were on the point of yielding to the Moors; then, someone managed to smuggle some horses carrying wine into the castle, saving the defenders. The truth of the story is doubtful, but the tale forms the basis for Caravaca de la Cruz’s biggest fiesta, that of Los Caballos del Vino, the wine horses.
The fiesta takes place at the beginning of May. We arrived, on a clean, scrubbed morning, and found the town’s main square a chaos of costumes. Gaudy, jingling Moors in silk and turbans and sashes, armoured Christians strapping on swords. Wine was passed raucously about, and a large Muslim halted us, squirting at our mouths from his leather bottle.
We came upon a group of horses, clad in heavy coats of embroidered cloth, all gold and coloured thread. They stamped and jerked, tossing away from us, plumes and pom-poms and flowers.
By midday the town was worn and patched with heat and shade. We trudged up to the castle, and got onto the big stone wall, above the white dusty road. We were waiting for the competition. The horses are run, one by one, up the lane to the fort. Four men grab and whack at them, trying to get their horse to the top in the shortest time.
The contest began at 2 pm. The great beasts, cumbered in thick clumsy cloth, dragged away from their shouting, frantic teams and reared and crushed into the crowds. The Spanish chanted slogans, jeered, bawled. One horse pulled away and pounded back down the slope, and the people scrambled from it.
In the evening, when the sky had sunk and dimmed, and streetlights flickered on in the murk of the town, the Moors and Christians shoved around by the fortress wall, getting into groups. Shouts, commands, a flapping of banners, and the two sides ran together. There was much scraping and clashing of swords, and the Muslims fell back. The castle having been won, the Moors and Christians filed into a long procession, tramping on and on past us, lamps and costumes and the rattle of drums.
There are other Moros y Cristianos festivals in Murcia, but that of Caravaca de la Cruz is considered to be the best in the region. Moving up the coast to Valencia, however, we find some Reconquista festivals to equal that of Caravaca.
Perhaps Valencia’s most famous Moros y Cristianos festival is the one held in Alcoy. Alcoy is a drab, dull town, not worth a visit during most of the year. But for two days in April it becomes a major attraction.
We missed the first day of the festival, turning up in the late, pale evening. Confetti and streamers were trampled in the streets, and we heard that there had been processions and flamenco dancing.
We went to the main square. Crowds had clustered around a painted plywood castle. All around us were strung lines of firecrackers, and as we pushed through the people a man was lifting a smouldering, sputtering stick.
The air splintered into noise as the first crackers went off. For minutes sound smashed around the buildings, and we clutched our fingers to our ears until the echoes ebbed away.
There was a little procession that night, with baggily dressed Moors on hobby horses. Tomorrow, somebody said, there would be a battle over the wooden fort.
We turned up early the next day – it was a damp, clammy morning. The Christian representatives, wearing gold chains and a great deal of solemn velvet, were in the little castle. The Moors grouped in the square before them. Several speeches were made. It was all very serious, boring us. We went off, and walked around the town for a while.
A shot smacked out, and another. Another. Jabs of sound. They were moving up the road towards us. We came upon some Christians pushing coloured plugs into their ears.
A line of men swayed up the street. Together they swung their guns up, and the noise cracked around us. The guns dropped, something was rammed in, and again they were lifted.
We ducked down a dingy little alley. There were more people moving past the end of it. I put my thumbs to my ears as we turned off down another path.
We got back to the car, and, since the shooting went on, we drove away from the fiesta.
I preferred Villajoyosa’s Moros y Cristianos festival to the one at Alcoy. Villajoyosa is a town on the coast of Valencia, industrial in parts, but there are some old streets as well, and a big beach. A cheerful, noisy sort of place.
The Moros y Cristianos fiesta is held in Villajoyosa from the 24th to the 31st of July. Each night there are huge cavalcades in the streets. Ranks of Moors or Christians marched past us for hours, as we stood in the crowd; the banners and standards, the drums, costumes all glitter and colourful cloth, and flowery floats heaped with light, for scantily-clad girls to sprawl on.
The processions were impressive, but the highlight of the festival was yet to come. A wooden castle had been set up by the shore, and the Moors were going to land on the beach in the small hours of the morning, in order to capture it.
The show began at five-o-clock. The sky was velvet dark, and streets and buildings blended solids and shadows. The sand had been fenced off, and there was a huddle of people on the promenade and pavements.
A streak of violet sliced at the sky, and a blue beam curved across us. Big lights were mounted along the beach, flinging arches of colour into the soft smudged night. Pink, red, staining the stars, curls of white, purple, orange.
A line of crimson pinned a mast and a ragged sketch of sail against the sky. There were boats in the bay.
The rich, deep blackness was blurring into a cold, clammy grey. A last arc of light fell, lilac. Men in sashes and loose shirts jumped from their painted craft, struggled and shouted with Christians, stumbled and fell in the sucking sea and splashed up, shaking water away.
Now Muslims ran up to the wooden castle and battered the doors, brandishing swords and scimitars. Christians leant out, jeered. We were yawning in the spreading day, and we walked back to the van.
The fiestas of Alcoy and Villajoyosa are among Spain’s best known Moros y Cristianos festivals. And, besides its fiestas on the Reconquista theme, Valencia has buildings which date from the Moorish period. There is Alicante’s Castillo de Santa Barbara – I have not been inside it, but I have seen it, a tangle of yellow stone on the hill above the city. Modern sculpture is on display within the fort.
I have walked around the castle at Morella, also in Valencia. Our guide book describes it as a “three-tiered tart”, a phrase which has been subject to laughter and misquoting since we first read it. The castle is a stack of cracked, falling ochre, perched atop the village. It is ruinous and twisted with weeds, but we liked it all the more for that. We rambled about in it, and climbed onto the rickety ramparts.
Inland from Valencia, reaching up to the Pyrenees, is the region of Aragon. In the 18th century, Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, and their two kingdoms were temporarily united. Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last of the Moors from Spain. It was they who conquered Granada in 1492.
Ferdinand was born in the little village known as Sos del Rey Católico. We stopped there briefly, as we passed through the region, and wandered through crooked cobbled streets.
There are some castles in Aragon which date from the Reconquista; an example is the tumbledown little fort at Ruesta. It sits in the hot dust and rock, with a few broken houses around it. The place was abandoned after the Spanish Civil War.
The big, sprawling province of Castilla y Leon adjoins Aragon. While we were travelling in Castilla y Leon, we stopped at the castle of Gormaz.
It was a summer’s evening, quite late. A heavy golden light hung over the ruined stones. Red poppies were dabbed around the crumbling ramparts and the rubble, and there were spikes of barley.
I stood in an arch, with the thick, lichen stained walls around me. Below the fort, beneath the weighty air, there lay fields of corrugated crop, warm squares of orange and red. Mountains sifted up against the sky, grey-blue, layered against one another. Strands of gold tangled down through the high, heavenly clouds, soaking the land with lazy light.
I put my hand to the big, rough stones around me, and it was small, pale on the rock. I felt that other hands had touched it, other voices, and people had stood here …
Some things were in my mind; the Alhambra, with its fretwork, Moors wading onto the beach at Villajoyosa, striped arches at Cordoba, a fat man who gave us wine, the flat green discs of cacti around Záhara’s fort.
I took my hand away, and the worn, gritted wall was the same.
I stood in the rich evening. There had been other evenings, deep, mellow evenings piling up for centuries, a soft, thick, slumber of gold.
Somehow, there in the archway, I felt long, long ago.