Castle founded by the Knights Templar. Ponferrada, León © Turespaña
Loarre Castle © Turespaña
Arévalo Castle © Turespaña
Visiting the castles of Spain is to travel back in the history and culture of Europe: Greeks, Romans, Celts, French, English, Turks... Far from roads with their keep on the highest point of the hill watching over the land below, they seem to continue defending themselves against the passing of time which has left its mark on them. Mediaeval castles built as the Reconquest moved on and designed to house inhabitants inside their thick walls; Renaissance and Baroque buildings; fortified towers built facing out over the sea to avoid Berber attacks, or the most dangerous pirates wreaking havoc on the coasts in the 16th and 17th centuries.
As in a fairytale, what better way to start than at the Alhambra in Granada, a truly fortified city, surrounded by palaces, fountains and gardens true to A Thousand and One Nights, the Alhambra whose loss was lamented by King Boabdil when handing the city of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs and heading to Mondújar Castle (today in ruins) where his dead wife was buried.
The following castles are also of Moorish origin: Calatayud (Saragossa), conquered by Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, after his exile from the court of Castile and the battle for which is described in The Song of the Cid; Mérida alcazaba citadel with its impressive walls and where a beautiful cistern is preserved in the centre of the construction, built by Abdurrahman II, or the Aljafería Palace in Saragossa, transformed into a fortified palace by Abu Jafar.
The Iberian Peninsula was filled with knights and knightly orders in the Middle Ages such as the Knights Templar, highly feared due to their strength and fearlessness in battle. It is said that Ponferrada Castle, their best known fortress in Spain, was connected through tunnels to Cornatel Castle, Carracedo Monastery and Monforte de Lemos Castle (in Galicia), where the Knights Templar fled when under siege. The Calatrava Order had its headquarters in the Calatrava la Nueva Castle-Fort (Ciudad Real), which was one of the best buildings of this type in Spain.
But perhaps the most important fortress in this era was Loarre Castle (Huesca). Built over the remains of an earlier Roman building by order of Sancho Ramírez I of Aragon, the castle was a royal palace at the time and became, from the 12th century on, an Augustine convent.
In turn, the history of Arévalo Castle (Avila), surrounded by the typical Castilian landscape of ochre tones, is linked to that of the unhappy daughter of the Duke of Borbón and Isabel de Valois, Blanca de Borbón, who was abandoned by her husband Peter I the Cruel three days after their marriage, preferring to be in the arms of María de Padilla.
During the Renaissance, the castles underwent major modifications to their structure due to the need to resist the generalised use of firearms. They were made smaller with circular towers and holes were made in the walls to allow canons to fire. Examples include: Berlanga de Duero Castle (Soria), an example of a fortified city which, although initially used to protect the Christian advance to the south, was, from the 15th century, transformed into a mere noble home; the castle of the Counts of Cabrera in Chinchón (Madrid), or Grajal de Campos Castle (Leon), dating to the 16th century which, par excellence, is an artillery fortress with a large square protected by corner turrets and several loopholes opened in the walls crowned with parapets and battlements.
In turn, Rodrigo de Mendoza, Marquis of Cenete and son of the great Cardinal Mendoza, had La Calahorra built (Granada) – a fortress that seems to be taken from an hallucination, isolated on a plateau and overlooking the landscape of Las Alpujarras. The rather inhospitable exterior, however, hides a Renaissance palace with all the comforts of the era.
Spanish coasts are strewn with castles and watchtowers, always ready for possible sea attacks from pirates and naval enemies. Corunna is home to San Antón Castle, which became known for the bloody defence of the city against the ferocious attacks of the English corsair Drake, whose fleeing was, in large part, due to María Pita, a heroine of the city. Santa Bárbara Castle in Alicante expelled French, English, Moors and even Cantonalism rebels from Cartagena (Murcia) from its waters.