Castles in Spain

It's a well known fact that Spain ranks amongst the most popular holiday destinations in Europe, but it's also a fact that the great majority of visitors head straight for the sunny southern (or eastern) coast and many never stray any further than the resort of their choice (sometimes not even from the poolside). That's a great pity for there's vastly more to Spain than sun, sangria, paella and popular beaches; even just a little way inland from many coastal resorts, there's a great deal to see and admire.

Even more a pity that the interior of Spain is still less visited for there it's possible to see much more of Spain's great historical past, much of which has remained largely unchanged over centuries. Recently I was able to pay such a visit to several older cities centrally situated in the historic heart of Spain: Avila, Caceres, Merida, Toledo amongst them. Needless to say my trusty Minox EC went with me and here are some of the results I brought back.   I did take my Fuji S602 digital camera too, but that's another story...

On a technical note, I used Ilford Delta Pro 100 which I've found to be a very satisfactory film for the Minox range. It has excellent tonal gradation, plenty of latitude; grain which whilst not invisible, is unobtrusive and certainly not a problem. The gallery is best viewed at 1024 x 768 but should be reasonably satisfactory at 800 x 600.   I wouldn't recommend viewing at anything lower than that or you'll have a lot of scrolling to do !    It's been tested with Netscape, Firefox, Opera and even Explorer so you shouldn't have a problem viewing it.

For visitors who aren't all that familiar with the geography of central Spain, I put together a little map to help you get your bearings.

Some of the places visited are indicated by the red dots.

Lets begin at Avila...

The city is medieval, walled and situated at around 1100m altitude so has a rather harsh climate. The walls themselves originally date from around 1100 AD and were modified and added to in the 14th. C. but remain complete. They now have a good part open to visitors with fine views of the town and surrounding countryside.

The walls The externally austere cathedral is unusual with its apse incorporated into a part of the city walls. Cathedral

San Vicente Avila contains several churches within its walls and outside as well as many fine buildings. Left is the Basilica San Vicente dating from the 12th. C. in fine Romanesque style with a columned gallery. The Palacio Núñez Vela was once the residence of the Viceroy of Peru; it's now the Law Court. Palacio Núñez Vela

The cross Strolling around the quiet, narrow streets where its easy enough to get a little disorientated, one comes across unusual and unexpected little touches... Hand knocker

Other unexpected architectural details crop up, such as this corner balcony.


Moreover, from the walls one can get a closer view of some of the campaniles which are popular roosting places for storks. This one had at least five separate nests.

Before leaving Avila, one more view. It's quite hard to get an overall impression of the walled town. The best view is said to be from a spot called Los Cuatro Postes (The Four Posts) somewhat outside the town. Here I've endeavoured to create a small panorama by 'stitching together' two adjacent pictures from that place. I hope it'll give you some idea of the town as a whole.

Not so far from Avila are two very famous cities - Segovia and Salamanca. Both are well worth a visit.

The Cathedral
Perhaps the most striking building in Segovia is its Cathedral. Black & white here really doesn't do justice to its honey coloured stone, particularly when seen with a low angled sun. The interior feels vast, a little too dark for a successful picture unfortunately.

The Cloisters
The fine cloisters have a very spacious feel and were rebuilt with stone from the original cathedral which was destroyed in 1511 during the revolt of the 'Communeros'.

The Roman Aqueduct

Amongst the most impressive constructions in Segovia is the Roman aqueduct and it's possibly one of the best examples of Roman architecture still standing. It was built from individual granite blocks, uncemented - held together by sheer mass, in the 1st century AD and brought water to the town from the R. Acebada. It's state of preservation is quite remarkable considering its age, having withstood weather and the occasional earthquake (e.g. Lisbon 1755), and latterly disturbance from nearby traffic.

The AlcazarThe Alcazar is Segovia's other particularly evocative edifice. It stands on the end of a rocky promontory at the western end of the city and has had a colourful history. The original building was begun around the 13th. C. with further additions over the next 200 years. It became the 'Real Colegio de Artillera' (Royal Artillery School) in the 1760s but was almost completely destroyed by fire about 100 years later. It was rebuilt toward the end of the 19th. C. and refurbished with artefacts from throughout Spain (apart from the Library which survived the fire). The somewhat unexpected 'French Chateau' appearance reflects the Bourbon influence of the time - Spain was then ruled by Alfonso III, a descendant of Louis XIV and scion of the Bourbon dynasty. The Alcazar contains many fine furnishings and decorations as well as affording expansive views of the surrounding countryside.

Salamanca is another city with a turbulent and interesting past, having been occupied by the Romans, Hannibal, the Moors, the Franks, and latterly the French, the British (under Wellington) before ultimately coming under Spanish dominion. Unsurprising then that it has long been a focus of interest in itself, not to mention its art, learning and scholarship. Its University is only a little younger than Oxford (founded around 1160 AD or so.) Regrettably at the time of my visit, the weather was particularly inclement with torrential downpours, so there wasn't a lot of scope for picture taking. However, I have a few that I managed to capture during the brief sunny intervals.

Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor (The Big Square) is the social and physical centre of Salamanca, from which most major streets lead away. Built in the 18th. century by Felipe V by way of reward for the city's support during a rebellion, it's on a grand scale, dominated on one face by the 'Ayuntiamento' (Town Hall), and surrounded by cafes and bars on all sides.

One of the city's most notable features is its twin cathedrals, often described as 'back to back' or 'semi-detached' ! The older cathedral, a little way up the hill from the R. Tormes, dates back to the 12th. C. and contains many fine treasures, too numerous to list here. Not content with one Cathedral, the citizens of Salamanca, in the 16th. C. (a period of the greatest academic and artistic expression in the city) decided that a second was called for. It was built adjacent to the older Cathedral with which it is interconnected. Although it rather overshadows the older building, the two co-exist very satisfactorily.

La Catedral Vieja The approach to the south door of the Catedral Vieja (Old Cathedral) is particularly impressive with its ornate carved stonework and 'cimborrio' (lantern tower).

Puente Romano
Not far away is the ancient Roman bridge across the R. Tormes; its narrow way no longer carries vehicular traffic, but provides a good perspective of the townscape and is in surprisingly sound condition.

The Old City of Cáceres whilst relatively compact, nevertheless contains within it many fine buildings, often very well restored, and a lot of history associated with them. The walls date back to Moorish times, but the real flowering of architectural development was in the 15th and 16th. centuries when several fine mansions were built by the nobility. Many included fortified towers, for security was then a significant concern. During the late 15th. C. Isabella I encountered significant opposition to her reign in the region and ordered that the fortifications be removed. It is recorded however that she did grace the city at least once with a visit.

Adarve la Estrella The old town is a criss-cross of steep, cobbled streets, many of which nevertheless are still used by vehicular traffic (much to the hazard of pedestrians) Cuesta del la Campaña

San Francisco Javier Casa de la Cigüeñas

The plain, whitewashed twin towers of San Francisco Javier can be seen from most of the town. Its plain frontage stands in contrast in style to much of the remainder of the buildings, having been built in the relatively recent 18th. C. Of all the fortified mansions in Cáceres, only the Casa de las Cigüeñas (House of the Storks) was spared the removal of its castellations, most probably because its owners had supported Isabella (most of the other influential families had supported the insurrection).

Cáceres has proved fortunate, possibly because it has long been a World Heritage Site, in that it has received a lot of funding from major institutions toward its care and restoration.

Palacio Mayoralgo Street vendor

The austerely fronted Palacio Mayoralgo is a good example (it is now owned and occupied by a bank.) In the modern town, 'street art' in the shape of a bronze cast of a newspaper vendor of old.

Further south of Cáceres on the banks of the broad R. Guadiano lies the ancient town of Mérida, possibly the most interesting place of all that I visited. In Roman times, as well as being the regional capital of Lusitania, it was regarded as the place in which retired military professionals should settle, and it seems that little effort was spared to keep them entertained and amused. The town contains an extraordinary amount of well preserved Roman remains, perhaps the best of their kind in the whole of Spain. This undoubtedly causes extreme problems for builders and developers - excavation almost anywhere can reveal important archeological remains, and ingenious solutions have been devised in various places to allow both ancient and modern to co-exist, even to the extent to building the latter on stilts to preserve the former !

There is for instance a circus over 1 km in circumference (for chariot races), an ampitheatre seating up to 15,000 patrons which could be flooded to stage mock sea battles; nearby is a beautiful theater, with seating for about 6000 and an elegantly colonnaded stage decorated with statues. Needless to say, great quantities of Roman artefacts have been found during excavations, and many examples of statuary, medallions, coins, jewellery and pottery are on display in the nearby Museo National de Arte Romano. Most impressive are the magnificent mosaics which can be admired from the galleries on upper floors. The museum, constructed entirely in brick, is a fine and elegant building in itself; all in all, not to be missed...


Some of these columns do look a little precarious but I was assured they are perfectly safe. Imagine this as a backdrop to an open-air performance...


The auditorium is estimated to hold an audience of up to 6000 (for comparison, London's Royal Albert Hall holds around 8000). A good part of the lower tiers have been restored (the front rows were reserved for dignitaries) and a modern performance would still be perfectly possible.

Columns This gives a closer look at the decorative columns and a typical statue interspersed amongst them. Statue


This imposing display of medallions (Medusa and Jupiter) greets the visitor at the end of the great hall in the Museo National de Arte Romano, around which are many more displays.


This example of a mosaic is typical of many others on display. Nobody was able to tell me just how they were removed from the excavations and successfully reassembled; maybe they don't want to give away their 'trade secrets'.

This picture also shows one of the hazards to which subminiature photography is liable - a sliver of film (from the slitting process) was trapped in front of the film leaving the dark shadow. Whilst this sort of problem can sometimes be repaired after digitisation, it requires a lot of care and patience, and in this case, I decided, regretfully, it was better left alone.

Templo de Diana

Within the modern town are the remains of a Roman temple, in this case dedicated to Diana (Goddess of Hunting). Unfortunately, before conservation became fashionable, quite a lot of the stonework was removed for building works nearby.

Puente Romano

By the time it reaches Mérida, the Guadiano has become wide and slow moving. A lengthy Roman bridge spans the river (and an island in the middle). Once again, a case of serious over-engineering has ensured that it remains sound right up to the present day.

Toledo, situated high on a granite escarpment above the R. Tajo occupies a spectacular and highly strategic location. Until 1561, it was the capital city of Spain until Philip II relocated it to Madrid. It nevertheless remained an important site in many ways ~ a centre of commerce and learning as well as being the seat of the Archbishophric. Like Salamanca, since Roman times it has passed through many hands and shows varied signs of its mixed Moorish, Jewish and Christian past. The location, being partly encircled by the Tajo is slightly reminiscent of Durham which similarly occupies a secure location protected by the R. Wear. Toledo's history is much more varied and exotic as is very evident during walkabout through its confusingly twisted, narrow and irregular streets. Indeed, so narrow and congested are the byways through the city that meaningful picture taking of many buildings is really quite difficult. So here, I will only show some overall views which may give an impression of what this complex city is really like.

The city as a whole is in fact best seen from the opposite bank of the Tajo gorge. The most prominent feature is the Alcazar, the original building of which dates from the 13th. C. under its Governor, El Cid. Later converted to a palace by Charles V, it has been attacked and damaged many times, the most recent instance being during 1936 in the Civil War when it was left in ruins. It has since been rebuilt very much to its original appearance, but such was the scale of damage that restoration continues to the present day.

The other prominent feature of the skyline is the Cathedral tower. Originally it was intended that there should be a second tower, but in the 17th. C. instead was constructed a dome, designed by the son of El Greco, the famous Greek painter who spent the greater part of his working life in Toledo. There are several fine examples of his work to be seen in city museums and churches.

The much visited Cathedral itself though essentially Gothic, is a mixture of styles reflecting the long period of its construction; an idea can be gained from this aspect of the west door (Puerta del Perdón).

The location of the city can best be appreciated by a walk around it from the river bank. At close quarters, the Tajo is wide, fast flowing and vigorous as it passes over various weirs on its passage around the city.

Toledo is worth an extended visit all to itself, so much history does it contain, that this will have to suffice as a mere brief snapshot.

And finally, by way of farewell, recall Cervantes who portrayed 'The Knight of Rueful Countenance". A little north of Ciudad Real on the Plain of La Mancha is the small town of Consuegra, standing high above which on the hillside is a range of windmills and a ruined castle. No longer in use, they fell into decay but are slowly being restored to working order. Not those certainly that Cervantes (who was writing nearly 400 years ago) would have had in mind, but it was difficult not to recall the Knight Errant who in his blindness tilted at windmills for which he has long stood as a metaphor for frustrated chivalry. Their stark outlines on the skyline will long remain as a rather poignant image.


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Last updated August, 2004