The greatest concentration of Spain’s 2,000 castles is in the region of Castilla y Leon (nowadays part of Castile) which itself is named for castillo, or castle.
In the middle ages this area was a battleground between Moors and Christians, and villages and towns were fortified in protection against one side or the other.
Along with the building of fortresses, watch towers, bastions and encircling town walls, communities built religious places of worship ranging from simple Romanesque churches to Moorish temples and later, grand Gothic cathedrals.
We began our exploration at what is thought to be Spain’s oldest surviving church, the Basilica de San Juan Bautista at Banos de Cerrato. Founded in 661 by the Visigothic King Recceswinth of Hispania in gratitude for his healing in nearby holy waters, the standing church today is thought to be a later 10th century construction.
It retains Visigothic inscriptions, Roman columns and horseshoe-shaped arches that predate Islamic Spain. It is very beguiling. A copy of the King’s heavily-jewelled Visigothic crown hangs where it originally hovered above a simple stone alter, and a unique tile bearing a man’s handprint offers good fortune to all whose right hand matches exactly the print of Recceswinth. Simon’s did!
In medieval times, Palencia was a royal residence and the site of Spain’s first university, founded in 1208. We wandered around its smart streets in late afternoon warmth, to admire the beautiful stone cathedral ‘La Bella Desconocida’ (the Unknown Beauty).
It remained unknown to us, as it was under full scaffold and clouds of masonry dust blew out of its massive wooden doors.
Instead we enjoyed the surprisingly ‘art deco’ feel to the smart shopping streets which featured window fronts heavily decorated in shining silver chrome, muscular stone figures holding up casement balconies and brass lamps, and a winding arcade carved heavily in wood and bevelled glass. It was quiet in the town on a chilly but sunny afternoon.
We crossed on foot an ancient stone bridge to stay at what is possibly Spain’s best free aire, a fully serviced area for motorhomes with electricity, showers, café and shop, under floodlights and monitored by CCTV.
The only requirement was that we fuel up at the neighbouring garage, which we were pleased to do, as did many other ‘autocaravanes’ that arrived that night.
Towering above the small village of Simancas, a moated and towered grey stone castle combines original Moorish walls with 15th century fortifications and a Christian chapel.
Utterly impenetrable it was used for some time as a prison, but from 1540 it securely housed the first official archive of Castile and is now home to Spain’s National Archive. Serious-looking and armed guards were unimpressed with our unannounced arrival and we were quickly shown the portcullis door as our exit.
The medieval history of Castilla y Leon is wrapped up in the fortunes of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon. As heir to the throne of Castile by her birth, Isabel was side lined throughout her childhood and early adulthood by her half-brother, King Enrique IV. His death caused a civil war between his alleged daughter, Juana La Beltraneja, and Isobel for the crown.
Having married Fernando at Valladolid in 1469 and uniting the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, Isobel became Queen of Castile in 1474, and Fernando King of Aragon in 1479. Together they set about reconquering the lands taken from the Christians by the Moors and beginning what would become a programme of mass expulsion of Moorish and Jewish communities. Around the same time the Castilian Inquisition was authorised and so-called ‘heretics’ and Protestants were hunted out, exiled or killed.
As land was reconquered and reclaimed by the Monarchs, they banned the building of further castles where there was no longer a military purpose. Instead the surviving ones became homes for the nobility, who also built grand palatial residences.
We strolled around the impressive red brick La Mota Castle, set on the hilltop above the town of Medina del Campo (where Isabel I died in 1504). Originally a Moorish fortress, Isabel and Fernando had a new curtain wall and battlements constructed for its defence.
The looming square tower is more than 40 meters high with twin bartizan turrets at its corners. It served as a prison for the infamous Cesare Borgia in 1506, who escaped from the tower (although legend has it that he broke his legs by having to jump a great distance down from a rope that was too short to reach the ground).
Spain’s expansion to the New World came about as Isobel and Fernando financed the first two exploratory expeditions by Christopher Columbus.
At the hilltop town of Tordesillas we visited the Treaty Houses which witnessed the signatures of both Catholic Monarchs and King Juan II of Portugal to an agreement mediated by the Pope to divide up the territories of the New World.
The Treaty intended to keep peace between neighbouring Portugal and Spain and allow each country unhindered access to the wealth and goods of their newly acquired territories.
An oversight on an official’s part meant that the land of Brazil was left out of the document and quickly claimed by the Portuguese. It is the reason why Brazil is the only non-Spanish speaking of the Latin-American countries. Apparently, the hapless fellow paid for his mistake with his head.
Tordesillas is also the place where Isabel and Fernando’s daughter, Queen Juana I lived for 46 years after the death of her husband, King Philip. A sad figure, she was used as a political pawn and declared unfit to govern. Wandering the uplands of Castile with her husband’s corpse she and her young daughter were offered a home in the town’s castle. Her presence brought a steady stream of royal visitors to the town which grew, building a wonderful central square in which to hold markets, medieval games and bull fights.
Isabel would not have ascended to the throne had her cousin, Juana la Beltraneja been successful in her own claim. We visited Alajeos, where Juana’s mother Queen Juana of Portugal was detained for some time in the castle, now in ruins.
In the 16th century the village had more than 4,500 inhabitants and was sited at an important crossroads on the route to Portugal. Its wines achieved legendary status in contemporary writings (including by Cervantes) and the two enormous brick churches of St Mary and St Peter were built. It has some lovely corners.
Searching for a local shop we discovered an old butchery, fishmongers and bakers, all now closed. The houses were an interesting mix of renovated and dilapidated and we weren’t surprised to hear from the young tourist guide that it is a ‘poorly village’, busy only at weekends and during holidays by second home owners or visitors. Young people could not afford to live there anymore and those who did, commuted long distances to jobs at Valladolid or Salamanca.
The village is rightly delighted with its new brand new aire for motorhomes and we were pleased to be able to visit Alaejos because of it.