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A little history about Spanish castles

Spain offers more than 2,000 castillos (or castles) to explore. In the region of Castilla they are so common that the entire region is named for them. Although most of these fortified structures are now little more than roofless skeletons overgrown with weeds, some are perfectly preserved architectural and historical treasures.

For 800 years Spain was ravaged by war—from the Arab invasions of the 8th century through the period known as the Christian reconquest, which wasn’t completed until 1492. This period was the age of castle-building in Spain by both Christians and Muslims.

Alcazabas were a major part of the Moorish defense system. For the time, they were more advanced than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Erected on mounds and incorporated into the town walls, they featured pointed merlons and massive square towers that guarded the gates. The alcázar, developed from the earlier alcazaba, was more of a castle-palace; the Alhambra at Granada is an outstanding example. Usually built around courtyards, alcázars were decorated with fountains and gardens.

The castles of Christian Spain were built in strategic and usually isolated areas. Many are found atop imposing hills surrounded by sheer cliffs and deep ravines, appearing impregnable. Amazing engineering feats, these grandes buques (or “great ships”) look abandoned high and dry on land. Their massive keeps and sentry turrets were built of stone or brick. Like their Moorish counterparts, the first Spanish castles had the purely military function of protecting the lines of the reconquest advance.

Time and the elements alone did not bring on the decline of the great Spanish castles. To consolidate her power after the fall of Moorish Granada, Queen Isabel declared that fortified castles owned by the nobility be destroyed. As it happened, the influences of the Italian Renaissance interested the Spanish nobility more than maintaining such enormous behemoths, and they gladly abandoned the castles and went on to build civilian palaces.

Not until the last century—when increasing numbers of travelers, historians, and writers visited Spain with romantic eyes—did the castles and palaces come to be considered national treasures.