Spanish castles are incredibly special when compared to the rest of Europe. Dusty, hidden and often under-visited, they’ve a romance unmatched anywhere else in Europe.
Interestingly, too, castles are at the heart of Spanish identity.
As you may know if you’ve ever or visited Spain, Castile y Leon is the central province of the country.
Hence Spanish speakers in Spain and Latin America often refer to Spanish language not as ‘Español’, but as ‘Castellano’ (Castilian).
Where does the word ‘Castile’ come from? It means ‘castle’ (castilla) – so called because of the number of Spanish castles in the early days of the country.
Everything About ‘Alcazars’: Muslim Fortresses Adapted By Spanish Invaders
In the years between 711 and 1492, the southern parts of Spain were occupied by the Moors – Muslims from North Africa.
These territories, named Al-Andalus (today, the Spanish region of Andalucia), became peppered with Muslim forts and strongholds, inspired by building styles in Morocco and Northern Africa.
Many of these fortresses became to be called Alcazars, which was Arabic for fortress (al-qasar).
However, these Muslim fortresses were eventually overtaken by the Spanish. Between 711 and 1492, Spanish Catholics engaged in a piecemeal ‘reconquista’, attempting to expel the Moors to Africa.
Progress was unsteady but, in 1492, the last stronghold – the city of Granada – fell. With that, Catholic belief had reconquered Spain.
The Moorish Alcazars are, resultantly, an amazing glimpse into Muslim Spain. I’ve visited the greatest of these Spanish castles, including the Alcazars of Cordoba and Seville. . .
The Alcazar de Segovia: the most famous of all Spanish castles
On first impressions, the Alcazar de Segovia is reminiscent of something from a story-book.
This castle was once a Muslim fortress, which became extended and strengthened over time into one of the most important castles in the whole of Spain.
Today, the perfectly pointed turrets draw visitors from all around the world, who marvel at its Disney-esque good looks (it’s said that the castle was inspiration for Walt Disney World).
It’s certainly one of the most beautiful and interesting of all Spanish castles. Read more about the Alcazar de Segovia. . .
The Alhambra, in Granada, Spain: my favourite historical site in the world (no, really!)
In my opinion, the most magnificent of the Spanish fortresses is the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain.
The Alhambra is a stunning ‘Red Fort’ surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada – and was the ‘last outpost’ of the Moors, before the fortress fell to the Spanish in 1492.
The Alhambra has an irresistible air of magic. That’s because everything is enchanting – from the spray of water in the cool, tiled courtyards, to the elaborate Arabic stucco-work that covers the walls of the Muslim palaces within the fortress.
Nowadays, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is one of the foremost tourist attractions in Spain. It’s definitely a must-see on any European itinerary.
A History of Spanish Castles: Exactly Why They’re So Special
The amazing history of Spanish castles is what makes them so unique. In 711, the Spanish peninsula was invaded by Muslims (‘Moors’) from North Africa.
With them, the Moors brought artistic, architectural and religious influences that were unknown in early Medieval Europe.
They also bought with them the knowledge and skills to build supremely defensive forts and palaces. The Moors set up an advanced modern society in the south of the Spanish peninsula and called it ‘Al-Andalus’ – which is now the Spanish province of Andalucia.
Of course, Medieval times were marked by two things: ongoing squabbles over land, as well the flight for religious supremacy. The Christian Catholics of Spain saw the presence of Muslims in their peninsula as being grounds for holy war.
They therefore embarked on a 800 year reconquista – a piecemeal struggle to expel the Moors back to Africa and the East, reclaiming lands for the Spanish Christians.
In 1492, the last Moorish stronghold, the city of Granada, fell to the Christian invaders. Expelled from Granada and the spectacular palace of the Alhambra, legend has it that Muhammad XII rode his horse from the town and looked back one last time at the paradise, with tears in his eyes.
As he looked back wistfully, so the legend goes, his mother rode up to him and chastised, “Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man.”
With the fall of Granada, the reconquista was over. However, the period had marked Spanish architecture forever. Castles and forts dotted the lands, built for use in the struggle. Moorish palaces and mosques – such as the Alhambra in Granada – were adapted by the victorious Spanish, building a curious mix of Islamic-European architecture.
And more modern castles again were built taking the most beautiful parts of both cultures and fusing them together in some amazing architectural styles.
And that is why Spanish castles are so special.
My Favourite ‘Hidden’ Castle in Spain: the Hexagonal Turrets of ‘Castillo de Coca’ (Coca Castle)
In my opinion, Coca is definitely the most exciting of all the hidden Spanish castles – I remember opening up a ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook some years ago and being bowled over by the fantastic, hexagonal design of the turrets and towers.
Coca Castle is quite special in that it’s three sided – it’s seated with its backside on a sturdy, impenetrable rock base. This rock base defends the posterior approach to the castle, and the three-sided curtain wall protects the castle’s front. Inside the curtain walls, you’ll find the castle’s keep and living areas.
Coca Castle was built in 1453, just as the Spanish reconquista was ending, and is often described as being in the ‘gothic-mudéjar’ style. What this means is that, although the castle would have been built by Spanish Christians, it took inspiration from the Moorish designs that would have been common in South Spain at that time.
The Moorish style of ornate, geometrical design – perfectly demonstrated in the many turrets and crenellations on each castle tower. However, if you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see that the arrow holes in the turrets are in the shape of a Christian cross – a lovely example of the fusion of the two styles.
Inside this Spanish castle, you’ll be able to walk through a chapel, an armoury and the beautifully named ‘hall of secrets’, decorated with Muslim-inspired jars, purported to hold secret treasures.
Although much of the furnishing was been gutted from the castle during the mid 20th century, you’ll be amazed by the beautiful, Moorish detail of the tiling on the walls and ceilings within all the rooms you’ll encounter.
Coca Castle can be found in the tiny Spanish village of Coca, which is around 50km north-west from Segovia in the province of Castile y Leon.
If you’re travelling by public transport, there’re a few buses every day from Segovia to Coca. Unfortunately, you can’t just wander around the castle – due to the condition of some of the areas, access is strictly by guided tour.
There are two windows for touring per day, broken by a long siesta from lunch into 4pm. Don’t turn up when the siesta is on – there’s not much to do in Coca apart from the castle!