Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Calatrava La Nueva

This weekend I have been mostly visiting places I’d never been to before. On Friday it was Calatrava la Nueva. The defense of this region against the Arab hordes was entrusted to the Knights of Caltrava (the whole area is known as the Campo de Calatrava and many villages are called X de Calatrava). The original fortress still stands beside the river a few miles north of the town, and we have often walked or ridden out there to see it. It shows the history of the area in the mix of Moorish and Christian elements, where it changed hands several times.

But that fortress was abandoned at the beginning of the 13th C, because of the constant fevers caused by the marshes, and because they found a better position to defend. The new castle was on the top of a hill, rising about 800ft above the surrounding plains. Barely accessible, impossible to take, you would think, and an extraordinary feat of construction.

The keep is built right into the limestone slabs that the hill is made of, and which lie partly exposed at various points. They provide anchorage, and saved some work on building, which would have been very welcome. Every stone, every brick, every tool had to be hauled up the steep slope that is the only access route. Outside the keep there is a surrounding wall, within which are bakeries, mills, ovens and a little street of craftsmen’s workshops. Lower down a second wall skirts the hill protecting what was effectively a village of maybe 200 people, who lived and walked in the safety of the castle, growing crops and tending cattle on the plain, and returning within the walls at night, or in case of danger.

The keep itself is high and thick, the chapel is high, Gothic, simple, elegant and atmospheric. Wind whistles and there is little light. It was probably always like that. The battlements give spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and hills. You can see the castle of Salvatierra across the road, but it is little more than ruins now. And you could have seen the Arabs coming from a long way off. Just like  at Alarcos, it was probably a good job, working for the Order, becoming a Knight, living in a great castle with everything provided, walking the battlements when you were on duty, enjoying the landscape and the sense of power that comes from being high up and near impregnable, chatting and joking with the other Knights, year after year, until the day when you saw, a long way off, the Arab army approaching, and everything went quiet, and you knew that now was when you earned your money.

You tell the kids today and they don't believe life could ever have been anything but safe and comfortable.

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