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Mediaeval towns in Spain's coastal provinces
Mediaeval towns in Spain's coastal provinces
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Sep 20, 2020
LIFE in the Middle Ages has become quite fashionable lately, centuries after it all happened or – as some would say – didn't happen.
You probably think of jousting, jugglers, giant feasts in torchlit courts with massive cake-and-ale bowls being passed around the communal table (not recommended with the Covid pandemic), or maybe plagues, poor sanitation, witches being drowned and blood tests using leeches. Fairytale-like castles may pop into your head and, fairly uniquely in western Europe, a Spain where the majority of the population was of Arab origin and the predominant religion was Islam.
“I loved studying the Mediaeval era at school,” one Spanish lady told us.
“It was basically 1,000 years when nothing happened.”
But everything that makes 'Mediaeval' trendy in the 21st century begs to differ: From the spectacular glittering Moors and Christians festivals, to the Middle Ages-themed craft markets in the early months of the year, to novelists such as Ildefonso Falcones, Spain's answer to Ken Follett of Pillars of the Earth fame (and he's always on the bestseller shelves, too – his latest tome and prequel to the former, Las Tinieblas del Alba in Spanish (The Evening and the Morning) has a whole display unit dedicated to it at the moment in hypermarkets and bookshops in Spain).
Then there's the architecture, of course. Moorish castles abound in the country; in fact, there are so many of them that a huge number only have about a paragraph of historical detail about them published anywhere – nobody's bothered to research every single one, or they'd be spending another 1,000 years on them. And even many small villages retain what was left of their 'city' walls, with their arched entrances; lots of these started out life as humble, Arab-owned farmsteads in the Middle Ages.
If you're hoping to live or spend your holidays somewhere within striking distance of a beach – even if it's not exactly on your doorstep – but find yourself seduced by the magic of all the good bits about the Mediaeval era (the parts that don't include plagues and leeches), you'll find plenty of towns and villages on Spain's coasts that feel as though you've stepped off a plane into the early years of the last Millennium.
Here are some of the most stunning Mediaeval towns in coastal provinces (of course, there are plenty others a long way inland, too, with their own unique charms – but we'll come back to you later on those).
Close to the wonderful modern madness of the Costa Brava are towns that will take you back hundreds of years – some of them right on the beach, and some a short-ish drive away, but close enough for a day trip.
Tossa de Mar, hugely popular with sunseekers, guards a not-so-hidden gem that rarely gets a mention in the travel brochure: It's the only fortified Mediaeval town in Catalunya, and its ancient 'city' wall is so beautifully preserved that you kind of expect to pop round the corner and see a bell-hatted court jester accompanying the leader of a powerful Moorish dynasty to the court banquet. Hardly surprising it holds National Heritage status, as you can see from picture two, by Instagram user paulatossa.
Despite being considered a highly-touristy location, the attractive peachy-coloured town of Begur maintains its Mediaeval essence and Begur Castle – which the municipality sits at the foot of – is thought to be one of the most iconic along Catalunya's coast.
Lloret de Mar, a bustling holiday town very geared up to foreign visitors and residents, is home to a fortress that would not look out of place in a Disney film – or, perhaps, at night, if it had a few bats circulating around its turrets, in a screen adaptation of a gothic novel. The Sant Joan castle sits on a rocky ledge over the sea and is the jewel in Lloret de Mar's cultural crown – but not the only one. Meandering streets oozing with character, ornate churches, botanical gardens, and a sea view from almost everywhere keep sightseers occupied for days, even when the weather isn't ideal for topping up your tan.
Cobbled streets, sandstone arches, wrought-iron balconies – and a beach – Pals has one of the most breathtaking 'original' hubs, or ancient quarters, you'll find within walking distance of Costa Brava sands – especially its Torre de las Horas, a Romanesque-style tower built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Thanks to Instagram user xavigatnegre for this beautiful picture of Pals (number three).
Besalú is a good half-hour's drive from the beach, but it's worth having to invest a few euros in petrol and an hour a day to swap the seafront for the historical delights of this perfectly-preserved walled town. Its enclosed centre is reached via a Roman bridge and, once there, visitor hotspots roll out before you: The San Julián and San Pedro de Besalú monastery and church, the Royal Curia Palace (curia being a Latin word for a different community or subdivision of a population – curiae were split into separate neighbourhoods in Roman times, and were still referred to as such in Mediaeval Spain) and especially its Gothic Hall, plus the Cornellá house and the Jewish Baths. Centuries on, its cobbled, pedestrianised plaza set between solid, four-square, arched stone buildings is a perfect setting for pavement cafés, as shown in the fourth picture (just below, right) by Instagram user tatyanabolotova.
Home to the Costa Daurada, served by Reus airport and with a well-established, but spread-out expat community, this southern-Catalunya province – bordering the northern Comunidad Valenciana province of Castellón – is ideal if you want a choice between 'touristy' and 'authentic', and between making friends with people of your own nationality and mother tongue or carefully avoiding them, but can't make up your mind which of each camp you're in from one day to the next. In Tarragona, you can indeed have your proverbial cake.
And the entire old town in Montblanch is an officially-protected heritage complex, held together by a matted web of narrow streets dotted with hermitage chapels, churches, quaint little museums, convents, stately homes and palaces, nestling within the incredibly well-preserved San Jorge 'city' wall – just over a mile in length, with a square, turreted tower complete with arrow slits every few paces.
Naturally, the perfectly-intact Mediaeval character comes right to the forefront during local fiestas, as you can see from picture one above by Instagram user _flavio_bruno_.
Close to the majestic Picos de Europa mountains – 2,000-plus metres up, with superb hiking routes, awe-inspiring views and occasionally even the odd bit of snow in summer – and the wild, natural, rugged and picturesque Cantabrian Sea coast, looking out over idyllic golden beaches and with balmy summer weather that falls just short of the sweltering humidity further south, Llanes seems to boast the best of every world. This charming little town is much-loved for its highly-preserved Mediaeval heritage, including the Torre de la Muralla – the tower in the 'city' wall – the Santa María del Concejo basilica, and the palace of the Count of la Vega de Sella.
There's something very northern European and quaint about Asturias' coast – although the weather is not very much like northern Europe at all. Winters can be chilly, but homes in the top 'strip' of Spain are built with that in mind, and usually come with central heating as standard; more rainfall, but less torrential, gives these regions their bright emerald-green landscape, and summers are plenty warm enough to get a tan and enjoy the beach, but without the sweaty, tropical nights.
At the opposite end of the country, bathed by the Costa de la Luz – which translates as 'coast of light', and for good reason – the province of Cádiz is a joy both inland and on the beach side. A short distance from the Doñana National Park and from Gibraltar, a wilderness of pine-covered mountains, lemon groves and whitewashed villages, and with a ferry port from which you can take a day trip to Morocco or Spain's north African outposts of Ceuta and Melilla, or even drive to Portugal, catch the train to Sevilla, or go on a day's sightseeing expedition to Ronda (Málaga), Córdoba or Jaén – don't miss the splendid dressage displays at the famous Spanish Riding School – Cádiz is ideally-placed for living or exploring, and comfortably served by various airports.
And guess what? Yes, it's home to several Mediaeval towns within easy distance of the sea.
Castellar de la Frontera, home to just over 3,000 people, is a quick-and-simple 15 kilometres from Los Roncalillo beach in San Roque along the A-405 motorway. Split into three urban hubs, the famous Castellar Castle – with its huge, solid towers, tunnels, raised walkways and fortified walls – is in the old town, Castellar Viejo, and was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. The huge structure, on a low hill just above the village, is probably one of its key attractions, but not its only one – the Counts of Castellar Palace, the 17th-century Divino Salvador church and the Baroque-style San Miguel de la Almoraima Convent, and the Count's Mill ('Molino del Conde') as well as the Cueva de las Estrellas ('Cave of Stars') tourist centre mean this diminutive municipality has plenty to keep day-trippers occupied for several repeat visits.
Olvera, truly spectacular by day and simply divine by night, forms part of southern Spain's acclaimed and famous White Villages Route, which is exactly as you'd expect it to be and more.
Olvera's Mediaeval wall and the Arab Castle are official heritage sites and in immaculate condition, despite having been built in the 12th century. They formed part of the defensive system of the Kingdom of Granada, with the castle sitting atop a rocky hill of 623 metres high, and the wall retaining its majestic tower, known as the 'Duke's Viewpoint' (Mirador del Duque), which now houses a permanent exhibition of archaeological treasures found in the area.
Deep in the heart of the Sierra de Cádiz, one of Spain's southernmost mountain ranges, it's quite a hike to the nearest beach. But with a night view like the one in picture five, by Instagram user pasqualesena and reposted by Cádiz tourism board, is there a coastal panorama on earth that could match up to it?
Probably, although it'd be a close call – and almost certainly, that coastal panorama would be somewhere in Spain.
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