Romantic Spain is a land of castles and fortresses, relics of the Arabs and Romans. Andalucia has its image of flamenco and bull fighting. West of Malaga the old Spain has been erased and replaced by the glitzy coastal resorts of Fuengirola and Marbella, better known for their sun drenched beaches and package tours than for their castles. To the east lie the towns of Nerja, Torrox Cost, Almunecar and Salobrena steeped in history. In Nerja the caves have drawn visitors since the 1950s; But what of the castles of area, and Roman ruins.
Volumes have been written about the palaces of Granada, the last stand of the Moors against the mighty armies of Castille and Aragon led by Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Kings. Little has been chronicled of the castles of the eastern Costa del Sol, the gateway to North Africa, ripe with piracy in the Middle Ages and attacked by generations of would-be Arab rulers. The gloss of the travel brochures show scantily clad bodies and relentless sun but nothing of the magnificent peaceful gardens of the castles of Almunecar, Salobrena and Almeria.
Almunecar is situated 15kms west of Salobrena, 56 kms south of Granada and 18kms east of Nerja. En route from Nerja you witness such beauty spots at La Herradura, “the horseshoe”, an apt name for the shape of the bay. The salubrious development of Marina del Este snuggles amongst the trees on the hillside. The road winds down to the coast when you leave the main road, and runs beside a shingle beach lined with cafes where you can sip your beer and watch the waves roll on to the shoe.
Follow the road towards town and take the turning for Castillo San Miguel. The road twists and turns and suddenly you arrive at the ruined Moorish castle. It was a stronghold of the Kings of Granada and where they kept their treasure before being ousted by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, the same year as Columbus discovered America. The narrow cobbled streets between cube-shaped houses are negotiable by car, and, if you have a good sense of direction, you can drive through to the centre of town.
The coastal town of Salobrena is 10km east of Almunecar. The coastline to Salobrena along the tropical coast is wild and rugged. To the left the awesome peaks of the Sierra Nevada and to the right the glistening blue of the Mediterranean. Salobrena stands unmolested by mass tourism, although now boasts an eighteen hole golf course. In the winter, the snow capped Sierra Nevada provides a magnificent backdrop to the green of the third hole.
The narrow winding streets of the town remain as a tribute to the Moorish era, the cube shaped buildings nestle together beneath the looming fortification of the Arab castle. The maze of streets defy the sense of direction and one encounters colourful plazas and little cafes tucked away in the back streets. Calle Anton Segovia leads directly to the gates of the castle, a pretty paved avenue with plants and flowers. The castle has served as a retreat for the Muslim Kings, a defender of the port and beach, and also as a prison. It was one of the most important strongholds on the coast of Granada both from civil and military point of view. Most of the restoration work was done during the Muslim period, but there is evidence that other work was carried out during the reign of the Catholic King and Queen after the earthquake of 1494. The work continued in the 16th and 17th Centuries. During the late 17th Century and 18th Century the importance of Salobrena deteriorated despite being kept as a defense against pirates.
In the 19th Century its prestige was restored when the castle was used as a fortification against the invasion of the French troops. No further news can be found until 1956 when restoration began again and the Granada newspaper “La Patria” uncovered some earlier articles about the castle as well as some hand dawn plans. The castle is now fully restored and summer festivals are held in every year in its grounds.
Further down the coast Almeria is home to yet another imposing castle. The drive from Salobrena takes about an hour and the terrain changes dramatically. Gone are the orange groves and fertile valleys to be replaced by a sea of plastic posing as green-houses – a scar on the landscape. From these eyesores the mountains become rocky, yielding neither crop nor greenery.
The road snakes along the coast and eventually straightens into long avenues. Almeria looms, its Alcazaba is the focal point of the town. The Arab fortress was built by the Caliph of Cordoba Abder-Rahman III, enlarged by Almanzor and completed by Hairan, and covers an area of 35,325 sqm. with a perimeter of 430 metres and an average width of 83 metres.
The castle is situated on a small hill, 95m high, close to the sea and lying east-west, which provides a natural defensive wall and shelters the ravine of La Hoya, site of the original city on the side of the hill. The hill also overlooks the small cove formed between the foothills at the edge of the Sierra de Gador and the mount of the Rambla de la Chanca river – a fishing district whose name still recalls tuna fishing store.
Some kind of fortress must have always existed on the castle hill for defence and look-out purposes to guard the natural harbour of La Chanca, which was used firstly by the inhabitants of Iberian Urci, then came under Roman occupation, and although its population disappeared or was dispersed during Byzantine and Visigoth eras, the settlement reappeared during Arab domination under the name of Bayyana (Pechina) using La Chanca as its port and the castle for the defence. The castle was enlarged and modified in the time of Abdurahman III ad the Almedina was built in front of it, by the sea, surrounded by walls. This led to the founding of the city of Almeria in 955, the Arab town of Bayyana gradually ceding to Almeria as the capital of the region, due to the importance and security afforded by the castle to the Moors of the Almedina.
The castle underwent changes under different Moslem governors, such as Almanazor and Havran the Slave, the fist independent ruler-lord of Almeria, who extended the walled area of the city towards the plain by three times the size of the original city of Almedina. The time of Banu Somahdis brought an era of splendour and was the setting for a cultured and literary court in the 11th Century. Later, in the 14th and 15th Centuries, under the Kings of Granada, it retained only its role as a coastal defence. It underwent two sieges, which demonstrated its effectiveness as a fortress; one in 1147, when it fell for the first time to the Christians of Alfonso VII, who was helped by the Genoese, the Catalans and the people of Pisa; and the other in 1309, which lasted a year, when James II of Aragon failed to take the castle.
On 26th December 1489, it was surrendered to the Catholic Kings and subsequently, in 1522 and 1560 – was partially destroyed by earthquakes. Having been abandoned since 1800, its reconstruction was begun in 1950 to restore it to its former glory and today it stands as a reminder of the fierce and warlike past of the area, representing to the Almerians the history of the founding and origins of their city. Much of the grounds have cultivated and developed into beautiful gardens, a tranquil place to visit on a sunny afternoon. It seems impossible that the rigours of war and earthquakes once threatened to destroy the castle.
Southern Spain is littered with such remnants of the past, pieces of history fitting into a jigsaw and enriching our knowledge of another way of life.
If You Go:
The south of Spain is well known as a destination for beach holidays. The focus is on sun, sea and sand. However, there is a lot of history in the region and many hidden corners which are still relatively undiscovered. Almeria, Almuñecar and Salobreña are just three of those destinations. July and August can get very crowded as not only do the north Europeans have their holidays then, but the Spanish from other parts of Spain travel to the south coast for rest and relaxation.
Be prepared for a more relaxed, laid back way of life. Even though Almeria is a town, it has the feel of a "rural" town without the hustle and bustle of a town. Salobreña is even more laid back and has beautiful beaches to relax on after your history tour.
All photos from Wikipedia commons.
Tina Irving is an established travel writer, having had articles accepted by The Lady magazine, New Panorama and Market Place as well as writing for the local press in Scotland and Spain. She also writes articles about economics and tourism. Tina is a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the UK, although she is based in the Malaga region of Spain. Web: www.tinasfreelance.com