Monthly Archives: May 2009


Códoba is a neat town. The heat is impressive, and the humidity is a bit higher than in Castilla. The town is not unlike Ravenna, in that both reminded me of Florida. Our hotel is fantastically close to the Mezquita.

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Andalucia is a distinctly different region of Spain than Castilla. The z and the c seem to retain their soft pronunciation here: gracias is pronounced “grasias”, not “grathias”. The agriculture has changed a little too. Castilla grows the Roman trifecta: grain, grapes, olives. Andalucia has a lot more olive orchards, as well as citrus. There are still grain and grapes, but in lower quantities. Sugar cane and sunflowers abound as well.

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Las Navas de Tolosa

The Las Navas de Tolosa site was a bit disappointing. Unlike the American obsession with the “hallowed ground” of military conflict, the most significant battle sight of the Spanish Middle Ages is largely unmarked. That is not entirely true; there is a fairly run-down village named Navas de Tolosa at the approximate location of the battlefield. There is also a memorial, from the Franco era, commemorating the victory (though on the modern road, not necessarily on the battlefield).

The actual sight itself has been a matter of some debate. The geography, however, limits the options: the region is just beyond the Despeñaperros Pass through the Sierra Morena, and is in very hilly countryside. The cow pastures surrounding the village are the only real plains (Navas) around. There are also the remains of a Muslim-built watch tower that the Christians renamed the Castillo de Las Navas de Tolosa.

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Shave Machine

I can’t get over the number of really poor translations from Spanish to English which we keep stumbling on. Valdepeñas offered some really nice examples. In the commercial district of this town’s very pleasant downtown, we discovered a clothing store called “New & Clothes”. I assume, given the fact that the Statue of Liberty graced their logo, they meant it to be a pun on NYC, with the Spanish word for ‘and’: New y Clothes.

Even better, our bizarre hotel, La Plaza, offered a couple of nice lost-in-translation moments among the complimentary toiletries. The best was the “Shave Machine”, though “Sponge of Bath” was also pretty entertaining.

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Castle Day, part 4

The last two castles we visited sit across a valley from one another, on the northern edge of the Sierra Morena.
The older, ruined, and inaccessible of the two is the castle of Salvatierra. Salvatierra sits on a rocky hill, built in to the surrounding rock-formations. After the loss of Calatrava la Vieja, the Knights of that Order chose Salvatierra for their new forward position in the Campo de Calatrava. They took advantage of the truce between the Almohads and the King of Castile to fortify the position. When the truce expired after 1208, the Calatravans began raiding from Salvatierra against Muslim defenses. In 1211, the Almohad Caliph attacked the castle. The Knights held out for several weeks during the summer, but in the end were forced to capitulate. The castle was ruined, but retaken by the Christian forces during the following year.
The second castle was the Calatravan’s replacement for their damaged castles. In the years after Las Navas de Tolosa, the Order wanted to establish a new headquarters in a forward position on the frontier. They chose an impressive mountain-top across the valley from their ruined fort for their new Calatrava (la Nueva). The new castle fortified an entire hilltop, in order to build not just a keep, but a large church and chapter house for their Order. The Cistercian-style church and most of the keep remain mostly intact, and make for an impressive visit. Credit to Gretta for the successful panoramic picture.

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Castle Day, part 3

The third castle we visited was the ruins of Alarcos. I am almost 100% certain that part of the movie Gladiator was filmed here.

Alarcos sits on a stout hilltop over the headwaters of the Gudiana River, several miles to the west of Calatrava la Vieja. The sight was originally occupied by Iberians, the pre-Roman, pre-Carthaginian people of Spain, as early as the sixth century BC. It remained occupied for several centuries, with at least two different phases of construction.

In the twelfth century, Alfonso VIII of Castile decided to fortify the site and construct a new city in the region. On the uppermost part of the hill, the foundations of a large castle were laid out, and the lower flanks of the hill were occupied with the structures of the new town. In conjunction with Calatrava la Vieja, the two forts would allow the Castilians to control the entire Campo de Calatrava, which at the time was the central frontier with Almohad-controlled Al-Andalus.

In 1195, the Almohad Caliph decided to challenge the Castilian defensive system, and sent an army against Alarcos. Alfonso VIII rushed his forces south from Toledo to defend the site, without waiting for promised reinforcements from his cousin, Alfonso XI of León. The Castilians were badly beaten on the plains south of the new castle. The King barely escaped, and his alferez (standard-bearer), Diego Lopez de Haro, defended Alarcos against the besieging Almohads for several days, until he negotiated a surrender which allowed him and his forces to retreat.

The defeat at Alarcos badly affected Alfonso VIII, and left Castile open to attacks from the Almohads. Calatrava la Vieja fell shortly thereafter, and soon the Muslim forces were harassing Toledo itself. Alfonso was forced to negotiate a ten year truce, which accepted the Muslim conquest of La Mancha.

In 1212, Alarcos was recaptured by the Castilians, though it was decided soon thereafter that it was not an ideal site for a new city. The colonial experiment was moved a few miles to the east, to the present Ciudad Real. Only a small hermitage remained at Alarcos.

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Castle Day, part 2

This is the doorway of the alcazár of Calatrava La Vieja. The name means “old Calatrava”, and the word itself derives from the Arabic Qalat Ribat. A ribat is a frontier monastery where people devoted to the physical jihad could live and fight.

Calatrava was captured by Alfonso VII in 1147, who gave it to the Templars to occupy. The Templars were reluctant to occupy themselves with the troubles of defending the Castillian frontier, but made an attempt to hold the fortress. They built a tiny round chapel inside the castle, perhaps in imitaion of the Holy Sepulcher. However, after a few brief years, the Templars asked to be excused from duty at Calatrava.

In 1158, the responsibility passed to a monk named Raymond from the Cistercian monastery of Fitero took up the challenge of defending the sight. He organized a garrison, and got permission from the church to organize his men into a monastic order of knights on the model of the Templars. Thus the Order of Calatrava was born.

The Knights held Calatrava and used it as their headquarters for raiding the countryside of La Mancha. They held it until 1195, when it was captured by the Almohads in the aftermath of the defeat at Alarcos. The castle was not recaptured until 1212, during the Las Navas campaign. However, due to the changed strategic situation after that victory, the Knights decided to build a new fortress for themselves several miles to the south, closer to the frontier with Al-Andalus.

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Castle Day

Today we traveled south from Toledo, tracing the path that the combined Christian armies followed on their way to meet the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.
On their way south, the army besieged and captured four castles, all of which we visited today.

Above is the first, the castle of Malagón. It is just a few miles south of Toledo, at the entrance to the Campo de Calatrava, the region of La Mancha controlled by Castile’s native military order (the Knights of Calatrava) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The above castle was unfotunately unapproachable; all we could do was take pictures from a nearby picnic ground. The castle underwent some modifications after it was captured by the Christians, as it is of a somewhat later style than many of the others which we visited.

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Lull in Activity

Gretta and Gail arrived yesterday. I had a rather full day of fetching them from Madrid and returning to Toledo with our rental car. I had a nice time showing them around Toledo, but the whole thing prevented any blog updates yesterday.

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Mozarabic Mass

I attended the Mozarabic Mass this morning in the Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) Chapel of the Cathedral this morning (the shorter tower, on the right). The mass, Western Christendom’s oldest, is celebrated every morning at 9 AM. The entire mass is sung in Latin by eight priest. Only three people were in attendance: myself, a drunk, and a very sad looking local man. It was a terrific experience.

The mass was very different from the Roman Mass which anglophones are familiar with. It is in Latin, of course, and is sung, which really adds to the whole ceremony. There are various other differences, mostly surrounding the presentation of the host. It does have the familiar recitation of the Creed, exchange of tokens of peace (handshakes), and readings from the Bible (Luke and Paul to the Galatians today).

The Mozarabic Rite has a very interesting history. Presumably, this was the last form of the Catholic Mass celebrated in the Visigothic Kingdom prior to the Muslim conquest in 711. It survived among the Mozarabs, the Christians living in Al-Andalus, and among the Asturians of the far north. In 1085, when Alfonso VI captured Toledo. In the wake of the celebration of Christian expansion, the Roman Mass was imported into Spain, and it replaced the Mozarabic Mass in all but the six parish churches of Toledo itself. Over the years, the native practice was neglected, but Cardinal Cisneros, the foremost Spanish political and ecclesiastical figure of the early sixteenth century, restored it to its proper place. In a move very much in line with Reformation-era philosophy, Ximenez de Cisneros dedicated a chapel in the Cathedral to the Mozarabic Mass, and published new missals and breviaries for the ceremony (remember, Jan Hus, one of the foremost proto-Protestans, called for national, rather than universal, churches).

So today we still have this unique Catholic ceremony, which dates to the seventh century. Having never seen the Mass in Latin, I found this to be a fantastic experience. In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti.

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