Aug 14, 2012 4:51:00 PM
Historic Spain: walled cities of the Iberian peninsula
Throughout the centuries, Spain has been the stage of many clashes between civilisations. Constant battling between Iberians, Celts, Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Jews and Muslims, particularly during medieval times, explains why many Spanish cities were born as fortified strongholds.
In most cases, these fortifications were first built by the Romans and later expanded on by the Visigoths, in an attempt to fend off the Arab invasion of the 8th century, resulting in some truly spectacular stone works, plenty of which can still be admired today. Here are just a few of Spain’s most memorable walled cities.
Just over 100km from Madrid in the arid Spanish plain, Ávila is generally shunned in favour of nearby Segovia for day-trip visits from the Spanish capital. But its 2500m city walls are well worth the detour, particularly since they are one of the best preserved examples of medieval architecture in Europe. Although some historians suggest the birth of the walls goes back to the original Roman settlements, the first recorded mention dates from the late 11th century, when King Alfonso VI of Castilla ordered the fortification of the city, a task completed in an astonishing nine years. Due to this rushed construction, the walls of Ávila also double as house walls for many of the buildings inside the city, including Avila’s Cathedral, whose apse is one of the 88 wall turrets. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and these days can be visited as part of a guided tour (muralladeavila.com).
This often-forgotten Galician city boasts one of the oldest walls in Spain. Originally founded in 13 BC in honour of the emperor Augustus, the walls of Lugo demonstrated the power of an empire that had managed to reach the northeasternmost point of the Iberian peninsula. Along their 2266m of granite, 85 defence turrets were built to oppose barbarian attacks. The walls managed to stay virtually unharmed through the centuries, even outlasting the Arab invasion, although several new gates were built from 1853 onwards to expand on the original five. Nowadays, the walls are Lugo’s biggest tourist attraction and any visitor to the city should experience a stroll along its parapet – there is an easy-access ramp so people with reduced mobility also get a chance to enjoy the views.
The walls of Trujillo have not endured the passage of time as well as in some other cities (only part of its 900m perimeter is currently preserved). Nonetheless, they number among the most impressive walled developments in the whole of Spain, thanks to their dramatic location atop a hill overlooking the Vegas Altas of nearby province Badajoz. Trujillo, birthplace of famous explorer Francisco Pizarro, is not short on other heritage sites, too – such as the Plaza Mayor and the castle, historic remnants of a city torn apart by the 7th-century battle between Christians and Muslims in Spain. The wall, made of stone, sand and lime, is flanked by 17 turrets and although access to the city in the Middle Ages was granted via seven different gates, only four remain in place today.
Regal Toledo, a mere 70km away from Madrid, stands the test of time as one of the most historically interesting cities of the Iberian peninsula. Founded by the Romans, the city was named the capital of Visigothic Spain in the 5th century and soon became the economic and social epicentre of the kingdom, as well as a place of cultural coexistence of Christians and Muslims once the peninsula was invaded in 711.
As befits a city of this prominence, its walls, originally Roman and limited to the small settlement area, trebled in size under the reign of Visigoth King Wamba, were later expanded by the Arabs who captured the city and finalised by King Alfonso VI, who reconquered the city in 1085 and whose name presides over one of the most famous gates into the city (the Puerta Vieja de Bisagra). Even though in-walled Toledo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 thanks to highlights such as its imposing Gothic cathedral and Alcázar fortress, visitors should also venture outside the old citadel and walk over the bridges and by the river Tajo to unearth some of Toledo’s prettiest sights along its city walls.
While the absolute gem in the crown of the most Moorish of Spanish cities is the famous Alhambra, a towering stronghold located on top of the Assabica hill, the city walls are equally interesting as an example of a great Muslim fortification against the Christian assault of the city. The original walled perimeter of the city dates back to the 11th century and ranged from the banks of the river Darro to the edges of the original Arab settlement of the Albaicín neighbourhood, but was subsequently expanded in the 7th and 8th centuries. Although much of the construction is lost nowadays, historians estimate it spanned over 8000m. The remains of several of its gates can still be admired in a walk around the old part of Granada, particularly along the emblematic Carrera del Darro river walk.
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