Madrid day trip: a classic Spanish castle at Manzanares el Real

castle, castles, Spain
If you like a good castle, Spain is one of the best countries in the world to visit. One of Spain’s finest castles is at the town of Manzanares el Real and makes a good day trip from Madrid.

El Castillo de los Mendoza was built in 1475 for Don Pedro González de Mendoza as both a palace and fortress, although he never actually lived here. It shows an Islamic flair, as you can see from the pictures. Many Spanish buildings from this period do. Despite all the bloody battles of the Reconquista, the Christians, Jews, and Arabs spent as much time trading ideas as fighting.

The castle dates from near the end of the great castle-building age. Artillery was already becoming common in most armies and castles like this couldn’t stand a long bombardment. Luckily it never had to and it’s one of the best-preserved castles in Spain. One hint that it was at the cusp of the modern era are the arrow slits in the outer wall. They all have loopholes at the bottom to fire guns or small cannons out of. While the guns of the 15th century were less accurate and much slower than bows, they could punch through armor much more effectively.

You’d certainly want some artillery to blow a hole in one of the walls, because going in through the gate would be a very bad idea. The defenders could shoot at you from three sides and drop things from above through those charming favorites of castle architecture–the murder holes. While it’s commonly believed that boiling oil was poured through these, one medievalist and author I know says the story of using boiling oil in sieges is a myth. Apparently boiling water was just as good and much cheaper.

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Inside is a beautiful courtyard surrounded by a two-story arcade. The rooms inside have been restored with period artifacts to show what the bedrooms, women’s quarters, and dining halls looked like. elegant tapestries adorn the walls, and there are interactive computer displays to tell you more.

Climb the towers for a splendid view of the strangely shaped rocks of La Pedriza looming to the north and the glittering modern reservoir to the south.

Just east of the castle is a 16th century fountain that refreshed hermits in days gone by. They were headed for two Renaissance churches in town, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (The Church of our Lady of the Snows) and La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Peña Sacra (The Hermitage of Our Lady of the Sacred Stone). Both are worth a visit. There are also the remains of the Castillo Viejo (Old Castle) on the other side of town. Built in the mid-14th century, it’s little more than a crumbled ruin these days.

The town of Manzanares el Real is very compact and all sites are within easy walking distance of each other. If walking around the medieval sights puts you in the mood for something more strenuous, the rocky hills of La Pedriza, with their rock formations, is just next to town. If walking makes you hungry, there are several good restaurants and cafes and the butchers sell excellent locally sourced venison.

To get to Manzanares el Real, take bus 724 from Madrid’s Plaza de Castilla bus station. The ride costs €3.50 euros one-way and takes about 45 minutes. Entrance to the castle is €3.

There’s another castle and Spanish Civil War bunker close to the center of Madrid and hundreds more scattered across the country. For more tips on what to see and do in Madrid, check out AOL Travel’s travel guide to Madrid.

Madrid day trip: the Alcázar castle in Segovia

Segovia
As I mentioned yesterday, Segovia makes a great day trip from Madrid. One of the highlights of any visit is the Alcázar, or castle. Rising from the highest point on the promontory on which Segovia is built, it dominates the town and looks impossible to attack. The architects cut away part of the bedrock to make a dry moat cutting off the castle from the rest of the town, so to get in you have to cross a drawbridge over a deep drop. Don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!

There may have been a fort here in Roman times, and there certainly was one when the Moors controlled this part of Spain. The present castle was built in the early 12th century and was added to and remodeled several times. Several Castilian monarchs used the castle as their palace. Isabella was living here when she was crowned in 1474, and she married King Ferdinand II here. In 1492 they reconquered Granada, the last Muslim holdout on the Iberian peninsula. They also sponsored some crazy explorer named Columbus to sail across the Atlantic to find India that year, but the big news was capturing Granada.

Several rooms are decorated with suits of armor, including knights on horseback. Even the horses have armor, which was called barding. The walls are adorned with medieval and Renaissance paintings showing courtly and battle scenes. Check out the ceilings to see some intricate painting and relief work that shows Muslim influence. When the Spanish and Moors weren’t fighting, they were trading ideas and Spain was a melting pot of different cultures. The throne room and the chapel are the most impressive rooms and have been restored to their original splendor.

%Gallery-128521%Starting in 1896 and for much of the twentieth century, the Alcázar housed the Artillery Academy. There’s a large artillery museum here showing the development of artillery and the daily life of the cadets. Unfortunately the signage is all in Spanish, but a lot of the displays are self-explanatory.

Military aficionados will love the Armory, a long vaulted room filled with medieval arms and armor. There are numerous examples of early cannon from the 15th century. The first depiction of a cannon dates to 1326, and by 1375 they were being used in sieges to knock down walls. The days of castles were numbered. These cannons are pretty crude, made of long strips of iron welded together with loops around them like barrels (hence the name) to strengthen them.

If medieval warfare isn’t your thing, you’ll still appreciate the views you can get from the many windows and battlements. If you’re feeling fit, ascend the steep, winding staircase up to the top of the tower for sweeping views of Segovia and the surrounding countryside. This is an excellent spot to take pictures.

Love castles? Check out our posts on the ten toughest castles in the world and the ten best castles in Europe!

Vicksburg 1863: America’s most important July 4th (besides 1776)

VicksburgThe Fourth of July has always been an important day in the U.S. It marks the day in 1776 when the colonies issued the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. A new nation was born, at least for a little while.

In 1861 that nation was torn apart by a bloody Civil War that saw its turning point on another fourth of July, that of 1863. On that day the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Union army had been trying to take it since the beginning of the war. The fortified city was the key to the Mississippi River. If the North could control the river it would cut the Confederacy in half, leaving Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Indian Territory cut off from the rest of the rebellious nation. The Confederate west was a major source of supplies and men, especially Texas, which had overland access to Mexico and the only reliable contact with the outside world thanks to the Union navy’s effective blockade.

It took General Grant many months and thousands of lives to take the city. He managed to capture Jackson, Mississippi, an important railroad connection, and then surround Vicksburg on the landward side. Then he launched two massive assaults on the fortifications, only to lose hundreds of men.

Grant was not one to repeat mistakes, except for the mistake of drinking too much. He decided not to waste any more men and settled in for a siege. He kept up a constant bombardment on the city as the civilians and rebel soldiers dug in. Eventually the defenders were reduced to eating rats and dogs. One local newspaper ran out of paper and issued the news on wallpaper.

%Gallery-127185%On July 4, 1863, the Confederates had had enough. Their commander John C. Pemberton surrendered, figuring the Union troops would be more merciful on that day than any other. The final and much smaller Confederate stronghold on the river, Port Hudson, surrendered on July 9. Robert E. Lee had lost the battle of Gettysburg on July 3. For the North, winning the war was now only a matter of time.

As the telegraph lines sent the news across the North, there were huge Fourth of July celebrations. There weren’t many in the South, though, and in fact July 4th wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg again until World War Two made the locals realize that the USA wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the nation’s most impressive battlefields. Parts of the city’s six-and-a-half miles of defenses can still be seen and reconstructions make you feel like you’re back in the nineteenth century. There are living history demonstrations every day as well as visits to the USS Cairo, an ironclad Union gunboat that’s been raised from the water.

So if you’re not sure where to go this Fourth of July, you might consider taking a road trip to either Philadelphia, where this country was formed, or Vicksburg, where this country was saved.

[Photo of Vicksburg graves courtesy user Matito via Flickr]

Skeletons at royal castle in Scotland killed in battle, experts say

Scotland, castle, castles, Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle in Scotland was the scene of several brutal sieges and battles in its violent history. Now a new exhibition looks at the castle’s past and the grim discovery of several skeletons in the Royal Chapel showing signs of violent death.

One man had 44 skull fractures from repeated blows with a blunt object, and up to 60 more over the rest of his body. The Middle Ages were a pitiless time, and despite what modern romance novels say there wasn’t much chivalry. The skeleton of a woman had 10 fractures to her skull, resulting from two heavy blows. Neat, square holes through the top of her skull suggest she may then have fallen and been killed with a weapon such as a war hammer. At least five skeletons in the chapel showed signs of violent death. Carbon dating shows they died in several incidents between the 13th century and c.1450.

ScotlandOne of the skulls can be seen in this photo courtesy of Historic Scotland. Holding it is Dr. Jo Buckberry of Bradford University, who carried out the research on the skeletons.

The chapel was excavated as part of Historic Scotland’s restoration of the castle’s 16th century palace. The fact that the people were buried here indicates they were important.

One has been tentatively identified as Sir John de Stricheley, who died in 1341. Sir De Stricheley and the lady’s skeleton were featured last year on BBC2’s History Cold Case series.

Stirling Castle was an important castle on the boundary between Scotland and England and was besieged numerous times during the Wars of Scottish Independence (1296-1328 and 1332-1357). Several battles occurred nearby.

The exhibition, including facial reconstructions of Sir De Stricheley and the lady, will open June 4.

[Castle photo courtesy Finlay McWalter]

Bamburgh Castle excavation reveals Anglo-Saxon building

castle, castles
An excavation in the courtyard of Bamburgh Castle has uncovered an Anglo-Saxon hall, the BBC reports.

It was already known that there was a castle here from the 6th century AD, when England was a patchwork of small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The kingdom of Northumbria was the largest and one of the most powerful. Little was known about the Anglo-Saxon period at Bamburgh, however, because of the massive later castle built atop it.

Now archaeologists have discovered a hall, perhaps a grand building used by the local ruler. The excavation will be featured on the next episode of Time Team, aired in the UK on Channel 4 this Sunday, April 24, at 5:30 PM. The Bamburgh Research Project has an interesting blog to keep you up to date about the excavation. They also offer a Dig for a Day program where you can learn what it’s like to be an archaeologist and maybe make a major discovery of your own.

A couple of years ago we chose Bamburgh Castle as one of the ten toughest castles in the world because of its amazing military history. Check out the link for more information.

[Photo courtesy George Ford]

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