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Saturday, 17 November 2012

El Camino Levante - Almansa Day

I decided that today would be a short walk - only 6.6km, because I wanted to do some sight seeing in Almansa, a very historic town.  However, after only an hour I had arrived and the walk seemed incredibly short!  I started out in the fog and could not see much of the way, sadly the photo I took to show this did not come out.  There was some amazing "ant" activity along the route - with their winged versions emerging to go and find new homes.  The earth features that they created as they emerged looked like strange soil sculptures and some were quite incredible!

I passed along a road lined with mealies, all dry and with their cobs still attached.  Not a sight we would be used to in RSA, the feel of the tall stalks towering over me as I walked made me reminisce and I took a photo for all my RSA friends.  The castle came into sight shortly after the mealie field and the picture shows a little of the fog and how it lifted through the morning.  Just before the town there was a monument on the left of the way marking the battle of Almansa - all part of the same war, in which Xàtiva was burned (see below).  The information was in Spanish, French, English and local dialect.
The Battle of Almansa, fought on 25 April 1707, was one of the most decisive engagements of the War of the Spanish Succession. At Almansa, theFranco–Spanish army under Berwick soundly defeated the allied forces of Portugal, England, and the United Provinces led by the Earl of Galway, reclaiming most of eastern Spain for the Bourbons.
It has been described as "probably the only Battle in history in which the English forces were commanded by a Frenchman, the French by an Englishman."
The Bourbon army of about 25,000 was composed of Spanish and French troops in equal proportion, as well as an Irish regiment. Opposing them was a mainly Anglo-Portuguese force with strong Dutch, German, and French Huguenot elements.
The Battle
The Battle began with an artillery exchange. When Galway committed his reserves to an attack on the Bourbon centre, Berwick unleashed a strong force of Franco-Spanish cavalry against the weakened Anglo-Portuguese lines, sweeping away the Portuguese cavalry. A general rout followed, only the Portuguese infantry held, attacked by the three sides, and tried to retire fighting. They surrendered by nightfall. Galway lost 5,000 men killed and 12,000 taken prisoner; of his army of 22,000 only 5,000 escaped to Tortosa.
The victory was a major step in the consolidation of Spain under the Bourbons. With the main allied army destroyed, Philip V of Spain regained the initiative and gained Valencia.  The city of Xàtiva was burned, and its name changed to San Felipe in order to punish it. (In memory of these events, nowadays the portrait of the monarch still hangs upside down in the local museum of L'Almodí).  Before long, the only remaining allies of the Habsburg pretender, Archduke Charles, were his supporters in Catalonia and Balearic Islands.

As I reached the edge of town a wonderful "hand painted" sign for the Camino showed the way, in front of the official finger posts.  Take note of this picture because about 50m from here the way crosses over a zebra crossing and heads into town.  Well marked, but the guidebook does say "turn left" when it is clearly "right" at this point.  Not a problem when it is well marked, but it could prove a tad challenging if one is in on a more ambiguous part of the route!

There are also some lovely signboards here which show the map of the route as shown in the guidebook and also confirm the red and white GR route GR-239.  The way is excellently marked with the scallop shell tiles through the town and it is worth taking a little time to explore and look at the buildings and even have a quick visit to the castle.

As you can see from the information, the "Eastern Way of St. James" starts here too, following the Levante route - a total of 38.4km according to the board.  This is quite a long distance and there is a possibility of breaking the route at a hostel on the way, listed in the guidebook as a short diversion.  I will walk a stage of 22.5km through to Casa del Hondo as I have the luxury of a support vehicle and then walk a 16km day into Higueruela (38.5km according to the guidebook).  From here I will make my first two day walk - combining a shorter stretch with a longer one as my initiation!  This will be Higueruela to Hoya Gonzalo and then Hoya Gonzalo to Chinchilla.  The next walking day is due on Tuesday.

The well marked way
in the town

Main sights of Almansa

The main sightseeing attraction is the 14th-century Castle of Almansa.

There are other important monuments, such as:

Assumption Church (16th-19th century)
Palace of Los Condes de Cirat (16th century), today the Town Hall
Church of the Agustinas Convent (18th century)
The Convent of San Francisco (17th century)
Clock Tower (1780)
8 km from the city is the reservoir of Almansa, built in 1584. This reservoir is the oldest one in Europe. 
12 km from the city is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Belen (17th century).

Taken from

Almansa is situated at a frontier between several regions and borders and being such a prominent building has had a long and eventful history. During the Reconquest this area was a frontier between the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and the Muslim kingdom of Murcia. The castle was built by the Moors during the Almohad period in the early 12th century and quite a few remains of this original building survive in the present structure. In particular there are extensive sections of ‘tapial’ wall (a sort of concrete made from mud, stones, wood and mortar left to dry between wooden boards) and some original vaulted chambers.

The castle was taken by the Christians during their push on the Muslims in the mid 13th century during the reign of Jamie I. Additions to the walls were made, extending the area occupied on the rocky site as well as heightening the walls. The castle passed through many hands in the middle ages even being part of the Knights Templar estate for a while in the 13th century.

Interestingly the keep or ‘tower of homage’ as they are called in Spain, was not added to the castle until the 15th century. This and the barbican that was added to the entrance at the same time, was the work of Juan Pacheco, the second marquess of Villena. Further changes of ownership, all making additions and alterations continued until the 16th century by which time the castle was becoming less important and fell into disuse.
The location of the castle is particularly impressive from the viewpoint of the town below and many streets and vistas frame the view of the castle above. The structure itself rises from the rock on which it is built with many of the outer walls being extensions of the rock faces themselves. Indeed the main courtyard within the enclosure (the so-called ‘court of arms’) appears to be hewn from the rock, creating a sunken oblong area with the side walls being left as a thickness of rock creating the exterior walls of the castle at this point. These ‘natural’ walls were extended upwards by the addition of stone masonry to the required height.
The castle commands the town and has good views to
all sides.  It would be easy to see any advance on the
town and new arrivals
Like many Spanish castles, Almansa has a military level or zone for the accommodation of the garrison and horses and a ‘palace zone’ where the lord or castellan would live. At Almansa the palace area was in the upper court. The West doorway, with its barbican, was the main entrance to the castle, facing the town and providing a magnificent doorway where visitors on foot or mounted on horseback could enter after climbing a winding and circuitous route. However, the castle also had another entrance at the North doorway that was a much simpler affair. Fitted with portcullis and doors, this was the main route for deliveries to the castle and was designed for the access of carts and carriages from a roadway leading steeply from the plains below.

Michael throwing "boiling oil"
onto the invaders - through the gap over
the castle entrance!
As with many medieval castles, what we see today is the result of many years of alterations and additions and Almansa is no exception. The final years of the castles active life were at the end of the 15th century following the final expulsion of the Moors and a unified nation. From the16th century the castle fell completely into disuse and a long period of decay resulting in a low point in 1919 when the mayor of Almansa requested the demolition of the castle due to its ruinous state. This prompted a response to save the castle and it was declared a national monument in 1921 and a gradual period of restoration was commenced and continues up to the present day.

General Info on the Islamic Castle in Spain:

Introduced by the first Muslim conquerers of Spain in the 8th century and developed various styles and attributes until the 15th century.

Early examples were essentially fortresses to house a garrison and later more sophisticated designs and uses developed. Often used ‘tapial’ in the construction of walls.

Characteristic features are ‘Albarrana’ towers. sophisticated water cisterns and water storage engineering, often containing towers but less commonly with residential ‘keeps’

The castle uses the natural rock as part of its defenses.  You can see here that the way the geomorphology has tipped up this slab of rock, the builders of the castle have been able to use it as a natural wall.  This rock of course is much stronger and offers even more protection to those within the castle.

Miniature scale instruments of torture - the nearest to us
in the picture is the "Judas Chair"!  
Inside the castle was a gruesome but rather fascinating exhibition of medieval instruments of torture!  Reconstructed to the original scale on part of the castle tour, but also produced in miniature in the small museum come admin area.  They had a full size Judas Chair in the courtyard of the castle - a very nasty thing - along with some other scary implements shown below!

The garrote vil
The Judas Chair:  This procedure has remained essentially unchanged from the Middle Ages until today. The victim is hoisted up and lowered onto the point of the pyramid in such a way that his weight rests on the point positioned in the anus, in the vagina, under the scrotum or under the coccyx (the last two or three vertebrae). The executioner, according to the pleasure of the interrogators, can vary the pressure from zero to that of total body weight. The victim can be rocked, or made to fall repeatedly onto the point. The Judas cradle was thus called also in Italian (culla di Giuda) and German (Judaswiege), but in French it was known as la veille, “the wake” or “nightwatch”. Nowadays this method enjoys the favour of not a few governments in Latin America and elsewhere, with and without improvements like electrified waist rings and pyramid points. 

The Garrote Vil:  The garrote was the principal device used for capital punishment in Spain for hundreds of years. Originally, it was an execution where the convict was killed by hitting him with a club (garrote in Spanish). This later developed into a strangulation device, where the condemned was tied to a wooden stake, with a loop of rope placed around his neck. A wooden stick was placed in the loop, and by rotating the stick, the rope was tightened until the condemned person was strangled to death. As time went on, the execution method was modified in the form of a wooden chair to which the condemned was bound, while the executioner tightened a metal band around his/her neck with a crank or a wheel until asphyxiation of the condemned person was accomplished. (Info from Wikipedia)

For all those of a sensitive nature, in particular the men out there, if you are going to read the next one - take a deep breath or skip this section!

The Breast Rippers and Testicle Removers!  
Pretty self explanatory really, but the metal would be heated before use.  The instrument at the castle (and shown here) are tenazas - or tongs - especially for the men!  

There were also engines of war scattered around the visitors route, small scale of course, which showed how enemies might breach the castle's defenses and gain access to the inside.  One was an old style ladder for scaling the walls - decorated with a rams head on the top of the "stem" of the ladder.  The photos that follow also give a good impression of how high and steep it would be for those trying to climb into the castle.  Looking down it certainly makes one feel a tad dizzy!  I'm not sure I would have been keen to scale the castle walls only to risk an encounter with the nasty instruments of torture inside if I did not happen to be on the winning side!

The Head Crusher:

Ladder for scaling the castle walls
The head crusher was widely used during most of the Middle Ages, especially the Inquisition. With the chin placed over the bottom bar and the head under the upper cap, the torturer slowly turned the screw pressing the bar against the cap.

This resulted in the head being slowly compressed. First the teeth are shattered into the jaw; then the victim slowly died with agonizing pain, but not before his eyes were squeezed from his sockets. 

This instrument was a formidable way to extract confessions from victims as the period of pain could be prolonged for many hours if the torturer chose to. This could be done by repeatedly turning the screw both ways.

If the torture was stopped midway, the victim often had irreparable damage done to the brain, jaw or eyes. 

Many variants of this instrument existed, some that had small containers in front of the eyes to receive them as they fell out of their sockets. ( 

It would have been quite something to scale the walls
of Almansa castle - and a good head for heights would have
been an advantage!
The views from the top of the castle are spectacular and you can see the many old rooftops across the town, many scattered among modern buildings.  It is easy to see how the town was built "around" the castle and so it forms a semi-circular shape around the castle.

View toward where the
Camino enters Almansa
Ayuntamiento Almansa - the old Palace of
the Counts of Cirat (Casa Grande)
There is a nice view of the way into Almansa along the Camino.  I have photographed it through one of the observation and defensive view points.  As you come into the town and head toward the Ayuntamiento you pass some lovely gates decorated with Spanish horses and riders.  The Ayuntamiento itself is stunning, so far this would be no. 1 in my "top 10 Ayuntamientos" if I was running such a list!  The building used to be the Palace of the Counts of Cirat.  It is easy to see that it is an old palace, even inside there is a wonderful courtyard and how fabulous to be able to come to work in such a building each day.  There are gardens behind the courtyard and many modern works of art - even the sign announcing that this is the Ayuntamiento of Almansa!

Artwork sign of the

Lovely gates on the route into
Today I decided I would get photos of the "official stamping" taking place!  The policeman had some trouble with the ink on the sello, but soon all was in order.  I hope to include as many of them as possible and leave links to the blog so folks along the way can see their pictures here.

Once stamped and up to date, we had a coffee and some breakfast in a little local bar, just around 50m from the right turn onto the next part of the Camino.  It said on the outside that it had a "good atmosphere" and they did not lie.  We liked it so much and the look of their "menu del dia" that we decided we would return for lunch.  I would thoroughly recommend taking the short walk from the Camino to enjoy breakfast or a meal here, especially if you are staying over in Almansa before continuing on the next leg.  Pop in even if you just want a quick refreshment.  The name of the bar is "El GastroBar del 7" and they are on Calle Virgen de Belén.  They are on the right as you walk past the Camino turn.  They also serve some tasty little tapas.

After breakfast we took a stroll around the town and visited some of the other recommended sites, the Franciscan Convent (although sadly shut like a lot of the buildings), the Augustinian Convent which has a beautiful baroque facade and the park.

Being officially "stamped" inside the Ayuntamiento
in Almansa

Courtyard inside the Ayuntamiento
The facade of the Augustinian
Close up of the baroque facade of the
Convent of St Augustin
After being tourists for a couple of hours we made out way back to the little GastroBar del 7 for lunch.  Well worth it - filling and warming.  We just had to try the "consome with fillings" or what we then called "stuffed soup" based on being a bit literal in our translation and which made it sound much more fun!

Happy, full and warm we returned home and are planning now to try and make a few more two and three day stages (if possible) in order to get as far as Toledo in the next two months.  This is for two reasons, as once in the swing of walking, it just feels good to keep on going and because we are now getting to the stage where driving time will start to increase.  We will do our trial runs with the dogs and see what it is going to be like - especially as it is winter - and decide from there!  Watch this space!

View of the town from the castle

The Camino through Almansa - this turning is approx
50m from the GastroBar del 7.  The shell is on the
wall of the building where you turn
Spiral staircase within
the castle

Me with my "stuffed soup"

Outside El GastroBar del 7

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