Heading south, our minds on the glories of Córdoba and the delights of Semana Santa in Malaga (we’d been told that only Sevilla can rival Malaga for the magnificence of its Easter celebrations), we set off through the dry, red landscape of Castilla-La Mancha for fabled Andalusia. We’d decided to make one final stop in the land of Don Quixote, in a small town that defies expectation, a place unlike any other in this region, with a history to match: Almagro.
Almagro was put on the map by one of those religious-military orders in which the medieval period seemed to specialise. The Order of Calatrava, Spain’s oldest military order, were granted a town charter at the start of the 13th Century. They were also responsible for giving their name to the truly breathtaking castle that lies a few kilometres outside of the town. It would be an entirely different influence that would leave its mark on Almagro however, not Spanish but German.
The thing that differentiates Almagro from other Spanish towns is its Plaza Mayor, featuring 16th Century arcaded and colonnaded green wood-framed houses down two sides of the rectangular ‘square’. The whole scene belongs architecturally more to northern Europe than deepest Castilla-La Mancha. This is thanks to the unlikely presence of the Fugger family. The Fuggers were European bankers extraordinaire, immensely rich and powerful, they bankrolled Charles I of Spain – it was their money paid for Charles’ election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.
Charles I of Spain was a Habsburg. Making him also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled not only over Spain, but swathes of Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the Netherlands. Charles was at constant war with the French, and France’s allies, the Ottoman Empire. It was Charles who stopped the Ottomans from capturing Vienna in 1529. This cost a lot of money. In return for funding his wars, Charles gave the Fuggers (amongst other things) the rights to a mine near to Almagro. Members of the family moved in and brought their own architects along.
As well as building Spain’s most unusual Plaza Mayor, the Fuggers patronised the arts. Today, Almagro is home to the best preserved Corral de Comedias dating from the Spanish Golden Age – and the only one still hosting theatrical productions. The Corrales de Comedias were open air theatres that blossomed throughout Spain in the 16th Century: walking around the theatre you get a sense of the intimacy of the theatrical experience. It feels a bit like the Globe, only square where the Globe is round.
Almagro is only a small place of around 8,000 people, but it punches above its weight when it comes to food as well as history. There are plenty of places to sample local dishes, I don’t recall the name of the restaurant we ate at but it had the best ‘young’ Manchego cheese I’ve ever tasted (and I’m rather fond of Manchego cheese). We liked Almagro so much we decided to stay the night: luckily the wonderful Almagro Parador is both conveniently located and housed in a former 17th Century convent.
Early the next day we headed south again stopping only at the Castelo de Calatrava. You can see the castle long before you arrive at the winding track that takes you up an absurdly steep hill, upon which this giant fortress is located. It is like a Hollywood version of a European castle, only real. At the centre of the castle is a beautiful vaulted monastery church, illuminated by a large circular window. It’s rumoured that Moorish captives built the church. The views over Castilla-La Mancha’s plains are astonishing.
Standing on the battlements looking over the surrounding countryside, the importance of this fortress becomes clear. This was a vital Moorish citadel, but it was also home to a sizeable population and included a medina during the Caliphate of Cordoba. After swapping hands a couple of times, it was permanently taken by Christian forces in 1212. The castle’s population shrank under Christian rule, many of the knights preferring the comforts of Almagro over the hardships of castle life.
Heading south again, the Mediterranean beckoning, we passed unnoticed into Andulucia, Moorish Cordoba our next stop…