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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Best Castle

Loarre, camouflaged against its rocky outcrop
Photos in this post 2019 Jessica Knauss 
That's right. Through years of hard toil and the sweat of my brow, I've visited castle after castle--some in Britain, one in the United States, but mostly in Spain--and I'm pleased to report I've found the best one.

Loarre's first line of defense is that if they approached from the mountain pass,
the enemies couldn't see Loarre, but Loarre could see them.
Its name is Loarre, and I'm only disappointed it's not closer to where I live. My friend Daniel and I found Loarre in our trusty guidebook of Romanesque architecture in Spain by Jaime Cobreros. I'm always up for a castle, anyway, but the rave review Cobreros writes for Loarre would've convinced even the most entrenched castle skeptic. We planned to see it on our way out of Aragón after my week-long university course in Jaca.

Photo 2019 Daniel Sanz 
Talk about a grand finale! Driving up, it seemed as if we would be the only visitors. There was nothing for miles around. Loarre looked like the only castle in the world, and it was beautiful from every angle.

This panorama catches most of what remains of the thirteenth-century wall.  
But we're talking about an eleventh-century military building. That's not to say the architects didn't appreciate the aesthetics of this spot, only that everything they did also had a purpose beyond loveliness.

The outer wall was not built by the original architects, but it still combines usefulness and beauty. Created in the thirteenth century, it defended the castle and the town around it. They didn't have to build the wall all the way around because the rocks, the original and ultimate defense, were already there, and will continue there long after the castle falls into ruin. The town moved down the hill in the sixteenth century, and people took many stones from the wall to build new houses.

The topmost tower is also the oldest: the keep. 
Loarre was only remodeled for about one hundred years. Although it was used at different times as a castle, as a monastery, and as a palace, it's all a single architectural style: Romanesque. Here on the left, the apse of the monastery's enormous church is clearly seen. The double windows in the middle section are also from the time of the monastery. They would've started out as arrow slits in the time of the castle.

A watchtower, end of the eleventh century, separate from the rest of the castle,
takes in the view perfectly. The tower may have been connected
to the castle with a bridge or tunnel at some point. 
The day we visited was hazy, but we still got a good sense of why this location was chosen. The entire area known as the Hoya de Huesca, and more, is laid out before the castle. The guide said that on a clear day, she's seen the cathedral towers in Zaragoza, 85 kilometers to the south.

Walking around the castle to get to the grand doorway, you see the church windows up close. There's no mistaking the checkerboard pattern and perfect half-circle. It couldn't be any more Romanesque. It was about this time that we realized we did not have the castle all to ourselves. Not only was it doing a booming cultural tourist business, but people seemed to be coming from all over to do sports, too.
Loarre is a popular paragliding spot. Jump off a rock and float around the best castle.

The grand doorway is flanked by columns with capitals. This may look like a leafy Corinthian column, but look more closely: it's crouching monkeys!

The grand doorway opens onto this grand staircase. In this castle, you would think the only direction was up. But the architecture uses the uneven terrain on which the castle sits to create a maze-like path upward designed to confound enemies. It's an effective strategy probably borrowed from Hispano-Muslim architecture. It would've been impossible for anyone who had never entered the castle before to mount an attack. Indeed, Loarre's impregnable fame led to no one even attempting to attack it.

Note that the stairs are quite a bit lower in the center. The guide proposed that this could have to do with "protocol," or to have the advantage in an attack, but given what we saw later on, Daniel proposed that the different levels provided drainage. On rainy days, people used the high stairs, and the rain used the low stairs. I'm going with that idea.

Halfway up the stairs, a small doorway lets you into the Crypt of Santa Quiteria.

This small, rounded chapel was used for burial services, and since its wall is the castle's outer wall, it's built like a fort and has a couple of secret escape routes.

In the door jamb, a Romanesque artist portrayed Santa Quiteria's faithful dog.

The angles between the door and the windows of the crypt led to a shadowbox effect. Over the crypt door, we watched the moving silhouettes of people walking down the main staircase and wondered what the eleventh-century monks and soldiers thought about such an uncanny show.

Leaving the crypt, at the top of the stairs, you're confronted with choices and strange changing volumes and angles that would confuse you if you didn't have a guide.
The builders took full advantage of the rock, and left evidence of their sturdiness in many unexpected places.
The church isn't twisted. This is some strange
camera phenomenon. 














The Church of San Pedro would be worth visiting all by itself. The monks who moved in during the second half of the eleventh century spared no expense in constructing a grandiose place of worship that reaches for the heavens. Large windows flood the blind arches and 84 decorated capitals with light. There's space here for a hundred monks or more.


The lovely dome with four oculi increase the sense of expansiveness.

As this window demonstrates, this side of the church is a sheer drop.

Alabaster, a plentiful resource in Aragón, covers some of the upper windows.

The capitals include mythological figures ...

... Biblical figures ...

... and plant designs. 

The foot of the church is a little bit curved to follow the unique landscape. Note the rocky formation that was left as a reminder of exactly where we are. It's also possible the rock was considered God's perfect architecture, and as such, shouldn't be tampered with.
Even the capitals up too high to see have scenes on them. 

There are two doors in the floor of the nave near the apse.

The guide opened a door to reveal one of the passageways from the crypt. I would never have known we were right above the crypt from the path we took. This passage had two uses, one religious and one military. First, the door could be opened during services in the crypt and the monks in the church would be able to hear everything. It served this purpose many times in the eleventh century. Second, if an enemy had made it to the crypt and found this passage, it was too narrow to climb the stairs with a sword and a shield, forcing the enemy to choose between defense and offense and decreasing the chances he could accomplish anything against you. As I mentioned, it never served this purpose, but the architects get mad strategy points for this.

Leaving the church, you come upon the monks' dormitories. They kept livestock in the space below and slept above. In this way, they took advantage of the ecological heat generated by the livestock. Winters here at the foot of the Pyrenees could be deadly cold. 

The arches were built as mere supports for the rooms, which have since disappeared. Now that the arches have been revealed again, they're highly admired by architecture historians, the guide said. 

In the part below, with the livestock, the guide showed us this room, which she told us is where monks and probably the soldiers before them did their business into a pit which has since disappeared. Why didn't they have sewer chutes to direct waste immediately outside the castle? The guide says they couldn't drill through the rock, for one, and for another, the drop was too sheer on all sides, making it too dangerous. No one wanted to risk his life relieving himself. And so the ingenious sewer system of Loarre was born.

See that "crack" in the sloped floor? It's actually plumbing. It leads from a cistern near the bodega and uses gravity to evacuate rainwater (and what comes out of the privy room!) using the force of gravity all the way out of the castle, keeping it rainwater fresh. Was the creator of this feat of engineering also the architect who came up with so many wonderful strategic defenses? 

The bodega, where the monks stored their wine and grain, served as a prison in the time of the castle garrison. The guide said twentieth-century renovators found a skeleton manacled to the wall at the back.

Confusing passages full of beautiful angles.
This is taken from where the weapons were stored. 
This is one of the lovely double windows
visible below. 
At some point during the visit, you can look
back on the entrance to the church from above. 

Finally, the visit arrives at the summit, which is the oldest part of the castle. Here we see the homage tower or keep, just a little higher than the cupola of the church.


Across the arms patio from the keep, a large vista point probably created in the time of the monks gives great views. In the foreground, the tiny Church of Santa Maria would have served the original castle garrison of no more than fifteen soldiers.

The little church is built with walls as thick as the rest of the castle, and indeed, forms part of the outer defense. I visited here first, and when I came out, Daniel asked me what it was like inside. "It's really old, and you can tell it's really old, so I love it," I said.

Looking back toward the start of the Pyrenees from the arms patio. 

In order to climb the towers, the castle managers have provided these wooden staircases, which struck me as exactly what must've been here before.

These gorgeous windows serve watchtower purposes because they're high enough and far enough inside the arms plaza to be out of range of any eleventh-century weaponry.

On a clear day, you can see Zaragoza. 
The Church of Santa Maria and the Hoya de Huesca beyond;
barracks buildings on the right  

The monks' dorms seen from the keep 

Photo 2019 Daniel Sanz 
The master suite, at the top of the keep, where everyone would retreat to in case of attack, has a lovely chimney for keeping the winter chill off. They say the chimney has come down to us in perfect condition, directly from the eleventh century. 

The room is not large, but it's not lacking anything an eleventh-century soldier would need.

Why has Loarre come through the ages without the interference of later architectural styles? Easy. The border moved, and the King of Aragón saw fit to move the base of military operations along with it to a place called Montearagón. I don't think Montearagón enjoyed the same good luck as Loarre, and not much, if anything, survives to this day. 

The last angle: Loarre seen from the "campsite" restaurant 
Climbing back down the castle, avoiding the sun, aching with thirst, I decided Loarre is the best castle I've had the privilege of exploring. Do you agree?

Daniel and I stuffed our empty stomachs at a "campsite" restaurant (read: a rustic place that gives you tremendous amounts of fresh food from the area, prepared for the delight of foodie Instagrammers) not far from the meeting points for rafting and paragliding. Loarre was never attacked, but it conquered my heart.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Miracles of Santa Maria de Salas

Santa Maria de Salas outside Huesca
Photos in this post 2019 Jessica Knauss unless otherwise indicated 
As we've seen with glorious Villalcázar de Sirga, the Cantigas de Santa Maria have a few favorite shrines the poets returned to again and again, sure they would find another good miracle to tell. The exceptionally powerful Virgin of Villasirga has fourteen Cantigas miracles to her credit. Visiting that shrine in January seemed like the ultimate pilgrimage for a cantiguera like me.

But! I wanted to keep busy in July, and found a week-long course to take on medieval manuscripts at the University of Zaragoza in Jaca. Jaca is at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains in the province of Huesca, in the old kingdom of Aragón. Of course, my friend Daniel wanted to take advantage of being so far from our respective homes in Castilla y León to sightsee. While looking for things to do in the area (there's no lack, believe me!), I found that there is a Cantigas shrine in the outskirts of the capital of Huesca with no fewer than sixteen miracles. Sixteen! Two more than Villasirga!

Romanesque corbels placed up high after a reconstruction 
I had to go. We took an afternoon trip to Huesca and saw the amazing cathedral and museum, but my hopes for seeing the miracle-working image were dashed at the tourist office when the man said Santa Maria de Salas was closed for the foreseeable future.

The front doorway is worth lingering over.
I had to content myself with a look around the outside of the impressive edifice. Without further ado, here are the sixteen wonderful miracles that happened in Salas, Huesca, in the thirteenth century.

A couple uses the enormous arcade as their own hangout. 
Cantiga 43: A couple unable to have children makes the pilgrimage to Salas, offering his weight in wax for candles if Holy Mary will grant them a child. Sure enough, the wife has a beautiful son nine months after their return home to Daroca. But does she give the Virgin of Salas the promised wax? No, she waits seven years, raising her child as if he weren't a miracle for which she should give thanks. When he's seven, the boy catches a fever and dies. His father wants to bury him, but his mother says they should give him to Mary, along with the wax they promised so long ago. Six days later, they lay their son in his coffin before the altar, and tearing out her hair in grief, the wife asks Mary to sympathize with the loss of her son and bring him back. "Help me so I don't annoy you with my incessant pleas," she says! Upon this, the child is heard crying inside the coffin. The whole town comes to see the great miracle.

Salas and me
Photo 2019 Daniel Sanz 
Cantiga 44: A nobleman loses his goshawk during a hunt. After searching far and wide for the valuable bird, the nobleman makes a wax goshawk and presents it to Our Lady of Salas at her altar, asking for the return of his raptor. He stays to hear mass, and before it's over, the goshawk flies into the church and alights on his hand as if it's ready to go hunting.

Having seen the church, I can imagine the way a hawk would fly around inside it. It's the perfect size, as you can see in the photo.

Cantiga 109: Five demons attack a man, relentlessly tormenting him. He heads straight to Salas, but when the church is in sight, the devils don't let him continue. Two friars arrive and help the man toward the church. After an antisemitic exchange of doctrinal value we would question today, the devils figure Mary will make them let go of their victim and head out of their own volition.

Cantiga 114: A woman is a great devotee of the Virgin of Salas. She always places long wax candles at her altar and asks for protection for her dear son. One day, the son's enemies beat him to a pulp, such that it's not likely he'll live to see the next day. His mother takes him home and bandages him, commending him to Holy Mary, who cures him at once. As soon as the bandages are on, the wounds disappear without even a scar. The son tells his mother to take the bandages off, and when they see the great miracle, they go to Salas to tell everyone about it.

Cantiga 129: In a fierce battle, a warrior receives an arrow right through his eye. It reaches the base of his neck, and all his companions think he's dead. But he's not. He tells them he'll make an offering in Salas if he's cured. So they pull the arrow out of his eye, and miraculously, he's fine. In fact, he can now see out of the eye better than he did before. He makes the pilgrimage to Salas, telling everyone about the beautiful miracle.

It looks like time for another reconstruction. 
Cantiga 161: A vintner is in the habit of making pilgrimages to Salas, carrying an image of Holy Mary with him as a talisman. One day in August, at home, he sees a big storm coming. He takes the image to his vineyard and asks Mary to protect his vines. "I consider it to be yours, although my wife and I till it as our own," he says, making a celestially binding contract of fealty. The hail severely damages all the other vineyards in the area, but the one that's been pledged to Mary is spared. Further, tendrils that spread from that vineyard and intertwine with others in other vineyards are also spared, even though the rest of the vines in those other vineyards are broken.

Cantiga 163: A man in Huesca loses at dice and renounces Holy Mary. Upon speaking this blasphemy, he's crippled, unable to move or speak. Through signs, he asks to be taken to Salas, where he's able to speak enough to make a promise never to play dice again. His body is immediately healed and for the rest of his life, the man praises Holy Mary.

This cantiga makes an appearance in Law and Order in Medieval Spain.

Cantiga 164: An innocent monk (a devotee of the Blessed Virgin) is accused of having his own money coined. The abbot, a nobleman with strong ties to Aragonese royalty, decides to have the monk arrested. The monk flees into the church at Salas, claiming sanctuary. The abbot calls the monk outside, and when he dutifully leaves the church, he's seized and thrown out of the churchyard. The image of Mary moves her Child away from her and gives a cry so loud that the earth trembles. Both figures pale and lose all their beauty. Everyone understands these phenomena as evidence of heavenly displeasure. The abbot orders the return of the monk and enters the church with all his men with ropes about their necks in penance. The Bishop of Huesca arrives and declares that amends must be made to Holy Mary. Upon this utterance, Mary clasps her Son to her again and shows that they pardon the abbot. However, the images never recover their color, as a reminder of how much the false arrest displeased them.

Cantiga 166: A man's limbs are twisted and he is paralyzed for five years. He promises that if he goes to Salas and gets well, he'll donate a large measure of wax every year. He is healed forthwith. He's able to walk to Salas nimbly, carrying the wax himself.

This cantiga has an especially fun melody that sounds good in all the versions I've heard. The above video has the advantage of having been filmed inside the sanctuary of Santa Maria de Salas! Watch it to glimpse what I was unable to.

Cantiga 167: The small son of a Moorish lady who lives in Borja dies from a terrible disease. The woman witnesses how the Christians go to Salas and hears of Mary's miracles. She decides to go to Salas herself with a wax son and her son's body. She keeps vigil all night before the altar, appealing to Mary's sympathy. Her son comes back to life, even though he had been dead for three days. The woman converts to Christianity.

This is another of my favorite melodies.

Cantiga 168: A woman in Lleida has several children, but loses them all within a short time. Her grief for the last one is so deep that she nearly goes mad. She begs Mary for him and waits for two days. When she sees he won't revive, she takes him to Salas and raises him up at the altar. The boy comes back to life right there in her arms.

This miracle was found in writing. Finding a miracle on the Iberian Peninsula in writing before the Cantigas got it down is unusual enough that the poets mention it what is almost certainly every time.
Cantiga 171: A barren couple promises to make the pilgrimage to Salas if they're granted a child. Of course, a lovely boy arrives. They raise him for two years and then set out on the promised pilgrimage. When crossing a river on horseback, mother and child fall into the water. Although the mother makes it out, they can't find the boy, no matter how hard they look. The husband thinks they should go home, but the wife says they should continue to Salas and complain. As they continue, the wife prays constantly for the Virgin's help. When they step inside the church, they see their son waiting for them at the altar.

Cantiga 172: A merchant sails to Acre in the Holy Land with a lot of good merchandise. He runs into a serious storm on the sea, and when he thinks all is lost, he promises to make a pilgrimage to Salas if he survives. The storm immediately calms. The mast is repaired, and they sail on to Acre without incident. Once they've sold their wares for good prices, everyone on the ship makes pilgrimages to Salas and also Puy.

Cantiga 173: A man is in mortal agony with kidney stones. He can't eat or sleep, only call on the Virgin Mary for help. No doctors are any help. He promises to go to Salas and falls asleep. (He appears to have a dream, but the text is missing.) He wakes up with a kidney stone as large as a chestnut in the bed with him.

Cantiga 189: A man goes on pilgrimage to Salas all alone. Darkness falls, and he meets a dragon. The man prays to Holy Mary, afraid that if he runs, the dragon will chase him. When he finishes his prayer, he runs at the beast with his sword and kills it. However, the blood that spurts out of the dragon's neck and splatters the man's face is poisonous. The man becomes like a leper. He continues to Salas and weeps piteously until he's cured.

The Cantigas are relentlessly realist within the context of the magical thinking that allows for miracles. This is the only cantiga that has a fantasy creature.

Cantiga 247: A girl is born blind. When she's ten years old, her father dies, and her mother gives the child to Holy Mary because she can't handle being a widow and caring for a blind daughter. The mother says that if Mary accepts, she should give the girl her sight. Although she can now see, the girl stays to serve Holy Mary.

Pyrenees foothills and one of many runners we saw in the area. 
In these cantigas, there's a preponderance of candles and wax that could be used to make them. This Virgin also has a special talent for reviving children, so it's little wonder she enjoyed such wide-reaching devotion. The other miracle cures are likely bandwagon worshipers, who had no children or hadn't lost any but wanted to be in contact with this powerful Mary, anyway.

I had to content myself with an antique sign selfie because the miraculous
image was locked up tight. 
When we visited the site, there was a plaque showing a pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela that went through Santa Maria de Salas, making the church an obligatory visit for any pilgrim--if it's ever open. Unlike the Villasirga cantigas, none of the Salas miracles mention Santiago. I can think of two good reasons. First, Salas is right on a Santiago pilgrimage route, while Villasirga is a bit off the direct path. Villasirga had to do publicity to draw in pilgrims, but Salas had a steady stream with no additional propaganda necessary. Second, the Cantigas are the product of the court of Alfonso X, el Sabio, King of Castile and León and many other territories north and south, but not of Aragón, where Salas is located. Alfonso X was related by marriage to Aragonese royalty, but why bother to promote an area that wouldn't bring economic benefit directly to one's Crown? That old Castilian pragmatism at work.

I discuss that pragmatism and a couple of these cantigas in Law and Order in Medieval Spain.