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Friday, June 2, 2017

Morella and Peñíscola: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 8

Photo by Jessica Knauss 
This May 2016 trip was the first time I'd been south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast. I can now report that it has more marvels than can be counted; Stanley and I experienced two of them in detail.


We glided down the coast in the sunshine, then hung a right into the interior. We passed unique villages at every turn, Valencia orange groves, and terrace farms, until we twisted upon the sight of Morella with its castle grandly perched above a medieval town perfectly belted in by a medieval wall.

Morella came about because Stanley loved Frías so much in 2015. Frías is a pueblo más bonito in the province of Burgos. It was so beautiful our eyes metaphorically exploded, and Stanley couldn't stop talking about it for months afterward. "Let's live there! Let's remodel the castle and that can be our house."

Living like a queen published novelist in Morella 
Between telling him the plumbing project would be extraordinarily difficult and that I was willing, anyway, I planned our 2016 trip and saw that I might be able to outshine Frías with Morella because Morella has a fifteenth-century palace you can stay at! We were livin' large there in a room that looked grandiose but was still comfortable. According to TripAdvisor, it has the best showers in Spain! This royal treatment felt especially appropriate the following morning, when I awoke to Awash in Talent being ready for preorder. Yes, 2016 was turning out to be my year. I was staying in a medieval palace with my true love by my side, and I was a published novelist.

Photo by Jessica Knauss 
The castle at Morella was originally carved straight out of the rock by ancient peoples, and has been in continuous use for millennia. It participated in every major conflict that passed through the Iberian Peninsula, including the Napoleonic Wars. It's more than 1000 meters high, and Stanley and I took the winding path through town and all the way up. If you read the sad portion of the last post and saw Stanley's diagnosis, you'll know how extraordinary it was that he could keep up with me without showing the slightest sign of distress.

Here I am with the diagrams that explain the dance of death.
It's a round dance, a popular form in the Middle Ages. 
You get to the castle via a ruined Franciscan monastery, which has an extraordinary example of medieval wall painting that depicts the dance of death. This was a popular theme for all the arts in medieval Catalunya. It shows how everyone, from the pope to the poorest indigent, is equal in the eyes of Death. It's a great opportunity to look at how medieval society saw itself.

As you ascend the castle, you pass through history. You name it, it happened here. We saw barracks, parade grounds, the prison where they held a king, and views for days. It all culminates at the top, where they have the Plaza de Armas and the governor's quarters, which bring the trip full circle because they're inside a neolithic cave. There's plenty of material here for a novel series.

Slaying the dragon on the choir staircase, Basílica de Santa María 
Morella also has medieval churches with neverending wonders, whether the world-class organ, the staircase into which the artist sculpted a signature, or the treasury—up several back staircases so you have a long way to go if you're trying to steal something.

Life-sized model of Morelladon beltrani in a former convent where you can
still see traces of the Baroque paint job 
What's cooler than cool? A place that has its own dinosaur! Yep, Morelladon beltrani takes the first part of its mellifluous name from Morella. The dinosaur museum is housed in a former convent, so you get a sense of human history and truly ancient prehistory in one place. What a fantastic way to recycle.

One of the city gates; convent/dinosaur museum on the left 
We ate really well right on the street with our hotel and were able to sample Morella's signature pastry, too. Called flaó, it's folded into an empanada shape and filled with ricotta cheese, almonds, and cinnamon. It's so deliciously subtle, you could chomp through a whole shelf's worth without blinking.

The street with our hotel by night. Bona nit! 
Please do not go to Morella. It's one of the pueblos más bonitos de España, it has plenty of attractions and more shops and restaurants than I would've thought would fit comfortably in such a small space, and you can get anywhere on foot. But the best thing about it was that it felt like it was ours. We saw few tourists, and they all seemed to leave at about 7 p.m., leaving us to have dinner with locals and wander the streets with people saying "Bona nit!" to us as if we belonged there. I realized they were saying "Good evening" in Valencian, but the linguistic thrill was too distracting for me to say the same thing back, so mostly I waved and smiled. The coziness was such a relief after the crowds at Park Güell! So please, do not add to the numbers. Do not go to Morella.

We had a difficult time leaving this enchanted space. But more wonders awaited us, so we pressed on.

Photo by Stanley Coombs 


Peñíscola (pain-YEES-ko-la) has two claims to fame: the beach and the castle. The castle also has two big claims to fame: Papa Luna and some scenes from Game of Thrones.

The beach wasn't really our scene, so after we dipped our toes in the Mediterranean, we headed over to the castle. It's the kind of thing you don't need a map for.

Photo by Jessica Knauss
The solid, imposing, and delicately placed castle at Peñíscola was founded in the thirteenth century by the knights templar. When you visit, most of the practical fortress qualities come from this time. Its most famous resident, however, was Pedro Martínez de Luna, or Benedict XIII, Papa Luna, Spain's antipope. If you like antiheroes, as I think I must, you'll find his stubborn personality attractive.

The stern statue of Don Pedro in his papal garb greets castle visitors and passersby.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Papa Luna was a cardinal at the time of the Western Schism and tended to the flock throughout Spain and parts of France for the Avignon popes, or antipopes, as they're known. He was elected Avignon pope in 1398. His branch of the papacy was in decline, with most of the Christian nations refusing to recognize his legitimacy as they tended toward reunification with the Roman pope. He was offered a few different deals to resign and bring the Western Schism to an end. When he refused them, he was excommunicated... but he was his own pope, so I doubt he took that seriously. At that time, in 1417, he came to live at Peñíscola and there, he held onto his holy title with both hands until his death in 1423.

Photo by Jessica Knauss 
I had to admire his dedication to study: several large rooms in the castle were marked "library" or "study" and even his personal rooms (he had more than one place for sleeping to stave off assassination attempts) had lovely fifteenth-century bookcases open to the sea air. Is there something about scholars that makes them extraordinarily tenacious? Because I also admire his persistence and recognized it in myself.

Stanley was persistent, too, for the things that really mattered to him. We still had no news from our idol, Manolo García. You can bet he had me check every chance we got. Tick tock!

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here.