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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.


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