Saturday, 11 August 2012

Fortaleza de Peñíscola on St Clare's Day

After lunch today, I walked to the bus station to catch the bus to Peñíscola, a fifty minute journey through Benicarló. I was impressed by how many people used the bus for part of the route, given I was travelling at siesta time, and even more impressed by how cheap the fare was, €1.55 for a 20km journey. The bus dropped me off at the end of Playa Norte closest to town, leaving me to walk along the promenade to the old town. Near the promenade in several places along the beach, there were elaborate sandcastles, built in a range of architectural and mythical themes. I've seen a few on the main Vinaròs beach too. Sand sculpture seems to be something of a feature in these parts.

Every way you walk through the streets up to the citadel you pass restaurants of every kind and at this time of day they are packed with holidaymakers eating lunch. The air is delightfully, enticingly charged with the mouthwatering aromas of food being freshly prepared, and there's a buzz of conversation from open air dining tables, Spanish, French, German, occasionally English. It's attractive, despite being very crowded. Because it was lunchtime, the flow of visitors into the citadel was much reduced, and this made for a relaxed inspection of a remarkable and well looked after collection of historic buildings. When I paid the modest admission charge and said I was retired, the lady taking the money said that I had to be over sixty. After I took my hat off and announced that I was 67 and thanked her for the complement. We laughed together as we parted.

Inside the main entrance, rooms are devoted to historical and audio visual presentations, also several art exhibitions. Just one of these caught my attention, a collection of more than two dozen 'portraits' of doors, gates and portals from buildings in in various parts of Spain, reproduced with photographic detail in coloured glazed terracotta. These are the work of Valencian born potter and painter Vicente Barreira. To produce such detail in such a demanding medium requires a high degree of craftsmanship, a most admirable enterprise. Here is just one example.

There are some lovely 13-15th century rooms, including a large plain stone vaulted chapel fitted out in the simply tradition of monastic use. The castle was a power base for the Knights Templars in the Middle Ages, as well as home to one of the Avignon Popes, Benedict XIII, who came from Zaragossa, known as 'Papa Luna'. There's a bronze statue in his memory on the way up to the entrance. Best of all, however are the extraordinary views from the ramparts of the town below the citadel, and the coast both north and south. Here we look north across the bay over the roof of the Parish church of the Virgen de Socorro.

And here, we look southwards over the roofs to Peñíscola harbour and beyond to the Finca del Moro.

The upper reaches of the citadel's towers are paved and accessible. On each a plastic beach chair bearing the stamp of the Ajuntamento de Peñíscola, not as far I could see for any guardian or guide, but anyone fancying a sit down after climbing the steep steps up to them. I am grateful that I can climb stairs these days without complaint from my knees, breathlessness or fatigue, but as there was a breeze and it wasn't too hot, I took advantage of the chair for ten minutes pure enjoyment of being in that wonderful place, without so much as a thought for Charlton Heston and 'El Cid'. With a site history going back over three millennia, it's one of the best castle visits I've ever made for both interest and beauty. I wound my way back from the heights through the strees and along the promenade, and happily within five minutes of finding a bus stop, I was on my way back home for supper.

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