Lorca – a castle with a difference.

It’s worth steering away from typical routes to discover a castle with a difference.

Castles were so important and ubiquitous in Medieval Spain that the nation’s largest kingdom, Castile, took its name from them. In the centuries-long struggle between the Christian and Muslim kingdoms of Spain known as the Reconquista, castles were vital for the defence of cities and of frontiers. With the disappearance long ago of their defensive function, many castles have simply crumbled into ruins while others have been restored and refurbished to serve as tourist attractions and, in some cases, as state hotels known as paradores.

Spanish city planners have often revealed a genius for blending tradition and modernity to produce a totally new creation. The city of Lorca, following an ambitious plan known as El Taller del Tiempo or Time’s Workshop, has turned its castle into a unique theme park making it well worth any extra effort it might take to pay a visit.

Lorca is situated in the south-western flank of the autonomous region of Murcia near its border with Almeria province. Since it is not near the beaten paths of the major tourist destinations in southern Spain such as Granada, Sevilla, and Córdoba, and some distance from Valencia to the north, tourists have to make a special effort to visit it. But Lorca’s imposing castle, whose lofty walls and battlements provided assurance of security to the town nestled below for centuries, has been turned into a unique interactive, family-friendly complex which guarantees an educational and entertaining experience for all age groups. The investment to repair its walls and two towers and to make archaeological discoveries accessible to public view has been considerable. But the results provide an opportunity for a superb encounter with ages past.

Lorca sprawls down along the lower slope of a promontory whose oblong ridge is crowned by its extensive and imposing castle. The castle is much larger than the average Spanish castle; it is really a citadel. In times of danger the space within its walls could offer refuge to some 3,000 people along with livestock.

Ongoing archaeological investigations make the castle site a veritable showcase of the history of the Iberian Peninsula. Excavations on the mount revealed human remains and an abundance of artefacts from the Middle and Late Stone Ages, underscored when construction on the building of a parador within the castle confines was suspended for several months because the remains of a synagogue were unearthed.

The construction of a parador has been criticized for creating a visual blight on the mighty fortress’s profile. But the authorities made the decision to undertake the work knowing that it would lead to significant archaeological discoveries. And they were right.

During the Roman Empire, Lorca was known as Eliocroca. Although lightly fortified under the Romans and Visigoths, beginning in the eighth century, Muslim rulers laid the major foundations of an impregnable fortress or alcázar. They dubbed the city Lurqa.

In the year 1243, while still a prince, the future Alfonso X, The Learned took possession of the castle after negotiating terms of surrender. The castle’s main tower, the Alfonsina, is named after him. For more than two centuries afterwards Lorca was the bastion of the Mediterranean flank of the Castilian frontier with the Muslim kingdom of Granada.

The discovery just three years ago of the synagogue, which was in use from the 14th through the end of 15th centuries, led to the realization that there was a walled ghetto next to a Christian neighbourhood within the wider walls of the fortification. Scholars were astonished. There was a Jewish quarter in the lower city but no one knew that Jews had inhabited the citadel above.

The synagogue is unique in Spain because it has kept its original form and was not modified to serve as a church like other surviving synagogues. Its base measures 10 by 20 metres and was largely excavated into the slope of the mount. What remains here are a square stone basin for ritual ablutions, part of an upper gallery for women with a separate entrance, and a continuous stone bench along the walls with a capacity for 60 males. This latter detail has enabled experts to estimate the Jewish population within the ghetto at about 100. In the ruins of neighbouring houses seven-stem candelabra and other ritual artefacts have been unearthed as well as the remnants of a bath for the ritual bathing of women.

Work on the parador has resumed, and the National Institute of Tourism is in the process of approving a design that will allow the synagogue as well as the archaeological remains of a Moorish palace and a Christian church to be accessible to public view. Remnants of the three cultures which flourished in medieval Spain will be yet another attractive feature of Lorca’s extraordinarily interactive castle.

Tickets for a visit can be bought at an information centre housed in what used to be a convent at the foot of the mount. Here an extensive exhibition with murals and showcases provides a summary of Lorca’s history, art and folklore. A motorized mini-train leaves at regular intervals to take visitors to the top of the castle-crested mount. There they are greeted by the first of a number of actors dressed in medieval garb who in various locations explain what it was like to live and work in a castle. Among the characters represented is a guard, the lord of the castle, an alchemist, and a master mason (who explains how the castle was built).

The first major attraction is in the reception centre and is called the Time Machine. Here, centuries of the history of the castle and surrounding region are audio-visually compressed into minutes. Next is the Espolon Tower anchoring the far western end of the fortress. An elevator whisks visitors to a chamber where they are invited to sit and watch an audiovisual presentation of the centuries of frontier strife between Christians and Muslims. From the top a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside and mountains reaches all the way to the sea and demonstrates the strategic value of the fortress’s location.

Essential for the castle’s functioning in the past was a regular supply of water.  This was provided by enormous covered cisterns known as aljibes constructed by the Arab rulers to collect rain water. These have been converted into interactive exhibition halls. The smaller one tells the story of how water was collected, stored, and distributed while the larger one is dedicated to an exhibition contrasting Christian and Muslim civilizations. Another important feature is the castle bakery.  Archaeologists have uncovered two huge ovens which used to supply bread for the castle’s inhabitants. One has been completely restored to its original dimensions while the other has been left as is.

All in all, Lorca’s castle offers a day full of fun and educational experiences, an offering that will be rounded off when its parador is completed some time next year.

Family Friendly

For children there are multiple delights. There is a playground with miniature crenellated towers and walls where they can let their imaginations run wild with damsels in distress and knights in shining armour.  Nearby, children can admire a full-scale catapult built according to an illustration in a book by King Alfonso X, the Learned. They can move huge chess pieces across a large-scale chessboard. A falconer is always standing by with a display of birds of prey, including an owl or two, on their perches, and any bold boy or girl just has to ask for a thick, sleeve-long glove and the falconer will launch a falcon to perch on it. Then they can visit the archaeological workshop, where ceramics, tools, weapons, and even 4,000-year-old skulls—all found in digs on the mount—are on display. A licensed archaeologist is there to explain everything about ongoing on-site investigations. There are gardens with fruit trees and a large theatre area where concerts are offered in the summer.

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