For the past few weeks, we have been on a mad dash across Spain, France and England, stopping for only a few days in each city we visited. Unfortunately, our “Castles and Cathedrals” road trip allowed no time for blogging, so I am officially several countries behind in my updates. I’ll catch up in this post with the highlights of Part I, Spain. More to come on France and England in subsequent posts.
I suppose I should start with a warning: If you are not a devotee of European history, stick to the 3 C Rule: More than 3 castles and/or cathedrals in one trip and every one starts to look the same. For me, three is barely enough. I see every castle as someone’s home; every cathedral as a place of marriages, deaths, baptisms and so on. I can’t help but wondering, “who was here?”. The answer — which almost always includes intricate familial connections and intrigue across borders — is more addictive than crack (or maybe even chocolate). I simply can’t get enough.
And, I am almost always stunned by some critical piece of history that I did not know. Case in point: The Alhambra (Granada, Spain). One of our first stops on the Castles and Cathedrals road trip, the Alhambra was a royal playground that is really more like a city of many castles. It has been inhabited (and enhanced) by many different monarchs across thousands of years.
I knew that the Alhambra was a beloved residence of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who caused a great deal of trouble for good old Henry VIII of England. (You remember Henry — he was the famous King who had six wives. He beheaded two, divorced two, and was survived by the last of the six). When Henry wanted an annulment from his first wife in order to marry the beautiful (and ill-fated) Anne Boleyn, it was Charles who stood in the way. Charles was the loyal cousin of wife #1, Catherine of Aragon. Unfortunately for Henry, Charles also had control of the Pope, who, after much dancing, stalling, and considering, ultimately refused to give Henry the annulment. This little drama set off a series of events that reverberated throughout England’s history for hundreds of years.
But wait…there’s more.
What I didn’t know was that Catherine of Aragon, the inconvenient wife who was in the way of Henry’s marriage to Anne, not only lived in the Alhambra, she also watched it fall. 7 year old Catherine was there when her warrior mum, Queen Isabella, laid seige to Alhambra and drove the Moors out of the city. She walked through its doors with Isabella and Ferdinand to reclaim it for Christendom. (Who takes their child along to a battle BTW?)
Catherine apparently pined for her beloved Alhambra throughout her life. And who could blame her? The Alhambra, with its lush gardens, low, tinkling fountains, delicate stonework and colorful tiles must have been a far cry from the dark, musty castles of chilly England. Sadly, Catherine never returned to Alhambra, but she took Alhambra’s symbol, the split pomegranate, as her own heraldic seal. It stayed with Catherine until the day she died, imprisoned in Kimbolton Castle, in England.
Kimbolton is on my list of castles to see in England by the way. But…so many castles, so little time. In fact, if you followed the five people I’ve mentioned to every castle and cathedral associated with them, your list would include more than 40 castles and cathedrals across Europe. Hopefully, I’ll see them all.
But I digress. Back to Spain:
A trip to the Alhambra wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Capilla Real Cathedral in the heart of Granada. Isabella and Ferdinand are buried in this beautiful cathedral, far from their birthplace. They chose Granada as their burial place because both felt that driving the Moors out of Alhambra was the most important thing they had done in their lives (all those heretics they burned at the stake didn’t count for much I suppose). If you don’t care a fig about Isabella and Ferdinand, I should mention that Capilla Real is also notable because they claim to have the arm of St. Paul in their possession (Paul must have had 4 arms though because 3 other cathedrals in Europe make the same claim).
Queen Isabella also spent a fair amount of time in the beautiful Reales Alcazar palace in Seville. In fact, one of my favorite gardens in the Reales Alcazar is the Princes Garden, so named because it was the garden Isabella looked out on as she gave birth to her son. Christopher Columbus was received by Isabella and Ferdinand at the Palace Alcazar when he returned from his voyage to America. His tomb and remains are located at the nearby cathedral of St Mary of the See (in Seville), which is one of the largest cathedral in Europe, with ceilings that soar 121 feet high. Its remarkable vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and 5 lavish naves certainly make it one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Europe.
Like the Alhambra, the Reales Alcazar has been home to many monarchs (both Christians and Moors) since the 12th century. The American author, Washington Irving, captured many of the families and drama of Spain’s history in his wonderful book Stories of the Alhambra which he wrote whilst living there (he was the last person to actually live on site in Granada). A great read and wonderful background if you are planning a visit.
From Granada, we moved onto Segovia (more castles and cathedrals) and then onto France. I’ll write more about our progress on the Castles and Cathedrals road trip soon~
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