Published: May 16th 2006May 16th 2006
Last night Sarah spent the late evening getting everything packed so we could get to Peniscola in time to enjoy a decent afternoon there.
We were on the road by 10am and next year’s world rally champ contender made short work of the 250km up the coast, and we were on the door step of our hilltop pad at lunchtime, even after a half hour pitstop at the motorway diner-cum-hotel to stretch Kaspar’s legs.
So, after a quick pick me up and a sleep for Special K we headed down to the old town to check out the picturesque isthmus upon which it has been perched for over a millennium.
Peniscola - a name meaning “almost island” - is an old town, and although small, its unique topography has lent it to being a very desirable place to settle over the ages. Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs have all had a piece of the action here. And of course, those killing-for-Christ mercenaries, the Knights Templar, set up shop on this rock, starting to build the impressive castle in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.
The town and its encompassing wall is built directly on
rock that rises out of the Mediterranean sea, and together with its castle it has undergone various stages of ‘development’ and/or remodelling as has been deemed appropriate for its purpose at the time…most of this driven by military needs.
We started our tour by entering the city via St Peter’s Gate - which was added under the command of Pope Luna in the 15th century, providing a much needed new access way from the sea. This new access way was all well and good until the invaders got smarter, and weapons more destructive, and in the 18th century this access way had to be walled up. It was reopened again recently, providing drive on access to the town - although god knows why, as the town streets are only a couple of people wide.
We meandered our way up to the top of the town around the outer road so we could take in the superb vertigo inducing views directly down the rocky cliffs into the Mediterranean below, and across to the wide, white sanded beaches that stretched further up the coast than the eye can see. Across the Med were pleasure and fishing boats in all directions
and all the while we were dive bombed by the hundreds, maybe thousands of swallows that had made this rock, the walled city and the castle their home (take a closer look - you’ll see them in almost every outdoor photo below).
We had a minor mishap on the way up when Sarah and Kaspar slipped on a centuries old flight of steps just below a lookout point. Kaspar shook it off like an old pro (months of creeping up behind him and yelling ‘boo’ are finally paying off) and Sarah’s pride was hurt more than anything else.
Along the way we came to rest in one of many rest stops before the castle. The town had a very Mediterranean look to it, with white washed houses, blue windows and shutters, cacti, stone streets worn by centuries of foot traffic, and crystal clear blue green water. It is also home to all manner of oddities that you would only find in a secluded village that is seasonally bombarded with foreigners, including a tree monkey and a shell house.
We arrived at the top of the rock, at the entrance of the castle to find a band of
stonework emblems above the main doorway - surely another sign from the Knights regarding the whereabouts of the Holy Grail in Pakistan. At least one pigeon seemed to think it was significant.
We wandered through the dozens of rooms of the castle over 3 levels, impressed with the scale of the construction and the very user friendly layout - it could easily do as a modern home for a large family (other than the extremely narrow stairway leading to one of the highest view points…barely a Kaspar wide, I couldn’t see any Friar Tucks managing their way up there!)
Below the castle was an elaborate and most tropical looking garden, still extremely well kept. We discovered it was also home to a falconry, with some real big bad looking birds finishing their siesta. There’s an extremely precarious stairway that leads down from the castle to the garden, which the locals have deemed too dangerous for the clumsy fat tourists and subsequently cordoned off - fair call too, because a slip here would lead to a 100m fall onto the rocks and sea below.
Next to the castle we found the Hermitage of the Virgin of the Hermit,
another impressive religious building which would’ve cost a bomb to build at the time, probably at the expense of the health of a few thousand locals. Thank god they could live on miracles back then.
We wandered down the hill on the northern side where we could the see the continuous beach reach up the coast through 3 or 4 more towns. We’ve heard there is a picture postcard medieval town in Morella which is inland 45mins, and a raft of hilltop Spanish towns that specialise in cheese and nougat along the way. Sounds like caloric fun - we’ll get back to you when we’re fatter!
There are more photos below