Are American Castles Really Castles?

Throughout the week, I have been chatting with different people about their experience with castles. Had they ever been to one? Did they enjoy it? To my surprise, many of the answers I’ve gotten have been similar to “Does the Disney castle count?” or “The Harry Potter castle was pretty cool”. For the vast majority of students I interviewed, their response was fairly common, that they had never visited one and some had visited one in Europe. Many students have also visited castles in America, such as Nemacolin Castle, but are American castles really castles? What makes a castle a castle?

According to Webster’s dictionary, the definition of a castle is a large fortified building or set of buildings. In addition, in order to be considered a castle from an architectural point of view, it must have been built during the Middle Ages, it must have functioned as a fortress for the protection of a noble family, and it must be surrounded by a wall–some are surrounded by water– and have reinforced iron gates, weapon cellars, and at least one tower. Another characteristic is that it must have been inhabited by monarchs or families belonging to the nobility.

The Middle Ages or Medieval Era is the historical period of Western civilization from the 5th to the 15th century. Its beginning is placed in the year 476, the year of the fall of the Western Roman Empire; and its end in 1492, the year in which Columbus arrived in America. So, I am sorry to tell you that if you have visited a castle in America I am afraid it was not a “real” castle, as it is unlikely to have been built between those years. “We don’t have real castles here since we have never had monarchy,” student Maya Daugherty rightly says.

“When you talk about castles, I can’t help but think of princesses and princes charming,” says Tess Restori. Why lie–we all think about this, but I am sorry to disappoint you Tess and company, as castle’s aims went beyond fairytale love. Compared to America, in Europe we have had to build castles not only to demonstrate architectural or artistic talent, but also to defend ourselves from enemies and invaders.

View from my window of the Santa Catalina Castle lit up in the dark of night. Picture taken by my father, Jose María Núñez.

I am proud to say that I grew up in Jaén, the city with the most castles per square kilometer in all of Europe. This concentration of castles, walls, and fortresses is no coincidence as Jaén has always been a strategic land of battles. Like the battle of Bailén (1808), which was the first defeat of Napoleon’s troops in the open field, or the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), a turning point towards the Reconquest.

I still find it curious that most of the students I have talked to have never visited or seen a castle, as they have always been part of my daily life since I saw them every day, literally through the window of my living room.

Below I would like to share with you some pictures of some of the castles in my city, which you can visit through a mapped route that can be travelled by car, bicycle and even on horseback with the tranquillity of an uncrowded destination. While you make the tour, you cannot help but imagine all the battles and events that happened within its walls and surroundings.

Castillo de Alcalá la Real (or Fortaleza de La Mota) is a castle in Alcala la Real, in the province of Jaén, Spain. It is a defensive enclosure, located at an elevation of 1,029 metres (3,376 ft). It dates to the 13th-14th century, although some elements of the structure are older.

Fortress in Alcalá la Real, a town and municipality in the province of Jaén, Spain.

Castillo de Burgalimar, in the Jaén town of Baños de la Encina is the oldest castle in Spain and the second oldest in Europe. It was built in 968 AD, during the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba period. The only castle still standing, in Europe, that is older, is Château de Doué-la-Fontaine in France, built about 950 AD. Castillo de Baños also happens to be the best-preserved fortified complex from this period in Spain, all excellent reasons to visit the town and castle.

The castle of Burgalimar in Baños de la Encina, a Spanish municipality and town in the province of Jaén.

Castillo de Santa Catalina, or new fortress, is an ancient defensive construction of Christian-medieval finish, which crowns the hill of the same name, in a spur of the Sierra de Jabalcuz at 820 m altitude, from which you can see the entire city of Jaén, the olive groves and the surrounding mountains in the area.

The castle that presides over the city of Jaén, the castle of Santa Catalina.

Castillo de Trovador Macías is a castle in Arjonilla which an old medieval legend gives its name. The love between the troubadour Macías and his beloved Elvira inspired authors such as Lope de Vega and Larra. The castle is Arab in origin, although what remains now is the result of the reforms made by the Military Order of Calatrava after the Christian Reconquest. Most notable of all is the tower-gate, where legend has it that the troubadour Macías (“the Lover”) was held in an upper room converted in a prison cell.  The troubadour Macías was in the service of Enrique, the Marquess of Villena, during the Reconquest. He fell in love in Arjonilla with one of the ladies of the court of the Marchioness, Doña Elvira, who was a married woman. They were caught while trying to escape. The troubadour Macías was imprisoned in the tower and finally killed by the jealous husband.

Castle of Trovador Macías in Arjonilla, a Spanish municipality and town in the province of Jaén.

Castillo de Tobaruela is an example of the model of castle-residence that reflected the power of some noble lineages in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. Currently, their original morphology and appearance have remained intact since 15th century, when the castle was built, but the outbuildings inside have been substantially modified. The fortification is privately owned, so it cannot be visited inside.

Tobaruela Castle in Linares, a Spanish city and municipality belonging to the province of Jaén.

So, having said all this, if you really want to see a real castle other than Disney’s or Hogwarts, I highly recommend a visit to Europe, where you will find yourself in a medieval atmosphere surrounded by castles where real stories and legends happened long ago.

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