The Santa Cueva Oratory in Cádiz was finished in 1796
and is one of the best examples of its kind. It features some
unusually bright and cheery paintings by Francisco de Goya
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Phoenician and Roman Cádiz, the early history of one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe, on the southwestern coast of Spain near the Strait of Gibraltar. While Cádiz was important throughout its history, its sheltered harbor on the Atlantic made it a good spot for launching the many exploratory vessels that Spain sent out into the world starting in the late 15th century. Columbus made his second and fourth voyages to America from Cádiz, and some of the tropical plants growing in the city squares are said to be descendants of samples he brought home.
On a beautiful sunny day, there’s nothing I enjoy more than walking in the English countryside. Unfortunately, most of this August has been more like autumn, with overcast skies, unseasonably cold temperatures, and rain. Ah well.
But at least I got out for one walk, along an eight-mile stretch of the Thames Path National Trail. The trail took me from the old Anglo-Saxon burgh of Wallingford to the pretty little village of Goring-on-Thames. Like most of the Thames Path, it’s an easy, level walk through attractive countryside and historic sights.
In the North Holland province of the Netherlands stands the atmospheric ruin of Brederode Castle, a battered survivor of a violent past.
Unlike the more popular Dutch castle Muiderslot, which I’ve also written about here on Black Gate, Brederode is mostly ruins but still makes a rewarding day trip from Amsterdam.
Brederode started as a bailey and square keep built in 1282 by Willem van Brederode to guard an important coastal road. In 1300 the original fortification was rebuilt with a large keep with three square and one round tower at the corners. A moat surrounded the entire structure. In 1351, it was the scene of fighting in the so-called Hook and Cod Wars. This was a struggle over the rights to the title of the Count of Holland. The “Cod” faction was mainly made up of city merchants and was called this by their enemies in the landed nobility because a cod will continue to greedily eat and grow as long as there’s food to consume. The traditional nobility called themselves the “Hooks” because, of course, that’s what you use to catch a cod. The Brederode family was part of the Hook faction but this proved to be a bad decision because a Cod force besieged the castle in 1351 and destroyed it.
Morocco is a country of many parts. While most visitors go down the the Atlas Mountains and the important cities in the interior like Fez and Marrakesh, or strike out into the southern desert, the Moroccan coast is well worth a visit. The Atlantic coast in particular has some interesting historic ports.
Larache is an hour and a half drive along the coast from the Strait of Gibraltar and makes for a good day trip from Tangier. Nearby is the Roman city of Lixus, the main reason we went. Lixus used to be a harbor until the Oued Loukos estuary silted up, marooning it inland and forcing the residents to build the newer city of Larache around the 15th century AD.
For many years it was an important fishing port and was the main shipbuilding center for the Barbary corsairs. Local artisans used wood from the nearby Forest of Mamora, which still stands today and makes a good place for a peaceful stroll.
We talk about castles a fair amount here on Black Gate, which is hardly surprising. But the Middle Ages weren’t the only or even the most productive period for building fortifications. At the start of World War Two, countries all over Europe feverishly built defenses against possible invasion.
The United Kingdom was one of the leaders in this movement. Convinced that a German invasion was imminent, the government ordered the construction of a vast network of pillboxes. Many of these defended the beaches and ports. Others were set along important canals and roads. In all, more than 18,000 pillboxes were constructed during the war.
When we think of the Western Front during World War One, we tend to think of the static killing grounds of trench warfare. While this was true for many grueling years of war, during its first months in 1914, WWI was a war of movement.
The German offensive in August 1914 involved a sweep through Belgium in an attempt to take Paris and knock France out of the war before its ally, Russia, could mobilize. What the Germans didn’t expect was the fierce resistence put up by the Belgians. Its small but determined army slowed down the German advance, aided by a string of outdated but stubbornly defended forts.
York in northern England is justifiably famous for its well-preserved Viking city. The foundations of an entire Viking neighborhood are preserved under glass at the Jorvik Viking Center, a delightfully cheesy tourist trap that includes an animatronic Viking taking a dump in a Norse outhouse.
But let’s not dwell on that. For a different, yet equally one-of-a-kind sight, check out York Castle just a short stroll away. It was founded in 1068 by William the Conqueror as a typical motte and bailey castle. These fortifications included an artificial mound (the motte) with a wooden tower and wall on top, and another enclosed area (the bailey) in front of the base. The Normans slapped these forts together wherever they conquered because they were cheap and quick to build. It’s said they finished York Castle in just eight days!
When the Romans marched into the Iberian Peninsula 218 BC, they found it to be a patchwork of small Celtic kingdoms and tribes, each with its distinct local traditions, but sharing the same overall culture.
Like with the other Celtic peoples they faced, the Romans met fierce resistance, and didn’t fully conquer the peninsula for 200 years. The last holdouts were the mountain tribes of northern Spain–the Cantabri, the Astures, and the Gallaeci. They have left their names as three of Spain’s northern provinces–Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia. In a bitter war from 29 to 19 BC, the Emperor Augustus brought these tribes to heel and took their land for the empire.
“Cantabri” means “mountain people.” They were an isolated and independent-minded culture living a mostly pastoral lifestyle. Several of their villages and cemeteries have been excavated and the regional government has also built a reconstructed Cantabrian village. The Poblado Cántabro at Cabezón de la Sal, an hour’s train ride from the regional capital Santander, gives the visitor an insight into the lives of these ancient people.
Living in Spain, I’ve had the good fortune to visit many of the country’s castles.
The most stunning, and most popular, is the Alcázar in Segovia, an easy day trip from Madrid. It’s in great condition, mainly because it was never caught up in the Reconquista or blasted apart during the Spanish Civil War. Built on the end of the rocky promontory atop which Segovia stands, it’s literally cut off from the rest of the town by a deep moat cut through the bedrock.