In a previous post about Spanish castles I wrote six years ago, I talked about the Castillo de Alameda de Osuna, a fifteenth-century castle on the northeastern fringes of Madrid. Back then it was rather neglected, standing as an enigmatic ruin in the middle of a field. Now it’s been restored and has opened as a museum.
The site first became important in the 12th century with the founding of two towns in the area, Barajas and La Alameda. Together they became the manor of the Mendoza family in 1369, only to be transferred to the Zapata family in 1406.
While writing my next novel in the Western Desert of Egypt (something I’ve discussed in several previous posts), I came across an interesting local landmark. Behind my campsite in Bahariya Oasis stands a grim heap of black volcanic stone called “English Mountain”. When I asked around about this unusual name, the local Bedouin told me that it was once home to an English soldier who kept watch for attacking tribes back in the days when Egypt was still a colony. I was told the ruins of his house could still be seen.
So of course I went up to see them!
But not before taking Ahmed Fakhry’s excellent book Bahariya and Farafra out of my backpack to see what he had to say about this. Yes, I travel through the Sahara with a bag full of books.
Written in 1974 but mostly based on expeditions the archaeologist took in the 1930s, Fakhry’s book is full of useful information and folklore. In it he says that English Mountain is actually named after a New Zealander named Claud Williams, who commanded No. 5 Light Car Patrol during World War One. Williams, Fakhry says, kept a lonely vigil atop that mountain for hostile Senussi tribesmen.
In many of Spain’s oldest cities, history comes in layers.
Dominating the southern skyline of Córdoba is the alcázar, a castle that takes its name from the Arabic word for fort, al-qasr. This medieval Christian castle/palace was built atop the foundations of an earlier Muslim palace, which was built atop the foundations of a Visigothic fortress, which was built atop the remains of a Roman governor’s palace, which was built atop. . .who knows?
The earliest structures all but vanished after the Moors expanded the building into a palace with a large garden, which was used by the local rulers until the Christians retook the city in 1236. In 1328, Alfonso XI of Castile began construction of a larger fortress on the site, although he maintained the luxuriant gardens of the Moorish palace as well as building generous living quarters. Even though the Christians demolished the majority of the original structure, the new building looked pretty Islamic thanks to the introduction of the Mudéjar style, an enduring Spanish architectural style that takes its inspiration from Moorish designs. Even some early twentieth century buildings near by house in Madrid are in this style.
What if I told you that the Highland army at Culloden in 1746 wasn’t really a “Highland” Army?
What if I also told you that apart from a few front-ranking testosterone-poisoned sword and targe men, it fought like any other 18th century European army and that at least half the men looked like regular soldiers draped in tartan tat — sashes, tartan trews, a better quality version of the kind of stuff tourists still pick up in Edinburgh’s gift shops — to show which side they were on?
Yes, I’ve been reading Jenn Scott’s new Better is the Proud Plaid: The Clothing, Weapons and Accoutrements of the Jacobites in the ’45. (UK, US)
It’s so far out of my normal period that I’m in danger of doing that thing where I age before your eyes and turn into a puddle of steaming goop.
However, every Scot grows up with the tale of Bonny Prince Charley, the ’45 Rebellion, and the tragic Battle of Culloden. Me being an Anglo-Scot, my ancestors, if involved, wore red coats and cursed in Nottinghamshire accents while they fought for Good King George. No wonder, then, that I’ve always been suspicious of the noble-savage-fighting-for-Scottish-freedom-while-swiving-time-travelling-American-nurses narrative that has wrapped itself around the rebellion. This book promised to debunk some of that — which it does, but in doing so replaces it with something perhaps more impressive.
And, also, I was expecting to be impressed. I’ve been hearing about Jenn’s research for years.
As I mentioned in my last post, I got to explore Florence for a few days, absorbing as much of the Italian Renaissance (and modern pizza) as I could.
So of course I went to the Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy’s most renowned museums. While I knew I would be seeing a treasure trove of Da Vincis and Caravaggios, I didn’t realize that portions of the building itself are a work of art.
Specifically, the ceilings of the upper Eastern Corridor. These are decorated with bright, lively frescoes painted by Alessandro Allori in 1580 and 1581. Each section is a different theme or subject such as military affairs or exploration, and taken together they act as a window into the thoughts and imagination of Florence in the late Renaissance.
Last week I wrote about the Alcazaba Castle in Málaga, Spain. As I mentioned, it’s only one of two castles protecting the Mediterranean harbor. Up the hill from the Alcazaba, on top of the Gibralfaro Mountain, is Gibralfaro Castle.
The summit was originally home to a Phoenician lighthouse, hence the name in both Arabic and Greek, gebel-faro meaning “rock of the lighthouse”.
In 929 AD, Abd-al-Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba, built the first castle here. It was later expanded in the 14th century by Yusef I, Sultan of Granada. He also connected this fort to the Alcazaba by adding a double wall down the slope to make one continuous fortification. You have to buy a ticket for each, though. Poor old Yusuf is spinning in his grave.
The Alcazaba with the ruins of a Roman theater in the foreground
Last week I had the pleasure of spending five days in Málaga, a historic port on Spain’s south coast. Founded by the Phoenicians around the 8th century BC, it continued to be important during Roman times and well into the modern era. While it was never one of the major ports like Barcelona, it always saw brisk trade.
The main attractions are two museums dedicated to local-boy-done-good Pablo Picasso and a pair of impressive medieval castles. The first is the Alcazaba, which loomed over the town and we’ll talk about today. Next week’s castle is further upslope and is called the Gibralfaro.
The city is in ruins and divided between American, British, French, and Russian sectors. German war veteran and police detective Gregor Reinhardt is trying to reassemble his life but, like his city, it’s been smashed into too many pieces.
Not only does he have to contend with the loss of his family and his home, but also guilt over the war and the politics of a police department in which everyone has a sponsor among one of the occupying powers and geopolitics gets played out in the office.
And now he has a serial murderer on his hands, one who shoves sand or water down his victim’s throats in order to suffocate or drown them. Throw in some unrepentant Nazis and a frighteningly efficient Soviet officer, and Reinhardt is up for a long case.
I found this book by accident while browsing through my local bookshop and it’s the best mystery novel I’ve read all year. McCallin is a master storyteller who evokes the grim, surreal landscape of postwar Berlin.
As he takes us along on Reinhardt’s case, we get to experience the sights, sounds, and even the smells and tastes of a once-proud city trying to dig itself out from disaster. The author has clearly done his homework and we learn all sorts of fascinating details about life for regular Germans after the war and the politics of the four “Allied” powers ruling Germany.
One of the best things about living in Spain is being able to visit the many castles that dot the landscape. Actually it’s the food and wine and relatively low cost of living, but the castles are nice too. Not far from Madrid is the Castillo de Manzanares El Real. It was built in 1475 by the I Duque del Infantado, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, and is billed as one of the “jewels of Spain.”
The castle replaced a smaller and less elegant castle in town, and was constructed as both a fortification and a residence. The choice of construction was a bit outmoded, as artillery was already making fortifications such as this one ineffective. Fortunately for the duke, it was never attacked and in fact the family only lived there until 1530.
I just finished reading Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945 as part of my research for my Volkssturm novel. For sweep, excitement, and fine attention to telling detail, it rivals Lords of the Atlas as my favorite history book.
One of the things that had me shaking my head all the way through Beevor’s book is just how great the level of denial was on all levels of German society, especially at the top. With the Russians rolling across the border and most German cities already in ruins, the Nazi high command was still obsessed with petty power struggles and dinner parties. The common people had a bit more of a clue, but still clung to a desperate hope that somehow everything would turn out OK. In the interest of history not repeating itself, here are ten signs that your evil empire is about to collapse. This may come in handy some day.