Spain is littered with ancient and desolate little towns, tiny monuments that quietly preserve the glories of centuries past. They’re usually anchored by a wonderfully oversized church that dominates a handful of stone homes and other structures surrounding it.
Gormaz, about 115 miles northeast of Madrid and 45 miles southwest of Soria (see map below), is a perfect example of such a town. It has a requisite chapel, a few homes, and according to the most recent census it also has 19 residents. Although good luck trying to find one – even that small number seems overstated. You walk around and see nobody.
But Gormaz isn’t just another deserted town that the world forgot long ago. Gormaz is actually a place of unmitigated awesomeness: the Castle of Gormaz.
Built in the early 10th Century and believed to have been completed around 956 AD, the Castle of Gormaz stands on a naturally fortified cliff over 100 yards above the Duero River with commanding views of the surrounding Castile and Leon countryside.
It’s one of the oldest and largest fortresses in Western Europe, and one of the most important structures remaining from the Umayyad Caliphate period in Spain, when the Moors controlled much of the central and southern regions of the country.
The Castle was built to defend the vast surrounding area against attacks from Christian kingdoms in the north. Of course, there were a number of other fortresses built by Moorish rulers for the same purpose, stretching from Segovia to Berlanga del Duero (spectacular in its own right). But the Castle of Gormaz is the largest of them all.
It’s enormous: about 400 yards long, including 28 towers and surrounding defensive walls that are up to 40 feet tall and 15 feet thick. It’s divided into two separate areas by a moat, the fortress itself and a walled enclosure for soldiers. There’s also a huge underground water reservoir beneath the main structure to ensure self-sufficiency during times of siege.
The primary gate is a horseshoe double-arch facing a steep rocky drop down the southwest side of the hill. What a grand entrance this must have been for visiting Caliphs or dignitaries back in the day.
Overall it’s an imposing structure especially when you consider the scale on a personal level. Which appears particularly daunting as you approach from the bottom and look up toward those massive walls. Certainly the intended effect back in the 10th Century.
But it’s the vastness – of the structure itself and of the distant horizon across the landscape – that makes a visit here worthwhile.
As you look out over the plains with no sound but the wind you’re likely to feel overcome with a sense of enormity and serenity. There’s an invigorating beauty about being so exquisitely remote yet inherently connected to the openness. More than this, as Peter Gabriel would say.
After being repeatedly besieged and attacked, the Castle of Gormaz finally fell into Christian hands when King Fernando I took it over 1059. Then a few years later, in 1087, King Alfonso VI gave control of the Castle to the legendary Spanish hero El Cid.
In fact, the Castle of Gormaz is mentioned in Cantar de Mio Cid, known in English as “The Poem of El Cid”, the famous Castilian epic poem. Based on true stories, the poem tells adventures about El Cid during the Reconquista, or re-conquest of Spain from the Moors.
The Castle of Gormaz is also part of El Camino De El Cid, a historical and now touristic route that covers the footsteps taken by El Cid as described in Cantar de Mio Cid.
But today you won’t find many tourists at Castle of Gormaz. Even though it remains a significant landmark in the region, it’s one of those genuinely special places that gets far less notice than it deserves.
Which, of course, is a perfect reason to include Gormaz on your hit-list next time you visit Spain 🙂 .