Travels in Spain – Sigüenza, The Reconquista and The Plaza Mayor

Siguenza Central Spain

We had charming first-floor rooms with stone walls and wooden ceiling beams, terracotta floor tiles, small window terraces with iron balcony rails and splendid views over the town.  We had requested this particular room because we had stayed in it before and we liked the Brompi stove in the corner and as we moved in it was spitting fuel pellets and spewing flame even though this was absolutely not necessary as the temperature outside had by now nudged above 25°

Sigüenza is only a small town so we didn’t want to rush out and see it all straight away because we had plans to do that the next morning so instead we left the hotel and strolled casually to the centre past the imposing cathedral which seems surprisingly large for a small town but is a reminder that Sigüenza once enjoyed a great deal more importance and status than it does today.

Two thousand years ago the Romans passed this way and built a fort on the highest point of the place they called Segontia.  It was built principally as a staging post on the important Roman road that ran from Mérida (Emerita Augusta) to Zaragoza (Caesar Augusta) making it the most important city between Toledo (Toletum) and Zaragoza and it was during the time of the Romans sometime in the fourth century that the city was declared a Bishopric capital which made it very important indeed.

After the withdrawal of the Legions the Roman city was systematically destroyed over the years by barbarian invaders from the north but was later re-established and rebuilt by the more civilised and enlightened Visigoths. In Siguenza as elsewhere they consolidated Catholicism and re-established the Bishopric, which provided stability and security for two centuries as the town re-established itself as one of the most important cities of central Spain.

During the early eighth century the Moors swept north out of Africa and conquered large areas of land in the peninsular and they reached as far as Sigüenza in the year 713 as the Muslims expanded from their established power base in Toledo.  After four hundred years of greatness, influence and peace the Moors didn’t consider the place to be quite so important as the Romans and the Visigoths and the city was gradually reduced in status to no more than a minor frontier town and fortress that soldiers would probably have dreaded getting a posting to.

During the years of the Muslim occupation the whole area became a military buffer zone ruled and controlled by Muslim military detachments in the castles of Atienza, Guadalajara, Castejón (now Jadraque), Hita, Sigüenza and Medinaceli.  The Moors had little use for this harsh land and the principal objective of occupation was to protect the great Muslim cities of Toledo and Cordoba from any threat of counter invasion from the north.

This was an occupation that lasted for almost four hundred years until the great wars of the Reconquista.

El Cid

The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 is called the Reconquest and the Spanish have organised their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become a cherished feature of the self-image of the Spanish people and it has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade to remove the Muslims from Iberia.

Interestingly the Muslim population of Spain is currently experiencing something of a resurgence.  In 1990 there were one hundred thousand Muslims in Spain but now there are over a million and many of the Moriscos of North Africa who were expelled in the sixteenth century after the reconquest are supporting a claim, based on heritage and blood-line, to be able to return.

Being a frontier town Sigüenza saw fierce fighting between Christians and Moors and during the campaigns of Alfonso VI (King of Leon and Castile) was recovered by the northern powers during their southerly advance as they conquered cities and towns of Castejón, Hita, Horche and Uceda  along the valley of the Rio Henares until they reached Guadalajara which legend says was besieged and recovered by  Alvar Fáñez de Minaya, one of the major heroes of the Reconquista.

Fully returned to Christianity in 1090 the town recovered its importance, a new castle was built as a fortress palace of the bishop of Sigüenza and the town played an influential part in the power struggles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries retaining power and control right up to the end of the fifteenth century until the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the Catholic Monarchs, changed the political balance of power in Spain forever, the influence of the Bishops both here and in Toledo was dismantled and Sigüenza began another slow journey towards virtual obscurity.

It was difficult to imagine this today as we walked slowly around the walls of the Cathedral, pock-marked by gunfire during the Spanish Civil War, and made our inevitable way towards the Plaza Mayor and selected a table and chairs that were placed strategically in the sunshine and when the waiter arrived we ordered some beer and simply sat and soaked up the atmosphere.

The Plaza Mayor is the most important part of a Spanish town and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares of course but use them in an entirely different way.

This is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by.  When we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a drink and complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the town and its people and so just to make sure that could accurately capture that mood we had a second beer in the sunshine before leaving.

In the evening we returned to the town to the restaurant Le Meson which we had used before and were confident that there would be something on the menu that Sue and Christine would be able to enjoy.  The restaurant was closed but the staff cleared a table for us in the bar area and the first day ended with a dining success with food acceptable to everyone and a couple of juicy glasses of Rioja and by the end of the evening I was certain that Sigüenza was quickly becoming one of my favourite places in Spain and in the small town category  beginning to edge above Chinchon, Almagro and Belmonte.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Spain

16 responses to “Travels in Spain – Sigüenza, The Reconquista and The Plaza Mayor

  1. The Reconquest ended the same year of Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic. Coincidence? I think not.


  2. Andrew would you be so kind as to explain the difference of the use of the square in Spain vs the UK?


  3. The plaza is always across the cathedral. We were colonies of Spain for 300yrs and all our cities and towns have this layout. In olden days, After the mass, people go to the plaza to socialize.


  4. I love the idea of the square. We make the mistake in our modern cities of not realizing how important they are to everyday life and for visitors. These days in my city, we roll up the sidewalks when the crows go to bed and visitors complain there is nothing entertaining here.


  5. Dear Andrew,
    Good morning.
    You raised my eyebrows slightly with your answer to sueslaght.
    Unquestionably, you are right re the climate differences between the Iberian Peninsula and Britain. That said, some parts of Spain have weather at least as bad* as Britain.
    Most people here in Grimsby do not realise that we get HALF the annual rainfall they get on the Galician coast!! And people in – say -Torquay, have marginally warmer Decembers and Januarys than Madrileños.enjoy!
    Plus we often have some freakishly warm Spring and Autumn weeks when our temperatures are warmer than those in the Med.
    And I was once in the Iberian Peninsula when it rained heavily 8 days on the trot (I was on a Archers/Cosmos Grand Tour of Portugal at the time… I never went on one again, fearing that such tour guides would do what that one did: viz cop-out and spend all our time hiding from the rain in cafes, bars and restaurants!)
    And do you remember when the late Seve Ballesteros successfully urged the Ryder Cup Committee to allow Andalusia, the sunniest region of Spain, to host the 1997 tournament at Valderrama? His big clinching argument was that the USP of Valerrama over British golf courses was the guaranteed sunshine! And what happened? Torrential rain flooded the golf course: the best part of two days were lost to the weather, and the final day had to go into the Monday.
    As for the British obsession with Elf and Safety**: you are right in that for sure, some Spanish traditions would be non-starters here. For instance, the Catalan tradition of forming human towers (Castelling) would never get off the ground here (ouch!)
    But it is important to say that all sorts of parades and carnivals occur in Britain, relatively unhindered. The Notting Hill Carnival and The Bridgwater Carnival, are two that are pre-eminent. The squibbing*** at the latter is world famous, but I will bet you a £100 to your penny, that you have never heard of this tradition. .
    And why have you not? Because, as I said to you at the excellent luncheon Larissa and I enjoyed at Petcher Towers last Sunday – thanks be to Kim for her superb hospitality – you shamefully ignore your own country!! I mean Haxey Hood is just down the road from you, yet you would rather play golf!
    And if you get around Britain more, you will see many squares in Britain where alfresco drinking and dining is de rigueur in the warmer weather. Not just in the tourist honeypots of Central London like Golden Square and Paternoster Square, but in many of London’s “villages” like Hampstead, Highgate, Blackheath and Islington Green..
    Places like Slab Square in Nottingham; St George’s Square in Glasgow; Roald Dahl Plaza and The Hayes in Cardiff; Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester…I could go on and on and name squares and avenues in cities like Bristol, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Birmingham, etc.
    And smaller towns like Warwick with its very atmospheric alfresco dining in the Market Square.
    But Andrew, there is an “elephant in the room” re the British scene that you have not addressed… so I will, on your behalf.
    I refer to British attitudes to alcohol.
    So many Brits drink beer with the purpose of, if not getting DRUNK exactly, then at least getting TIPSY. By contrast, people in the northern Mediterranean countries, drink wine, because they feel it goes with food, like they were both made for each other.
    And alas, British alfresco dining thus often has the background soundtrack of wailing police sirens.
    Right, that is me finished Andrew. I am off to lunch, then at teatime I am off to the flicks to see FADING GIGOLO. (Always go on a Wednesday BTW, 241 throughout Britain. I will only pay £2.40 admission (and I call that a …RESULT !!)
    But tell Kim that she can pop in after work as Larissa will be there, even though I will be watching Woody Allen. Ah, I have lost count of the hours I have spent watching that man!

    * such words are subjective of course: personally I love rain and snow.
    ** Health and Safety.
    *** The fact that this is allowed to happen annually, is proof that the control-freakery of British bureaucrats can be hugely overstated!
    Also remember that the amazing bonfire processions of East Sussex which I have been to several times (and you have yet to get to), include an annual burning of an effigy of The Pope at Lewes!

    Dai Woosnam
    Grimsby, UK


    • Thanks Dai for this response, as usual you make some excellent points that I cannot disagree with.

      Earlier this week I abandoned my natural reluctance to go travelling in the UK and after two days was reminded of exactly why I have that natural reluctance.

      Motoring is just not enjoyable. The roads are crowded, there are road works every few miles and you have to keep a watchful eye out for speed cameras. Of course the last time I was foolish enough to go on holiday in UK the Welsh police saw fit to catch me and fine me £65 for the pleasure of visiting Aberystwyth.

      English towns lack character, everyone has the same shops and most High Streets are a string of charity shops, betting places and money lenders. And they empty out very early evening, on Monday night (a bank holiday) Harrogate was deserted with only a few spotty skate boarders outside McDonalds and smokers standing in pub doorways. It was all so depressing.

      And then there is the weather. I agree with the statistic about Galicia but in between the showers it enjoys wonderful sunshine. My journey to Yorkshire was just horribly wet and miserable. So wet I probably need a new set of wiper blades.

      Finally the cost! A car park in York cost £6.90 for 3 hours – even Dick Turpin himself would be embarrassed by this level of highway robbery. To be fair however the National Railway Museum did have free admission.

      I have been to some wonderful places in England, Chester, Warwick, Truro, Durham and Ely to name just a few but I have still not been to Bath!

      My nomination for most bizarre festival (and one I could never approve of) in Spain is in Manganeses de la Polvorosa near Zamora where they drag a goat to the top of a fifteen metre high church tower and throw it over the top where spectators try to catch the unfortunate animal in a tarpaulin. It is cruel and has been banned by the authorities but apparently the people of the town simply ignore the ban.

      Kim and I will drop round to see the garden when (if) it stops raining!


  6. What an interesting slice of history Andrew. Thanks! And I totally agree with you that the Plaza Mayor is the place to start in any Spanish city. Sigüenza sounds fascinating – we have’t been there yet, but you’re providing an excellent road map for our next foray. 🙂 ~Terri


  7. The plaza and it’s description reminds me of the same in San Sebastián . Lovely bit of history as well.


  8. Its the other side of Madrid from Toledo but both are within a days visiting distance from the capital.


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