“The museums of Spain had a certain attraction when they were haphazard and underfunded. In Astorgia, a letter was on show written in 1052…. It was stuck in a frame with some sticky tape” – Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’
It was mid morning by the time we left the hotel after an excellent breakfast prepared by the owner, Juan and into a stone street bathed in mellow golden sunshine where there was a simple choice – up the hill to the Alcazar or down in the opposite direction to the Cathedral. After a short debate we decided it might be preferable to get the climb out-of-the-way and start at the top of the town and make our way slowly to the bottom.
Lined on each side with caramel coloured houses with terracotta tiled roofs, the Calle de Valencia followed the line of the old medieval town wall and half way to the castle we passed through the Puerto del Porto Mayor which was once the main gateway into the narrow streets of the old town and from here there was a final twisting climb to the Plaza del Castillo and the Parador Hotel.
The Parador Hotels are classy places that are well beyond my limited budget and can be found all over Spain. These were originally a State owned chain and were luxury hotels in old castles, palaces, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings that were established to promote quality tourism, to act as guardian of the national and artistic heritage of Spain and to assist poorer regions to attract more visitors. They are no longer fully owned by the State and during the recession have begun to suffer financial difficulties but there didn’t appear to be a drastic shortage of guests this morning.
The present day castle was built in the twelfth century but there has been a fortress here since the Visigoths built the first in the fifth century. Later as the Northern Kings led the Reconquest of Spain the Moors constructed a new castle on the same site but in 1124, the crusading ecclesiastic knight, Bernardo de Agen took possession of the castle and began the local Christian reconquest and the building of the Alcazar.
The castle was extended and remodelled at various times between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries but was partially destroyed in 1811 during the French occupation who finding the place rather easy pickings raided and sacked the town several times. It again suffered damage during the Carlist Wars and during the Spanish Civil War when Sigüenza became part of the front line fighting during the Aragon campaign. It had to be almost completely rebuilt after that so although it now suffers the indignity of being a hotel at least we have the Parador initiative to thank for what we see today.
It was possible to walk around parts of the old external areas but there was no getting away from the fact that the interior of the old castle is a hotel so with little or nothing to see except the reception desk, an expensive restaurant menu, some overpriced souvenirs and a couple of reproduction suits of armour we didn’t stay long and made our way down a narrow stone street towards the Plaza Mayor.
On the way we made a short detour through the maze of streets looking for the Museum Casa del Doncel, the alleged one time home of Martín Vázquez de Arce (more about him later) and after explaining several times that we were pensioners paid the concessionary fee and went inside.
I was so glad that we didn’t pay the full price because, to be honest, there wasn’t a great deal to see and it seemed as though it was either in the process of being prepared to be a museum or it had run out of funding and was part way through the process of closing down. It also turns out that this was not the home of Martín Vázquez de Arce anyway, it was simply the sort of house that he might have lived in and the association with him represents blatant opportunism!
On account of this it didn’t take very long to complete the tour and soon after we back outside in the sunshine at the front door of the house, a replica of which can be seen in the Poble Espanyol in Barcelona built for the International Exhibition of 1929 and a sort of Disney World interpretation of Spain that wouldn’t be out-of-place at the EPCOT World Showcase in Florida.
Our route led us to the pedestrianised fifteenth century Plaza Mayor via a number of churches, historic houses and artisans craft shops until we eventually reached the central square of the town which although wouldn’t get into my personal top five Plaza Mayor was very pleasant indeed with renaissance architecture, iron balconies and covered colonnades, palaces and the magnificent cathedral with history dripping like Alcarria honey off the walls.
The Plaza bar was already open and doing some lazy business and we got caught by an invisible tractor beam that pulled us towards a table where we stopped for a while with the first beer of the day before setting off again through the stone pillars and across the cobbles as we left the square and made our way to the cathedral which was where we were going next.