Inspired by street names in their neighborhood, two travelers go off in search of a Spanish castle and find more than just a crumbling structure.
The condition of the dirt road won’t allow us to drive much farther. Our sense of adventure wavers, but just for a moment. The countryside is rougher and the hike will be longer than we anticipated. But the castle calls. Jeanette and I are attuned to its beauty and history and perhaps the pull of spirits who walked this land long ago. I also feel the little girl I once was fight her way through my consciousness. She whispers that I should search for signs of the fairy tale that used to jump from her bedtime stories into her dreams.
This isn’t a vacation; it’s more of a compulsion. Jeanette and I live near each other in a residential area where there are 27 streets named after Spanish castles. It seems like fate that it would become our shared obsession to seek out the true places behind the street signs. In addition, Google has taken note of our travels and keeps enticing us with suggestions for future day trips. During the downtimes, we send photos and articles back and forth, sometimes responsibly trying to pair up these excursions with our work traveling to examine students’ English-speaking skills.
Today, however, is free from responsibility, so much so that we got a late start towards the province of Ávila and decided against going into the town of Mironcillo. I wonder what we’re missing. Since it’s just after noon, I envision the main street bustling with stray dogs hungrily eyeing folks on their way home with una barra de pan rústico for the midday meal. With a population of a hundred souls, give or take, the pace likely embodies the tranquility of the Spanish siesta for more than a few hours each day.
Jeanette finds a good spot to leave her old Volkswagen Golf, slightly off the path in case someone with an off-road vehicle wants to tackle the terrain. I gather up my backpack but decide to leave my coat in the car. Winter is almost over; and when the sun flexes its full strength, the sky stretches out in an idyllic blue backdrop complete with immense expanses of fluffy white clouds. It is one of those magical, good-to-be-alive days that I hope to retrieve from memory on a restless, sleepless night or whenever I’m trapped in the dentist’s chair.
The rugged landscape is dotted by outcroppings of granite boulders; some tall formations appear to have been stacked by a whimsical giant. Although charred vegetation conjures up dragons, they are simply remnants from last summer’s wildfire. Our only companions are the occasional circling hawk, a large flock of sheep, and several herding dogs. I try to befriend the dogs with mini breadsticks from my trail mix. All ignore me except one, who is unsure about crunching down on the offering and continues to lick and sniff. This small interaction has made me feel like an interloper, like we’ve been mistakenly dropped into an Old Masters pastoral landscape suddenly come to life. My inner child switches to a game of pretend, and we morph into daring time travelers — such is my longing to be a part of this majestic place, if only for a few hours.
Scanning the panorama for the shepherd, my eyes are drawn back to the closeness of the snow-speckled mountains. Given a choice between mar y montaña, the mountain always wins my heart. When beach-loving friends challenge my preference, I claim that the imprint of my ancestors, who lived nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, has left a genetic predisposition. The view is both mesmerizing and invigorating. Restraining myself from performing an exuberant twirl like Julie Andrews at the beginning of The Sound of Music, I focus on the task at hand. My friend and I hike as if we were born to it, fueled by our excitement to reach the 15th century remains of el Castillo de Aunqueospese. Its strange name is actually a compound word made from the phrase “aun que os pese” (even though you may not like it). As is the case with any respectable castle, it boasts a legend that serves as an explanation.
The construction of the castle is attributed to a knight who was denied marriage to his beloved. Her father was a nobleman and ordered the suitor imprisoned if he ever entered the city again. Not being swayed by the opposition, the lovers declared their undying devotion, adding: ¡Aun que os pese! So, they signaled each other, she from her palace and he from the height of his towers, until the day she died of a broken heart. Soon after, he entered a battle from which he never returned. (Fantasy is best left unmarred by facts since the unfortunate knight and his battles predate the castle by a couple centuries.)
Historical records from the 11th or 12th century show that this impressive location at the foothills of the Sierra de la Paramera had a previous fortress, housing local knights who conducted raids against the Moors. This area was a borderland where the Christian kingdoms from northern Iberia and the Moors of al-Ándalus in the south fought for control of the territory. The heraldic shield of the Dávila family marks the current structure from the 15th/16th century. In the 20th century, Mironcillo acquired the castle from its neighbor Sotalbo in exchange for pastureland. A private owner purchased it in the 1970s and began repairs; however, the regional government halted the process since they felt some of the refurbishment was going against the building’s protected cultural status. Abandoned…how many times?
We finally arrive 1360 meters above sea level at the castle door as out of breath and victorious as caballeros. I leave my handprint in the snow skirting the castle and step back to admire the way the formidable crag is incorporated into its structure. We can’t enter. There is no guided tour. Jeanette and I actually prefer it this way. These ruins may appear peaceful and desolate, but close your eyes and imagine the wars won and lost, the lives beginning or ending. Ask yourself if you are shivering from the mercurial March weather or if the chill could be a gathering of ghosts — glad to have visitors once again.