Although it lacks the historical riches of towns such as Cartagena or Lorca, Águilas can boast remains from the Stone Age onwards, as a quick visit to the town’s Archaeological Museum will reveal.
More recently, there is a rich heritage associated with the railway and the export of minerals, especially in the late 19th Century, which has a very strong British link. There is, however, one building in Águilas which you cannot possibly miss – The Castle of San Juan de las Águilas, which dominates both the sea and the town at its foot. If you only have limited time in Águilas, you should certainly try to visit it, although it will require a steep walk to it unless you take the chance of driving up the approach road (if open) hoping that there will be parking space in the restricted area by the castle.
There was a defensive tower on this hill in Arab times in the 12th Century. In 1579, a new defensive tower was built and saw considerable action against Berber pirates. As this threat diminished, there were problems with another traditional enemy: the British! Several skirmishes with British naval ships are recorded. In 1751, an attack by a British squadron appears to have caused the collapse of two sections of the tower’s walls, causing plans for a new castle to be drawn up. It took until 1757 to complete the building of the present castle.
At the top of the slope above the exit from the lift in its prominent glass tower, you pay your entry fee (retired persons are free!) and obtain a descriptive leaflet (there is an English version) of the castle, which has been extensively restored in recent years, finished in 2007 after many years of neglect. Even in the 1960’s, expansion of the port of Águilas saw rock extracted which destroyed part of the old rear wall protecting the fort in the south.
Inside the main fort, the first room on the ground floor has a model of the coast of Águilas with displays to show the local geography. A second room deals with the area’s geology. Room 3 passes on to species of plants and animals to be found in the interior. The following room is similar, but deals with the shoreline. The fifth room passes on to Águilas before the castle was built, briefly reviewing the history of the area from Stone Age (Palaeolithic) times. Room 6 is a reconstruction of the kitchen which would have been used by the soldiers of the castle. Apparently, the normal diet of the soldiers was limited; mainly bread, stews and rice with fish. Meat was infrequent; only served on special days when there might be wine also. You then pass on to the construction of the fortress itself and the creation of the modern town of Águilas. Room 7 has an interesting video about the building of the castle and the town of Águilas and the following room deals with the foundation of modern Águilas. The final rooms on this ground floor (9 and 10) are subterranean in that you have to descend a few steps to them. These are rooms which served as ‘prisons’, either for soldiers (often for returning drunk!) or civilians.
With this, your tour of the ground floor of the main fortress is completed, although you will also note the well in the middle of the open, central area. This was an essential feature for the castle and was organized so that rainwater was channelled into it from various parts of the building. It was the only supply of water for the castle when besieged, but despite this, it appears that neglect meant that the water in it was quite frequently undrinkable.
From the ground floor, a new spiral staircase will take you up to the terrace and down to the castle basement. The terrace housed the castle’s main armaments, with cannons covering the interior and coast. The two rooms here were originally for surveillance and for the guard. There is a large display in one room emphasizing the troubles of the Mediterranean Sea from the end of the 15th Century as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s attacks on maritime traffic in the west, plus the Berber pirates. The other terrace room deals more generally with the resultant defensive structures which were created in the region of Murcia. After looking in these two rooms, you can walk around this upper, open level of the castle and past the various guns.
Having descended all the way down the spiral staircase to the cellar, you will find a veritable complex of rooms. One is dedicated to the modern development of Águilas, including the coming of the railways and industrialization, when it was progressively converted into an important commercial centre exporting minerals and products to many countries. A second room in the cellar is divided into several sections, dealing with the daily life of the soldiers who inhabited the castle. There are examples of the soldiers’ weapons; pistols, rifles, blunderbusses, bayonets etc. In 1761, it is said that the garrison consisted of a Governor, an officer, two sergeants and 36 soldiers.
The actual fort itself is only part of the whole castle complex which, in addition, has another two major components to be viewed. To the east of the fort is the San Pedro Cannon Battery designed to have nine guns with which to defend the Bahia de Levante and the harbour entrance. Linking this battery with the main fort is a passage with two strongpoints (San José and San Felipe) which also had cannons. Reconstruction has also restored the building which housed the powder room, the gun storage room and the Governor’s house.
If the castle had a relatively calm existence throughout most of its life, there were the occasional flutters of activity. Very soon after the castle had been completed, there was one occasion on which several French ships were being pursued by British naval vessels and all but one took refuge in Cartagena. The remaining French ship carried on to Águilas and with defending fire from the castle, found safe haven from its pursuers. Some years later, in 1808, fire from the castle was instrumental in dissuading a British ship from trying to capture several merchant ships in Águilas’ harbour.
The castle played little part in the Spanish War of Independence against France at the start of the 19th Century. In the period of internal instability in Spain in the 1820’s the castle found itself in the hands of different factions at various times, but with no action taking place. In the Spanish Civil War, it served as a look-out post and the fort’s basement as a refuge, before, in 1956, it was finally passed from military control to the town council of Águilas.
We hope that you agree that the castle is an impressive structure and one which is well worth visiting. In early 2013, the castle was closed to visitors on Mondays, but open other days between 11.30am and 1.30pm, and between 4pm and 6pm, although closing an hour later at the weekends in the morning session.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at, and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com. Clive and Rosie’s most recent book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books), or phone Patti on 968 433 978.