One of our first excursions when we first came to Murcia was to drive over the mountains from Mazarrón to Águilas and return via the A7 motorway which passes Lorca and Totana. We can well remember that one of the most impressive sights of that day out was the imposing fortress which stands on the hill dominating Lorca. This is the Fortaleza del Sol, or Fortress of the Sun – and it well deserves its name. In recent years, a tremendous amount of work has been undertaken in and around the castle to make it tourist friendly and it is most certainly well worth a visit. A Parador is even being built next to it. Just one word of warning, however! To get to the entrance to the castle, you have to ascend a steep and quite lengthy hill. There are three ways of doing this – with care, by car to the car parks by the castle; by the remarkable tourist train which runs from the Visitors’ Centre at the base of the hill to and from the castle gates, or by foot. We have always favoured the tourist train, although it does not run all the year and the return journey costs a few euros. It is certainly an experience which adds to the overall enjoyment of the day, especially if the driver, on the way down, decides to amuse any of the children among his passengers by the odd swerve round the precipitous corners on the route!
Before returning to the delights you can find inside the castle, let’s look briefly at its history and its significance.
Lorca, of course, has a very long history of settlement which long predates its castle. Known human settlement in the area around dates back tens of thousands of years into at least the Middle Stone Age. Coming forward, in the town’s Archaeological Museum, you will, for example, be able to see the remains of linen garments over 4000 years old, which are the earliest examples of woven clothing found in Europe. In fact, it appears that the area on which the castle now stands was occupied from Argaric (Bronze Age) times which extended over the middle part of the second millennium BC (say 1800-1300 BC). It was with the coming of the Moors that we first know of a significant defensive construction on the site. Even as the Moors arrived in the early 8th Century, Lorca was already an important settlement and was one of the seven cities mentioned in the Treaty of Tudmir of 715, by which the Christians of the region were permitted to continue with their lives and religion, unmolested, in return for payments and not assisting enemies of the new conqueror. Indeed, it appears that the early Arab leaders preferred Lorca to Orihuela as the capital of that large region of South East Spain known as Tudmir. It was only from the 10th Century that Murcia City (founded in 825) appears to have achieved clear ascendancy in Tudmir’s economic and political life.
At some point in these early years of Moorish domination, a fortress was raised on the hill. It appears that this had an internal dividing wall (the “Espaldón”) with a residential area to the west. However, the present form of the castle is the result of later re-buildings as the fortification was adapted to new military requirements. Remains of the Moors’ castle are few and visible only in parts of the wall and by some wells. The great changes came with the Christian Reconquest. In 1243, the Emir of Murcia negotiated the Treaty of Alcaraz with the future King Alfonso X through which the Moors accepted Castilian sovereignty. Lorca, however, did not accept the treaty and held out until the death of their leader and the fall of Mula in 1244 before also submitting to Christian rule.
Now, of course, Lorca acquired a new importance – it was effectively a frontier zone between the Christian lands and the Arab Kingdom of Granada. From 1244, Christian troops permanently occupied the castle which was largely rebuilt on its original foundations. Thus, in the second half of the 13th Century Alfonso X began further construction work which involved the raising of three towers. The two which remain today are defining features of the castle. The Alfonsin Tower was constructed on the highest point of Castle Hill, replacing a smaller Arab tower. It was conceived as a separate defensive unit which could be isolated from the rest of the castle in an emergency. The interior had three floors covered by brick domes and with a great supporting central pillar. Not surprisingly, the architecture has a strong Islamic flavour. The top floor receives light through four small windows and entrance to the tower is via a single small door, now at ground level but once above it to impede entry, to its eastern side. There seems to be some dispute as to the number of steps which wind up between the walls of the tower to its top before you get a magnificent view of the city. We have seen 114 and 128 suggested – it will certainly be quite a hike whichever! Unfortunately, when we were last there, the tower was closed to visitors as extensive rehabilitation works were taking place. The tower which you see today was substantially modified, with its walls being strengthened and its height increased at the beginning of the 15th Century. The other remaining massive tower, La Torre del Espolón, was built to fortify the extreme west of the hill. It included a well in its foundations which today has been replaced by the re-creation of a medieval dungeon! This tower has two upper floors also with domed ceilings and it is very well worth ascending it to see the various accounts of Lorca’s history.
Lorca’s Castle was arguably the most important military centre in the Murcian region after the Castilian takeover in the mid-13th Century. Its importance and the instability which could afflict the area, can be seen from the celebrated Battle of Los Aporchones in 1452, near Lorca, when a force of Murcian troops inflicted a major defeat on the Moors who, after sacking Orihuela and Cartagena, retired back to Granada. The Arab threat from the Kingdom of Granada disappeared in 1492 when the Moorish armies were finally expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel. In turn, this led to a profound change in the status of the castle at Lorca. While many such castles subsequently became residences for the nobility, Lorca’s fortress was exclusively military in character. Indeed, throughout its life, it never fell to besieging forces. If it was surrendered, it was through negotiation and treaty.
The castle suffered earthquake damage in the 18th Century before some restoration work was undertaken in the early 19th Century when, for example, the Alfonsin Tower was further strengthened and equipped with canon, and military quarters and bread ovens were constructed elsewhere in the castle precincts during the War of Independence against the French.
The castle has been a Spanish National Cultural Heritage Site since 1931 and, quite recently, considerable work has been undertaken to walls, towers and wells and turn the whole area into a tourist attraction suitable for the whole family. Today, the various attractions in the castle grounds are explained by videos and signboards. There are audiovisual guides, an exhibition compares the Muslim and Christian ways of life in the castle’s medieval times, the 19th Century bread ovens have been restored and there are the remains of a late medieval stone quarry. There is a reproduction of a full size catapult which has been constructed according to an illustration in the poems and songs of Alfonso X and there is a whole host of other things to do and see. Indeed, by the old Espaldón Wall, archaeological excavations are currently taking place of the Jewish area and guided visits to them are available some weekends. Christian and Jewish quarters coexisted in the castle grounds until the 15th Century.
We hope that all this may encourage you to visit the Fortaleza del Sol, though do check it will be open when you want to go, especially out of season. You will also need to allow plenty of time. There is so much to see and do and the castle covers a considerable area.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Copies of some of the books may also be available from Cosas y Cosas, Cehegin and Best Wishes, Camposol Urbanización.
“Since this article was written Lorca has, of course, suffered the effects of the terrible earthquake on 11 May. This also caused considerable damage to the Fortaleza del Sol, with, for example, some upper parts of the Torre del Espolon falling and significant cracking occurring, resulting in the temporary closure of the site to visitors.”
At the moment, it is not clear when the site will reopen to visitors. Lorca say they hope it will be very soon.