Calasparra’s undoubted star of the Arab period is the village of Villa Vieja. These remains are to be found off a minor road a few kilometres from the centre of Calasparra on the right bank of the Río Segura. This settlement was occupied from the 11th Century until it was abandoned after the failed Arab uprising of 1264-66, following the Christian takeover of Murcia in 1243.
It is thought that those who settled here then, may have been Berbers from the Maghreb in North Africa. It is possible to visit the site by making an appointment through the Calasparra Tourist Office (tel 968 723 000). A superb Interpretation Centre has been built within the fenced area which includes much descriptive material and reconstructions of the typical rooms in the houses, the foundations of which you can view around the site. More than 20 houses have been identified of the 60 or so that are thought to have once existed here, giving a population when the village was at its largest of perhaps some 240 people.
The houses were quite modest and were very similar to others in the interior of Murcia, Valencia and Eastern Andalucia. We were told during our guided tour that the typical house in Villa Vieja had no external windows! The purpose of this was to ensure that neighbours and passers-by could not see in, although it was also a way of keeping women out of sight. The entrance door was directly off the street into a hall area which would often have a stable to one side and a toilet to the other. A patio was the only open area in the house and would, at least in the larger houses, have some vegetation such as an orange or pomegranate tree and Mediterranean herbs to give a pleasant aroma. To one side of the patio was the main room with its principal wall facing north to help keep it cooler in hot times of the year. The kitchens had built-in storage areas and a hole in the middle of the floor where the fire would burn. It appears that there was no chimney and the floor would simply be left open in an attempt to disperse any smoke. The houses could have two floors with the bedrooms upstairs. Where the house had a single storey only, a curtain would subdivide the main room at night to give a separate sleeping area. There would be very little furniture, although carpets would cover the floor and there would be hangings on the wall.
The Interpretation Centre also houses replicas of some of the finds which have since been transferred to the Archaeological Museum. You will also be able to see an excellent photograph of the site of the village from above, to give you a good idea of its layout and situation above the river. A more detailed plan of the whole site shows the full extent of the village as well as the sites of the individual houses.
Another visual aid shows the plans of the different house types identified in Villa Vieja. The most usual form was of a rectangular shape, with rooms off a central patio. Small, poor houses may have had just two ground floor rooms, though they could also have two floors and be built on to the surrounding wall, thereby serving an ancillary defensive purpose. They would also be attacked first before the grander residences! Some of the houses were expanded as a requirement for more rooms arose. Indeed, one very large house has been identified which had been subdivided at some point in its life into two dwellings, reversing the expansion process, possibly, it was suggested to us, because of some family dispute.
Little is known for certain about the origins of Villa Vieja, but it is thought that it was probably founded in the 11th Century. A surrounding wall with towers and a ditch later provided the village with some protection on the other sides of the site away from the river where the land is level. The remains of the base of one tower can be seen just inside the gate as you enter the site. Also, next to the wall by the entrance to the settlement, there has been identified the site of some small closed buildings which fronted a square. This may well have been a market area.
As you walk around the site of the village, you can clearly see the foundations and the plan of the various houses, together with the path of the narrow streets. Most of these internal roads just seem to end, with only one apparently continuing through the entire settlement. The main street, which had an east-west orientation, was 2.5 metres wide.
It appears fairly certain that Calasparra Castle was built by the Arabs some time after the village of Villa Vieja, perhaps to protect this and any other nearby isolated settlements. The castle remained in use after the Christian Reconquest of the 13th Century for the use of the Order of St John who were responsible for Calasparra and the surrounding area. Today, little of the castle remains, but there are remains of defensive walls and towers which still dominate the town and are visible from much of the surrounding countryside.
You can easily, if somewhat steeply, walk up to the remains of the castle from the centre of Calasparra. Between the Iglesia de San Pedro and the Archaeological Museum at the bottom of the Calle Mayor is a sign which directs you up a steep path to the castle (0.4kms distance) and the Iglesia de los Santos (0.6kms). There are also several viewpoints and planted areas beside the paths making the ascent reasonably attractive in its own right. Clearly, the Town Hall has spent money on making this a pleasant area and on one flatter portion just below the castle itself, there are seats looking out across to Calasparra.
At the top, under the outcrop of rock on which the castle stands, you can continue on a path behind. Unfortunately, when we were last there (September 2012) restoration work was in progress and the final few metres of ascent into the castle area itself was out of bounds. In truth, however, there is not a great deal more to see if you were able to go to the very top. It is thought that there was little internal building with the principal aim of the Arab structure being to act as a fortified enclosure for people from the surrounding areas in times of trouble.
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 986 433 978.