Moratalla is a small town in Northwest Murcia with around 10,000 inhabitants. It has quite a unique and charming character with old narrow, winding streets going up a steep hillside that culminates in the remarkable medieval castle, now restored to something of its former glory.
It is a town well worth visiting, although we would recommend two precautions! First, do not try to park in the centre of the old town. You will quickly find that you are in a maze of narrow one-way streets. Far better in our view to park in one of the side roads before you reach the old core of the town and then walk the short distance to it. Second, while walking in the old town have a care for cars that do drive up the narrow streets. There are many houses perched up the hillside and access to them by car can be quite a challenge for all involved!
Like so many small towns in this part of Murcia, Moratalla can claim a long history of human occupation. The hill on which the old town and the castle are situated is the site of the oldest settlement. However, this goes way beyond medieval times back into prehistory. By the time of the Iberians, who inhabited much of the south and east of Spain from around the 6th Century BC, there was a strong defensive fortification of stone around the settlement of that time and it is said that one of the large blocks of stone used can now be seen at the base of the northern side of the medieval castle’s main tower. Remains of the subsequent Roman occupation have also been found here, although we then have to wait until the Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula for Moratalla’s real entry into history. The hill had a settlement which was defended by walls and a castle within, which the local population would take refuge in times of insecurity. The castle was even the seat of a rebellion in the mid-12th Century at the time of the Taifas, or small separate emirates, following the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba in the early 11th Century.
The area around Moratalla, like other parts of Murcia, came under full Christian control from 1243 when the Treaty of Alcaraz saw the region formally pass from Arab sovereignty to the Crown of Castile. Until the final defeat of the Moors in 1492, Moratalla was often a very insecure part of the frontier lands between Christian Castile and Arab Granada. It was only from the 16th Century that the town began to grow, recording a population of a mere 300 in 1507.
The origins of the castle are thought to date back to Arab times in the 9th Century, but what you see today reflects the rebuilding which took place after the Christian takeover of Murcia, especially in the 15th Century. You pass through the entrance gate into a large courtyard, or Patio de Armas. This retains its original cobbles and you will see the remains of a stone column, one part of the Castle Commander’s residence. Around the Patio de Armas used to be the various service buildings such as stables, the ovens, storage areas and lodgings, none of which have survived. Encircling the Patio de Armas are the battlements and remains of five towers, most of which have been heavily restored.There is an internal walkway around the whole perimeter of the castle which you can follow, looking out over the countryside below and passing these towers.
By far the most striking part of the castle, however, is the keep, or Torre del Homenaje. While there are some stones at its base of Arab origin, the tower was well built in the 15th Century by the military/religious Order of Santiago, which perhaps explains its continuing existence! Inside, it is quite a remarkable structure with impressive roof vaulting and arches. There are three floors. The cellar was effectively a water storage area into which rain was directed through small canals from the outside roofs and terraces. Above that and at the level at which you enter the tower over a modern walkway/bridge looking down into the cellar area beneath, is the Sala de Armas. This is a very high domed room with cross stone buttresses supporting the roof. From this room and through a small door in the right hand corner (as you enter the room), there is an incredible winding spiral staircase with 42 narrow, deep stone steps, which takes you up to the Sala del Homenaje.
The Sala del Homenaje is very similar to the room below – very high, but with two buttresses which go transversely across the room rather than from a corner to the middle. This room is where new Commanders of the Castle were named and took oaths of loyalty. The walls contain the coats of arms of four such Commanders. It is well worthwhile making this ascent to the Sala del Homenaje, although you do need to take some care on the staircase.
From the Sala del Homenaje, there is another staircase which leads to the tower battlements and terrace area. If nothing else, this gives some remarkable views over the surrounding countryside. A bell used to be located on this terrace and was used to warn those in the surrounding area of impending danger such as an invasion. Do take care, especially when descending from the terrace not to hit your head on the stonework above you!
As well as ascending from the Sala de Armas, you can also go down to the lower area, where there are two distinct levels. One is like a terrace around the edge of the cellar area, with a small space at the very bottom where there is a central stone support rising to the floor above.
When we visited the castle, it was open from Tuesday to Saturday, but visits had to be reserved first at the MoratallaTourist Office (tel 968 730 208). The Tourist Office itself is open 10am-2pm and 4pm-6.30pm Tuesday to Friday (in summer the afternoon opening is from 5pm-7.30pm). There is a small charge for visits – it cost us 2€ each!
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. Their book, Exploring Murcia, Days Out is available to buy from the Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books), or phone Patti on 968 433 978. All their books can be viewed at and obtained from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.