Pliego is a small, vibrant and colourful small town, within the Mula administrative area. It has a truly fascinating past and offers a veritable trip through history, much of which can be seen in the small area of the old town itself. When you have had enough of the history, there are extremely pleasant walks on the lower slopes of the Sierra Espuña just above the castle which dominates the town, and viewpoints from which you can look down into and across the valley in which Mula is situated. What, however, has particularly struck us, is the friendliness of the place and its inhabitants.
You cannot fail to notice the ruined castle which dominates the present town. In mid-2012 it was in the process of restoration and excavation and internal access was not possible for visitors. Nevertheless, it well merits a look from immediately outside (from which most of its features can be seen) and, maybe by the time that you read this, it will be open to visitors once more. You can always check in advance with the Town Hall.
The Moors founded the castle in the second half of the 12th Century. It lived through the integration of the Kingdom of Murcia into the Crown of Castile in 1243, and became the fortress for the town of Pliego in the 14th Century after the powerful religious/military Order of Santiago took over responsibility for the immediate area. However, by the beginning of the 16th Century, it was already becoming redundant and was allowed to deteriorate.
If you ascend the path to the base of the castle, stop once or twice to look around. Back down the track, you will see the very picturesque Ermita de la Virgen de los Remedios. A little to the left are the sparse remains of the fortified area of the early Moorish settlement of La Mota which was abandoned in the mid-13th Century.
The castle itself has two distinct areas – the higher one occupies the top of the rocky promontory and is completely enclosed, while the lower area is delimited by the line of wall which protects a more open part of the hillside. The original material and method of construction of the castle was known as “tapial”. In this a mixture of lime mortar, sand and stones was used. Compressed earth might also be used with a lime mortar crust (“cali castrado”). The “tapial” was placed in large wooden boxes and allowed to solidify before the boxes were removed leaving the wooden support holes now clearly visible as horizontal lines along the walls. It was a rapid method of construction ideally suited to the hot, arid conditions of the area. The wall surrounding the upper area has eight towers. The main tower is plainly visible to the right as you look at the castle from the top of the approach pathway. This tower has kept its original height and had a solid lower part with the upper being divided into separate rooms. Below the main tower, on its outside, a watermill has been identified dating from around the time of the castle’s construction, although its main use appears to have been somewhat later, perhaps the 15th Century with a small canal taking water to it from a seasonal spring within the castle enclosure. The water from the spring was also channelled down to three storage tanks, the remnants of which are still visible.
When we last visited the castle in 2012, it was in the process of further restoration and excavation with the work expected to last during the year. Inside the castle, the archaeologists have identified the outline of various rooms, including what are thought to be bedrooms and a possible kitchen. Various artefacts have been found – pottery, ewers, a bone flute, and iron and bronze objects.
The Olive Oil Museum (Museo de la Almazara Santiaguista)
This, one of Pliego’s most recent attractions, opened in 2007 and is well worth a visit, although, when we were there last, in June 2012, you had to arrange this in the Town Hall as the museum had no fixed opening times. A telephone call in advance is therefore sensible (968 666 321). The museum is only a stone’s throw away from the Town Hall. Go by the side of the church to get to it, and you will go through narrow passages which centuries ago provided the only entrance into the old town.
The museum was built essentially as a house and its use as an olive oil mill postdates the Christian takeover of Murcia from the Moors in the mid-13th Century. In Arab times, olive oil was made in Mula. However, after the Order of Santiago assumed responsibility for Pliego, in 1536, it was decided that the town should have its own facility.
The small museum, which conserves the traditional architecture of the “almazara”, is on several levels to house the machinery and the bodega where oil (and wine) could be stored. The bodega consists of rows of large subterranean pots, from around the 16th Century (maybe slightly earlier) which were uncovered during the building’s restoration.
Although all the information boards are in Spanish only, visiting will enable you to appreciate the production process for olive oil as it used to be; how the olives were emptied from the street outside down a tube into a hopper; how they were crushed and the resultant paste placed between a series of esparto mats wrapped around the central column of a press. The museum also exhibits some old pieces of agricultural machinery such as winnowing boards, although the guide showing us around (who was not that old) said he could remember seeing such things in use when he was a child! Upstairs, the museum recounts the history of the olive. In Roman times, the Iberian Peninsula was a major production zone from which oil was exported in large jars or “amphorae”. It appears that the olive was one of the first crops introduced into the Americas following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. As the museum will tell you, today Spain, Italy, Portugal and France account for about 70 percent of the world’s production of olive oil, with Spain cultivating no less than 260 varieties!
The mill was also fortunate in that it had ready access to water. It is well worthwhile walking up the road from the museum through the historic old town to the Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj), which is quite a landmark in its own right. It was, apparently, built on the site where a flour mill existed from the 15th Century, complete with mill pond, and was important in past times in regulating the time allowed for irrigation. A little further on from the tower, you come to Los Caños – a large water trough into which water pours from a dozen metal pipes and a concrete hole in the bank at the side of the road. The water was used in past times for washing (including laundry), for animals, and for the flour and olive oil mills as it went on its journey through the town to a small reservoir where it was used for irrigation.
Part taken from “Exploring Murcia – A Guide to Totana, Alhama de Murcia, Aledo, Pliego and the Sierra Espuña”, by Clive and Rosie Palmer which is available from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copies may also be available from the Best Wishes shop in the Camposol Urbanización, The Costa Cálida Chronicle Office on Camposol B and A Time 4 A Change at El Algar.