The Iberian Peninsula is dotted with magnificent monuments of bygone days, witnesses to some of the most intriguing chapters of European history. The great event that shook this land was the Moorish conquest, initiated in 711 with the arrival of Tariq and his forces, and the subsequent Christian Reconquest that would start shortly afterwards and culminate with the retaking of Granada in 1492.

After that date Spain became the unified nation state we know today, but for centuries it was a frontier land of competing kingdoms that played out their rivalries against the dominating background of the Christian-Moorish pas de deux. In this battle for land the castle played a central role, as both sides safeguarded their territory with countless fortresses.

Castillo de San Marcos, Puerto de Santa MaríaIt is said that during the centuries of this struggle over ten thousand castles were built in the country. With the majority concentrated in Castilla and Andalucía they took many forms and locations, from island and port fortresses to hilltop strongholds, walled towns and seemingly impregnable military bastions. Both sides added to the innovations of these structures, though in style the rather more austere military castles of the north contrasted with the greater subtlety and refinement of their Moorish counterparts.

The latter were more comfortable and aesthetically appealing because many also served as palaces, yet much of the exuberance and fine detail of Moorish architecture was lost when the Moors were finally ousted at the end of seven centuries of strife. Some features were adopted by the victors – indeed the era gave rise to the celebrated Mudéjar style, but the end of the Reconquista also heralded the gradual decline of the castle, a fact bemoaned by none other than Don Quijote himself.

Today, Spain’s approximately 2500 fortresses form perhaps the richest heritage of its kind in the world, ranging in form from rough-hewn, windswept ruins to the well-preserved palatial refinement of the Alhambra or the final resurgence of castle building represented by the Renaissance marvels of Vélez Blanco and La Calahorra.

Thomas Dressler