10 November 2011

Castle Hunting: Castillo de Olite

Before Versaille and the Royal Palace of Madrid, before the Winter Palace and Buckingham, when western Europe was a fragmented and warlike place, the kings of Navarre constructed one of the greatest royal residences of the middle ages. Rising high above the tiny village of Olite, the incredible Castillo de Olite was once among the largest, grandest and most luxurious seats in Europe.
The medieval Kingdom of Navarre was dwarfed by its neighbors, France, Castile and Aragon, but grew wealthy during the 14th century because of its extensive land holdings – notably Brie and Champagne. Charles III (“the Noble,” the son of Charles II, “the Wicked”) prospered during a peaceful period immediately after the hundred years war, when relative calm in the region allowed him to finish a number of construction projects that had lain dormant for some time. The cathedral of Pamplona and a royal palace at Tafalla were completed, as well as a number of new roads and water systems. His finest achievement, though, was the expansion of the old Olite castle, which took place between 1387 and 1424.
There has been a fortress at Olite since the third century, when a Roman structure was built to hold the southern Pyrenees. Later, the Visigoths and then the first Kings of Navarre and Pamplona rebuilt and expanded the castle, also adding a large, walled chapel and several towers. Today, most of this "old castle" is partly in shambles and mostly overlooked - it's completely dwarfed by the new castle.
The building was constructed primarily as a grand residence, and has a number of quirks - like the recessed archways and a covered roadway that runs directly through one section of wall.
But, unlike later rulers, the reign of Charles III was firmly entrenched in the middle ages, meaning that his palace needed to remain at least somewhat fortified.
Olite's new fortress was extended a few times during its expansion, giving it a rambling, complex footprint. Towers and chambers crop up in clusters, the walls run in strange zigzags. A huge cistern tower protrudes from one side, the cracks in its stones sealed up with lead. Pipes run throughout the new castle, creating one of the most elaborate running-water systems of the time. The reservoir was filled by ceramic piping from the nearby Cicados river, and raised into the cistern by a towering wooden wheel.
The size of Olite is extraordinary enough, but it was the interior that was most impressive at the time. An esteemed German traveler in the 15th century wrote, according to the tourist brochure, that he was "convinced that there is no other king with such a beautiful palace as this one, with so many gilded rooms." There was a large aviary for exotic birds, and Charles kept lions, giraffes and camels in the courtyard. The ceilings were reportedly among the finest in Europe, with extensive carving and paintings.
The "hanging" gardens, though, were the most mentioned aspect of Olite when they were built. A series of small courtyards, forty feet above the ground, were designed to both shelter the rare plants grown inside and to withstand the weight of several tons of earth and sod. Whole lawns and hedges were cultivated, along with a number of sizable trees and an orangerie. Large, arched rooms beneath the gardens were used for nothing other than support and drainage - they were too damp for storage or habitation.
Sadly, most of the interiors and an appreciable amount of the infrastructure were destroyed during the Napoleonic wars, when the Spanish general Espoz y Mina controversially decided to burn Olite to prevent the retreating French from using it for shelter. The castle lay in ruin between 1813, when it was burned, and the 1930's, when it was comprehensively renovated.
It's a fascinating place, and probably less visited than it should be. Today, Navarre's interior is something of a forgotten land, its dry plains and empty mountains mostly passed by for the coast or Pamplona. We stayed the night in Olite, just a few steps away from the castle walls, and felt a powerful sense of time and age. Driving away, we talked for a long time about how amazing and unique the place was, about how it was unlike any other castle we've been to.

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