The Middle Ages, the roughly thousand year period between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD and the beginnings of the Renaissance in the early 16th Century, have fired the imagination of children growing up in the West for some time. It is the historical time of knights, castles, cathedrals, gargoyles, chivalry, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Joan of Arc, El Cid, and the Crusades. All across Europe reminders of this age can be found, both at the centre of modern cities as well as in the countryside. In our travels South from the Netherlands, we had the opportunity to visit sites that evoke this time period and stir those childish imaginings.
Bruges, Belgium is a city that easily transports one back to this bygone era. Due to the lawlessness of the age and the weak or non-existent central ruling power, medieval towns needed to be fortified for defensive reasons and were encircled with stone walls and motes or canals, usually with a castle and one or more cathedrals.
In Bruges, our campground was just outside the “city walls” so that we needed to ride our bicycles over the mote and through the wall to reach the old part of town. The town had been a prosperous textile centre starting in the 1300’s and that wealth built many of the buildings of the period that still remain. Bruges has maintained its medieval charm over the centuries by maintaining the uniformity of its buildings. It can often be hard to tell whether a building is several centuries or only several decades old, but this does not detract from the charm of wandering its streets and alleys.
Luxembourg City, the capital of the small country of Luxembourg, is an interesting mix of medieval fortifications and modern buildings. The city grew up around the confluence of two rivers, the Alzette and Petrusse, but this confluence is at the bottom of a canyon, so the canyon walls served as natural defensive structures that were incorporated into walls and honeycombed with passages throughout the centuries. Perched at the top of one of these natural walls is the Grand Ducal Palace and the Chamber of Deputies.
Across the gorge on the other side of one river are several buildings that house various branches of the European Union. At the bottom of the gorge nestled amongst the medieval buildings is a modern building that houses Microsoft’s local offices. All in all, a very interesting study in contrasts between the old and the modern.
In the Alsace region of France, we stayed in the village of Oberani, a great jumping off point for exploring Strasbourg and the surrounding region, and a medieval town in its own right. This charming town is surrounded by its own wall and mote, and many of its buildings are wood and plaster construction from the 16th Century. Strasbourg is a large modern city with a medieval core that is encircled by canals and connected by the same towered bridge built in the 17th Century.
The regionally recognizable wood and plaster construction is used in many of its oldest buildings but one can also see examples of architectural styles from subsequent time periods. Its crowning glory is its massive cathedral, which like many such buildings, took several hundred years to build, but when completed in 1498, it was the largest such building in France and remained so for 400 years! Climbing to the top was a thrill as we wound up heavily worn steps inside of one of its spires and discovered chiseled graffiti from the 1500s on the roof deck.
Just a short trip down the valley from Obernai and up into the Vosges mountains is the Castle of Haut Kongisburg. Originally built in 1147 by a local feudal lord to collect tolls on commerce traveling through the valley, it was expanded several times over the centuries before finally being overrun in a siege during the 30 Years War. Abandoned for several centuries and coming under German control in the late 1800s, the Kaiser wanted it restored as a museum of Medieval castle life. A painstaking restoration was undertaken that recreated several ages of the castle and resulted in the amazing structure we visited.
Like many Medieval fortifications, the walls contained a small city including stables, a kitchen, several halls, blacksmith shop, dwellings, water wells, gardens and more. Exploring the structure was fun and owing to its superb placement on a hilltop, the views of the valley below were grand.
Further south was the city of Avignon, whose walled city played a brief but important role in history as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church for a number of decades in the 14th Century. It is also home to a Medieval bridge that was immortalised in a song. With our campsite located on an island in the Rhone River, our walk into town each day provided great views of the famous bridge, the city walls, and the Pope’s Palace.
The palace was the result of political issues in the Holy Roman Empire that forced the Pope to move the church’s headquarters to Avignon for a period that lasted ~70 years and 7 popes. Further strife and a division within the church resulted in two anti-popes using the Palace even though the papal seat had returned to Rome. The palace is a spectacular building, and like many such structures, underwent several modifications over time. Though mostly empty inside, the museum authorities have done an excellent job of bringing to life the history of the building through the use of technology.
Similarly, the museum at the “Pont du Avignon” (Bridge of Avignon) told the legend behind the construction of the bridge and its ill-fated history (only about a fifth of still stands). Much of the wall still surrounds the old part of the city, enhancing its medieval feel and inviting us to explore on foot.
If Avignon and Strasbourg are medieval cities within modern cities, Carcassone is a city apart. The Medieval town sits on a hillside at the edge of town, separate from the modern town, walled off within its fortifications and essentially a living museum of Medieval life. Within its walls is a Gothic cathedral, and a complete castle with defensive walls and a mote separating it from the surrounding walled city. This fort-within-a-fort is owing to the various stages of its construction over time. A portion of the walls were originally part of a Roman fort that stood on the hill. As often happens, this was modified and expanded into a fortified castle that was then enveloped in a walled city.
Carcassone played a strategic role as a “border” outpost over the centuries since it sits near the Pyrenee Mountains, which have always provided a natural barrier between mainland Europe and the Iberian Peninsula; hence, the location’s long history of fortified structures. Though many of the buildings inside now house shops catering to tourists, it is easy to imagine the lives that likely played out without going beyond the walls.
In an interesting twist, the museum contained within the castle has a section dedicated to the pop culture images of Medieval castles with exhibits from horror movies to chivalrous dramas to children’s toys like Lego castle sets. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see our modern, romanticised view of Medieval life against the actual realities of what it was like in these towns.
In Southern Spain, the medieval village takes on a wholly different appearance as a large portion of this time period was spent under Muslim rule. The North African Moors occupied varying parts of Spain from the 8th century until 1492 when they were finally expelled from Granada. The structures they left behind have a squared shape that is very different from Christian architecture and is often embellished with geometric designs of elaborate symmetry and Arabic script since Islam has restrictions against portrayals of human forms and idolatry.
At the edge of the Sierra Nevada Range in South Central Spain, the city of Granada was the center of Muslim government in Spain. Over the centuries, its rulers built the legendary Alhambra palace, which sits perched on a ridge overlooking the city and the fertile valley below. The earliest buildings of the Alhambra were 11th Century fortifications built on the rocky promontory at the end of the ridge.
Like most Medieval walled villages, the original structure was expanded by successive rulers and came to include a mosque, a small village to support the palace and fort, hammams (Arab baths), gardens and more. After the Muslim rulers were forced from Spain, Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V was so enchanted by the Alhambra, that he had a palace constructed in its grounds that reflected the Christian Renaissance architecture of the times, including a courtyard to reflect that most perfect shape of the newly resurrected knowledge of classical antiquity, the circle.
Opposite the Alhambra, on a hillside across the gorge formed by the River Darro, sits the Medieval Jewish and Arab quarters, some of whose dwellings are partially formed from caves dug into the hillside. This Medieval section of town is a warren of small cobblestone streets that terraform the land and once made up a large section of the town. Now Granada sprawls across the valley, and its road and subway projects are testament to its continued expansion.
Further West, across many miles of olive groves is the city of Cordoba, another major Muslim center during the medieval period. Here the remnants of this time period are not as extensive, but there are the remains of the defensive wall and an impressive, if somewhat odd religious structure, the Mezquita. It began as a sizeable mosque whose legendary pillars and arches used the column tops of the older Roman structures of the era. It was expanded several times until it could hold upwards of 20,000 worshippers, and contains some exquisite mosaic work in its mihrab (a prayer niche oriented towards Mecca).
After the end of Muslim rule, the new Christian rulers reworked the building, making a bell tower of the minaret, creating chapels in the outer ring of alcoves in the mosque, and installing a splendid Renaissance Cathedral in the middle. The final result, however, is an odd fusion. Each part is amazing in its own right, but the blend is somewhat inharmonious and has the appearance of someone having dropped a cathedral in the centre of a mosque. It is very interesting from a historical perspective, though, and well worth a visit.
Another interesting site in Cordoba from the Middle Ages is a synagogue, the only one left in Andalusia from this time period, and we learned that during Muslim rule there was a lot of religious tolerance and thriving communities of Christians and Jews, something also apparent in Granada. Given the modern animosity between these three religions that spring from a common origin, it seems hard to believe.
Through all these Medieval villages runs the backdrop of European history during an age that was fraught with plagues, superstition, and petty wars between local chieftains as power was slowly being consolidated from city-states into nation-states. These “Dark Ages” would eventually end as scholars began to rediscover the classical texts and art that were sequestered at the edges of Western Civilization, knowledge that would fuel the Renaissance and start civilization on its course toward the modern age.
-by Aaron, photos by Tammy and Aaron