What could be more romantic than a Spanish castle perched on its rock overlooking beautiful countryside? A castle with turrets and towers, secret passageways and dungeons to explore? As a family, we love exploring castles from the candy-coloured fantasy of Pena Palace in Sintra to the moat, mazes and lake at Hever Castle in Kent.
Loarre Castle in Aragon is one of the oldest castles in Spain and also one of its most spectacular. It’s the best preserved example of a Romanesque castle in Europe and its marvellous setting has been inspiring people since medieval times. Film director, Ridley Scott, was impressed enough to use it as the location for his film, Kingdom of Heaven starring Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson.
The castle was built upon Roman walls in 1020 onto a crag, 1,070 metres above sea level, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Aragon, in north-eastern Spain, was the most powerful empire in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 11th century, Loarre Castle stood on the border between lands belonging to the Christians and those of the Moorish invaders (Muslims from North Africa) so it needed to be impregnable. And indeed it was – Loarre was never conquered.
You can see the castle from miles around and when you first walk up to it, it appears to be surrounded by a wood which looks very much like the forest which grew up around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Turn around the corner and you’ll see the outer walls, studded with circular towers. All around you is the spectacular countryside of the Zaragoza plains, patchworks of green and yellow fields interspersed with dense forests.
Children will find lots to entertain them both inside and outside the castle. They can use a treasure map to find their way and it’s fun to see if they can spot the dogs carved into the stones and the monkeys carved at the top of the columns at the gateway. These monkeys hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil because one of the rules of the castle was that everything inside had to be kept a secret from outsiders.
It’s easy to let your imagination run wild in a semi ruined castle with towers to climb and ruins to clamber over but here you can also step inside one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Aragon. A monastery was added to the castle in 1071 for the Order of St Augustine and the impressive Church of St Peter was used as the Royal Chapel.
Swallows swoop and soar up into the domed roof and scenes from the Bible are carved on top of the fourteen columns. Look a little closer and you’ll find a wooden trap door in the floor. This opens up to reveal a set of steep stairs leading to a secret passage.
There are dungeons to explore too. Used as pantries by the friars they became prisons by the time medieval nobles were living in the castle.
Climbing into the towers will be another highlight for children dreaming of fairytale knights and princesses. The three-storey Tower of the Queen is especially impressive, with its three sets of ornate gothic windows.
A fairytale castle indeed.
Loarre Castle is open every day from 10am until 7pm. In the winter months, it is closed on Mondays and open from 11am until 5.30pm. Adults, €4.50; children, €3; under 6s, free.
The nearest airport to Loarre Castle is at Zaragoza, where the multi-domed Basilica and Roman ruins are also worth a visit. Loarre is in the Huesca region of Aragon, near the extraordinary Mallos de Riglos, the dramatic red rock formations near the Pyrenees. Close by, you’ll find the Gallégo River where children as young as eight can go whitewater rafting down the rapids. Take a look at How to Explore Aragon for more ideas when visiting the area.
This post was picked as one of Lonely Planet’s best blog posts of the month. Read the post on Lonely Planet Kids here.
Disclosure: I was a guest of BritMums and the Spanish tourist office. All opinions are honest and my own.