When you drive towards Martos, La Peña is the first thing you see. And even from a great distance, it is impossible to miss the castle sitting on top of it. The name, La Peña, basically means “the promontory”, just a specific geological formation, nothing romantic.
La Peña is an awesome thing to live next to. When the sun sets, it glows pink. When the rain comes, it is shrouded in mist. And at night the moonlight reflects off of the limestone. We also like having something close by that we can hike on, just to escape the city for a brief while. AND, it has a castle on it.
Basically, as long as people have lived in this area, there has been a fortress of some kind on top of La Peña. And people have been living here for a loooooong time. The ancient Iberian tribes, followed by the Romans, then the Moors, and finally the Christians all looked at it and thought “hmm, bet that would be a great place to have a castle”.
But to answer a common question “when was it built?”, probably in 1340. At least the bits that you can see today.
Because of the castle in the city, which was already pretty formidable, and the castle on La Peña, Martos was considered the most important stronghold against the Moors for a pretty long period of time. I can’t tell if La Peña was ever attacked, (the historical information that I am finding is like 99% from Spanish sources, and it’s not like I am writing my grad thesis on this or anything.) I am going to assume that it was at some point. To attack it, an invader would have to capture the city first, then find the singular route up to the castle. After that, they would have to walk up a series of narrow switchbacks (which according to the tourism office’s website takes 40 minutes) getting shot at the entire time. El Castillo de la Villa, the castle in town, was certainly attacked a good number of times. One of these attacks spawned a famous legend, which we have written about here.
Another legend, that I just learned about via a Spanish website, talks about “Los Hermanos Carvajal”, or “The Carvajal Brothers”. These two brothers were knights in an order that controlled Martos. The story begins with the brothers being blamed for the murder of a fellow knight. The king, after carefully reviewing the case, considering both sides, hearing out various expert witnesses, examining the evidence etc, decided to have the brothers put inside spiked iron cages, and thrown down the cliffs of La Peña. They had insisted that they were innocent, and that the king had made a mistake. Before being thrown, they told the king that he would be summoned to heaven where he would stand trial in front of God for the crime of being bad at judging. They said that the trial would take place within thirty days. And yes, within thirty days, the king died in his sleep. Spooky.
People who live here talk about hiking La Peña as if it was a 14er. It was tough, but mostly because our hike started from our front door, not the trail head. To get there, we walked up through the old town. This alone is an ass kicker. The streets are very narrow, and the turns are very blind, not to mention it’s almost a labyrinth. And, honestly, the steepest streets either of us have ever seen are in old Martos. Eventually you will make it to the poorest neighborhood in Europe. I don’t know that for a fact, but wow. Not much has changed here since the castle was built. The street here is filled with animal poo, there are holes in the walls so you can see right into peoples houses, and most of their furniture seems to have been stolen from cafes (unless Coca-Cola brand plastic patio furniture is actually sold somewhere, who am I to judge). So once past the old city, you take a circular route around La Peña. You get some pretty cool views of some farms, we saw an entire field being tilled by hand by two old guys. Not to mention lots of horses and donkeys going about their business.
The castle is simply fantastic. It isn’t the same as the one we saw in Almeria. That castle was a well-studied highly up kept national monument. The one on La Peña has not been maintained at all since the 1400’s. But what makes this one neat is that there are no barriers, no off limits areas, no ropes or guard rails. There isn’t even any information posted about it, aside from a little blurb at the trail head which basically says “Hey, there is a castle up there”.
K and I like to talk about the best hikes we have ever been on. Currently in the lead in no particular order, we have the “Golf Club” hike in Guam, the “Tallest Mountain in the World” hike, also in Guam, and the “Lost Half-Naked Norwegian Man” hike in Italy. The hike up La Peña probably is not in the top 5, but we really really enjoyed it. It was close to home, it was relaxing, and it gave us a new outlook on our little city. And best of all, it’s a hike we can take over and over because it’s just around the corner (sort of).
For fun, here is an additional photo showing what the castle would have looked like. It was made by a group in Martos that wants to rebuild the castle. I really hope this happens!