A short bus ride away was another city called Peñíscola. Mila, our landlord, told us it had a fortress and a nice beach. So we headed there with my dear friend Vienna, who had travelled all the way from Melbourne to be with me for my birthday.
Having come from pebble beaches to the north of Vinaròs, I was not expecting such an expansive stretch of sandy beach to the south of Vinaròs. But that’s what Peñíscola had to offer. The bus rode along the whole stretch of beach which had lots of playgrounds along it. At each one, Kenzo was asking if we could stop and play. Unfortunately for him, I was keen to get off the bus closer to the fortress. That was at the very southern end of the beach.
We hopped off the bus in the centre of Peñíscola where there were pretty ponds, then we crossed the road to check out the beach. Peñíscola had a pretty sign in front of the beach and a colourful dragon for the children to play on. At this point, little did I know how significant the story of dragons are for Peñíscola.
After some lunch and ice-cream, we were fuelled for the walk up to the top of the fortress, called the Castillon or Castle. It was here that I learnt the difference between the castle and a palace. A castle is where royalty live but is used for defence purposes in times of war. It tends to have high walls, gates, prisons, roof top lookouts and nothing decorative on it’s outer walls. A palace is a royal home that is very decorate because there is no need for defence systems.
That out of the way, the Peñíscola has a type of castle that was built in the 1100’s by Knights Templars. It is a big fortress and the last one to be built by the Knights Templars before they were outlawed by the Pope and disappeared overnight. It was later occupied by one of the Pope’s of Rome who was in conflict with the other Pope at the time and was in exile. He spent his last years contemplating his fate, his spirituality and the state of Christiandom at the time.
The story of the Templar Knights is a fascinating one. They initially were organised as a voluntary organisation, in the 1100’s, that protected pilgrims who wished to journey from Christian kingdoms to Jerusalem which was an Islamic kingdom. At the time there were many Holy Wars fuelled by debts that needed to be paid. Christian kingdoms, including the Pope’s city, were short on funds and looked at pillaging the wealth of the Middle East as a means of income.
While a lot of wealth was accumulated, and many people died, in the name of spreading a religion, the Knights Templars were setting up the first global banking system. Pilgrims could sell all their valuables and hand the money over to the local Knights Templar office, in exchange for a certificate. This way they couldn’t be robbed on the journey. When the pilgrims reached the Holy City of Jerusalem, they could redeem their money.
The Knights Templars were distinctly recognised by their white mantle and red cross. They were a favoured charity and grew in power and prominence throughout Europe. Because they were based all around the Mediterranean Coast which includes the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, they were learning highly advanced skills from all regions. This impacted all areas of their life such as how they setup their organisation, how they designed and constructed their fortresses and boats, as well as their physical, spiritual and mental practices.
Many armies were sent to Africa and the Middle East to slay “the dragon”. The dragon symbolised the Islamic religion or any other non-Christian. Sometimes it was also depicted as a lion. There were many images of knights slaying dragons and stories told about the wars of the Knights Versus Dragons.
The fortress, that sits on a cliff top peninsula, looking over the long sandy stretch of beach, was designed by the Knights Templars. They purchased the land and created: their living quarters; a jail for any hostages they captured while under siege; a garden area so they could grow their own crops and have food sources if under attack; a source for fresh water if they ever were surrounded; storage areas and more.
The natural cliff walls were the first defence system and then the protective outer walls with gaps for firing at the enemy, and protective inner walls in case the outer walls fell. Inside there were arches which helped to strengthen doorways. It had secret tunnels – in case they were invaded, they could escape to boats. It also had special rooms to store treasures plus rooms that housed manuscripts filled with their vast knowledge. All these features we take for granted in a castle, but the Knights Templars put together their learnings of different architectures from all over their known world. It was very modern and ground breaking at the time.
The Peñíscola Castle was the last built by the Knights Templars and had all the modern features. But by the time it was complete in 1312, the King of France, who was completely broke and in debt, convinced the Pope that they both could claim the wealth of the Knights Templars. But to do so, they would have to convict them of crimes against their Christian God. Although the Knights Templars did have secret rituals for initiation into their creed, they were actually loyal and faithful to their Christian beliefs. They had come to enhance their spirituality through what they had learnt abroad. But their fate was sealed in an agreement between these two powerful monarchs in Europe at the time. Literally overnight the Knights Templars were criminals and were being massacred. In one day, all Knights Templars went into hiding and the white mantle with the red cross was never worn again.
Some say they fled to England and Switzerland, if they made it their alive. This theory is based on the similarity in flags that have a cross and use only the red and white colours. Wherever they went, it makes for a fascinating story, and still today, many historians hunt for the hidden knowledge the Knights Templars had accumulated over those two centuries, hoping that not all of it was destroyed in the persecution and pillaging of the Knights Templar castles.