Known in pre-Roman times as Obila (“High Mountain”), this provincial capital in north-central Spain has been the site of numerous fortified settlements throughout history. Occupants have included the Vettones, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and ultimately the Spanish. The city is most famous for its imposing medieval city wall that is fully intact and includes 88 towers, and 9 gates spread around a parameter of 1 1/2 miles. While visitors can’t make a complete circuit of the wall, much of it is accessible.
The interior of the walled city is occupied by numerous palaces, monasteries and mansions dating from primarily the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the most notable landmarks include the Plaza Mercado Chico, the Cathedral of Avila, and the Royal Palace of St. Tomas
Avila, is 1-2 hours from Madrid, depending on whether you are traveling by car or train.
Like Avila, Carcassonne has a long history of settlement. The Romans saw early on, both its strategic and economic value. Perched on a hill, the location of the city offers a natural defense against approaching invaders, and given its location at the base of the Pyrenees in southeast France, Carcassonne stood for centuries at the center of natural overland trade routes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, and the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. Its current double-walled fortification with 52 towers, reflects the gradual buildup that took place over a millennia, as the Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Crusaders each repaired and added onto what came before.
Carcassone’s long and proud history is one well understood by its residents, who in 1849 strongly protested the French government’s plans to demolish its historic fortifications. The protest not only stopped the destruction, but also set in motion a series of repairs to the city’s historical architecture by the architects – Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Paul Boeswillwald, and Nodet.
Notable buildings within Carcassone’s medieval walls include the Château Comta and Basilique Saint-Nazaire, a 12th century castle and Basilica built by Raimond-Bernard Trencavel, viscount of Albi and Nîmes, The castle has a notable history as a stronghold of the Occitan Cathars, and a focal point of the Albigensian Crusade called by Pope Innocent III to crush their religious movement.
San Gimignano, Italy
The tower house architecture that San Gimignano is famous for, offers a unique glimpse into a specific period of Italy’s past that has been lost in much of the rest of the country. During the 12th to 14th centuries, two rival factions the Guelphs and Ghibellines jockeyed for power, one group supporting the Holy Roman Emperor, the other the Pope. While direct conflict between the Emperor and Pope ceased early on, the rivalry between the two groups continued for centuries. This is in part because they really represented two different power centers of Italian society, the Ghibellines were tied to the nobility that owned large tracts of agricultural land, while the Guelphs were wealthy merchants that dominated the larger cities.
The tower house represented both the paranoia and fear that existed during the era, as well as the prestige the population assigned to them. The larger the tower you constructed, the more prestige you were assigned. And so over the centuries the towers increased in height in a perpetual game of one-upmanship. In San Gimignano the highest known tower was more than 230 feet tall. Of the 70 towers that once graced San Gimignano’s skyline, 14 now remain. The tallest is 177 ft.
By the time the 15th century arrives, the political and social environment of Italy changed so radically that the lines of distinct between the two groups disappear, and their rivalry fades into history.
San Gimignano is situated between Milan and Rome in the province of Siena. Florence is a couple of hours by train to the north east.
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Mont Saint Michel, France
While initially occupied by remnants of Romanized Gauls in the 6th century, Mont Saint Michel has been known for much of its history as a Roman Catholic commune. The first monastic community came to the island in the 8th century, with much of what visitors see today, in particular the Mont Saint Michel Abbey, constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries by William de Volpiano, and Robert de Thorigny.
After the 12th century, which many see as the height of the communes’ power and prosperity, there was a steady decline, particularly during the Reformation, to the point the very few monks remained on the island. By the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799), the island had been relegated to a prison. It wasn’t for nearly a hundred years after this, that the historical significance of the island was recognized and the prison closed. And the return of religious practices too the abbey has been slow. The first occurrences were in 1920’s, with some monks returning, starting in the 1960’s. Today monks in residence at the site remain sporadic at best.
With perhaps 40 full time residents, Mont Saint Michel is one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, with over 3 million visitors per year.
Situated off the shores of Normandy, travel time to Mont St. Michel from Paris is about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours depending on your mode of transport.
If there is a city that symbolizes the triumphant of the human spirit over adversity, Dubrovnik would be it. From its very founding, which many believe occurred as result of refugees fleeing the attack of Slavic barbarians on the nearby city of Epidaurus during the Roman era, Dubrovnik has had to deal with changing rulers and warfare, as well as natural and man-made calamities that leveled the city on more than one occasion. First came the Ostrogoths, then the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottomans, Napolean, and the Hapsburgs. Then to cap it all off, came the upheaval that defined the Balkins before and after WWII, which only served to aggravate long standing ethnic conflicts that would boil over at the end of the 20th century.
The fortified wall that encircles Dubrovink’s historic center, and the varying ages of the buildings within it, give one a glimpse of its past fortunes and turmoil. Even today if one reaches a point high enough to overlook the city, one can see color variations in the city’s tiled rooftops that hint at the shelling the city underwent during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and the repairs that have been made since.
Despite its tumultuous history, Dubrovink has managed to preserve its historic beauty, and is now a favorite stop of cruise ships in the Mediterranean.
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Youtube: Walking Tour
Cittadella is a medieval walled city, in the Italian province of Padua that dates back to 1220. Its creation was largely the result of increasing conflicts with neighboring cities like Treviso and Vicenza. Ultimately, the city state of Venice grew to dominate and control much of the region during most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This was followed briefly occupations by Napoleon, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the city became part of what is now modern Italy.
Today, much of Cittadella’s nearly one mile long defensive wall is intact. Only a portion destroyed in the 16th century Cambrai war remains to be restored. The standing wall includes 4 gates and 32 towers.
Significant buildings within the walls include the Casa del Capitano (Captain’s House), the Tower of Malta, Praetorian Palace and the Cittadella Cathedral.
Citadella is approximately one hour away from Venice, and 2 1/2 hours from Milan.
Neuf-Brisach is an example of a new style of fortified town that grew in popularity in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries. Known as star forts, or bastion forts, the new defensive fortifications they exhibit were developed to help defend against the emergence of the canon as a dominate feature of warfare. Instead of the high vertical walls and rounded towers of their predecessor, the medieval castle, star forts incorporated shortened, thicker sloping walls that could deflect canon fire. The star-shaped form the forts incorporated, along with the trench works that typically surrounded the outer wall, made it difficult for approaching armies to find shelter from defensive fire, or use the forts own walls as protective cover.
The first use of these defensive techniques in battle was at Pisa, Italy in 1500. As the defensive advantage of star forts proved themselves in subsequent battles, the concept spread throughout Western Europe, with their designs growing more elaborate over the centuries. Eventually star forts would appear in other parts of the world, including as far away as Goryōkaku, Japan.
Today a number of star fort remain in countries like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Some like Neuf-Brisach and Naarden (Netherlands) enclosed small towns, while others like Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort outside of Elvas, Portugal were purely military forts.
Montagnana shares a common history with the neighboring city of Cittadella noted above. Its well-preserved fortified walls reflect the turbulence that was common in the Po Valley during the Middle Ages. Its two kilometer long wall, with 24 towers is considered the best preserved in the region. For much of its early history, it fell under the control of the lords of Padua. By the 14th century the Republic of Venice grew to dominate the region, and controlled it through the rest of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. This was followed briefly by Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before the emergence of the modern state of Italy.
Buildings of interest within the walled city include the Castle of San Zeno, and Montagnana’s historic Cathedral
Archaeological evidence suggests that Noerdlingen was first inhabited in the late Paleolithic. Much of what visitors see today, including the city’s intact medieval fortifications, originated after the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II decreed the city imperial property under his exclusive control. This protected status, along with Noerdlingen’s location at the center of major German trade routes allowed the city to prosper for a time. However in the late Middle Ages, Noerdlingen found itself at the center of one of the major battles of the Thirty Years’ War. The Battle of Noerdlingen (1634) as it was known, led to the defeat of the Swedish Protestants holding the city, and victory for the Imperial Hapsburg army. The battle and siege that proceeded it, not only led the French to enter the conflict, but also caused the death of nearly half the city’s population – primarily from disease and starvation. It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that the city would again reach a population equal to what it had in the 16th century.
One of the other affects of the Thirty Years’ War was the shift of trade away from this part of Germany, and closer to the coast. This fall into obscurity and irrelevance, has been credited as a major reason Noerdlingen’s medieval infrastructure survived into the modern era.
Important buildings within the walled city include: St. George’s Church, the Lion and Powder Towers, Loepsinger Gate, and the Old Bastion
Another interesting characteristic of Noerdlingen, unknown to its early inhabitants, was its location at the bottom of a 15 million year old meteorite impact crater.
Today Noerdlingen lies almost equidistant from three major German cities (Stuttgart, Nuremberg, and Munich) in the province of Bavaria. A train ride from any of the three takes a little over 1 1/2 hours.
Further Reading Suggestions:
- The Renaissance at War – Thomas Arnold
- The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, And Walled Cities Of The Middle Ages – J.E. Kaufmann
- Castles: Their Construction and History – Sidney Toy
- War in European History – Michael Howard
Warfare In The Medieval World – Brian Todd Carey