In 2017, Cardona Castle was voted the most popular monument in Catalonia, and in 2016 it received an award from the European Film Academy and is now one of the "Treasures of European Film Culture. The old walls owe this honor above all to Orson Welles, who in 1964 filmed large parts of his Shakespeare adaptation "Falstaff – Bells at Midnight" in the collegiate convent of Sant Vincenc, which belongs to the castle. In 1976, the gates of the fortress, which has never been taken by force of arms in the 1100 years of its existence, were opened to visitors from all over the world: as Parador Nacional de Turismo, it now houses a luxury hotel in which the style and atmosphere of the medieval noble residence are kept alive.
The castle of Cardona © Diputacio de Barcelona
You might think that Cardona is experiencing turbulent times right now. A look at the history of the most popular monument in Catalonia quickly puts this impression into perspective. Compared to what the castle on the hill overlooking the valley of the Riu Cardener has seen in the last thousand years, the glorious events of the last 50 years are hardly significant.
In fact, the history of Cardona Castle begins in the early Stone Age. At that time, however, no one had any idea that a fortress would be built here that would enable later generations to trace the development of military strategy and technology from the Middle Ages to modern times. In those early days of human history, a mineral was discovered here that has always guided the fortunes of the place: Potash salt.
Miracle of Geology: The Salt Mountain of Cardona
The first to express the wonder of the Cardona salt in words that have been handed down was the Roman consul Marcus Portius Cato. He spoke of "a huge mountain of salt that grows at the same rate as it is mined."From a geological point of view, this vertical rise of the potassium salts from the earth is not a miracle, but a phenomenon called diapirism, which can be illustrated by the function of a lava lamp. Nevertheless, even the geologists admit that the salt mountain of Cardona is unique in the world.
Over the millennia, however, the geological fascination of the salt mountains has been rather in the background. It was the economic value of the mineral that gave the lords of Cardona power and prestige throughout Europe. In the Middle Ages, salt was not only indispensable for preserving and seasoning food, it also functioned at times as a means of payment. In this sense, the lords of Cardona were not just sitting on a salt mine, but also on a "gold mine".
Cardona’s wealth lies in the depths of the earth © Turismo Verde S.L.
In 886 the fortress of Cardona was built by order of Guifre el Pilos, ("Wilfried the Hairy"). This nobleman, blessed with an unerring sense for strategically wise decisions, is considered the founder of Catalonia, who obtained the de facto independence of the Catalan counties from the Frankish kingdom. In this sense, the epithet "the hairy one" is also to be understood as a deliberately chosen counter term to the epithet of his former Frankish liege lord "Charles the Bald". Guifre founded not only the fortress of Cardona, but also the famous monasteries of Ripoll and Sant Joan de les Abadesses. Another feat, whose consequences are still clearly perceptible today, was the repopulation of the plain of Vic, which at that time was no man’s land between Muslim and Christian occupied territories.
Cloister of the collegiate convent of Sant Vincenc in the fortress of Cardona © Servicios Editoriales Georama
The heyday of the castle, however, falls in the period between the 11th century and the present. and 15. In the sixteenth century, when the lords of Cardona used the castle not only as a fortress, but also as a manorial residence. In those centuries, the noble family of Cardona expanded its power in several ways. The economic strength, which the possession of the salt mines brought them, was only one factor. Another was their traditional role as mediators, which contributed to the de-escalation of many conflicts between the Crown and the Pyrenean counties, with which the Cardona were linked by blood ties. It was this combination of economic and political influence that made the Cardona family one of the most powerful noble families in Europe.
From about 1450, the Cardona increasingly preferred to stay in their palaces in Barcelona and other places. Towards the end of the 16. By the end of the 17th century, Cardona Castle had lost its former splendor and functioned primarily as a prison and military base. The events of the War of the Secession and the Peace of the Pyrenees led to Cardona’s being a fortress from the middle of the 17th century onwards. At the end of the 17th century the castle was permanently occupied by the military. At the end of the 17. In the middle of the nineteenth century began the expansion of the medieval castle into a fortress of modern times.
The fortress of Cardona has never been taken by force of arms until today.
It did not take long for the reformed fortress to prove its defensibility. In the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia refused to recognize the rule of the Bourbon Philip V as King of Spain even after the Peace of Utrecht. As a consequence, a siege of Barcelona took place from 1713 onwards. Barcelona capitulated on 11. September 1714. It was only a week later that Cardona opened its gates to the enemy, as the security of Barcelona now depended on Cardona’s surrender. Catalonia was incorporated into the Spanish nation state under Philip V of Anjou. The fortress of Cardona is considered by the Catalans as the place where the sovereignty of Catalonia was defended for the longest time. Cardona emerged as an "impregnable" fortress from many more conflicts, including the Pyrenean War, the War of Independence and the Carlist Wars.
Actually, in the case of the castle of Cardona, one cannot speak of a building. Rather, we are dealing with several buildings that were erected next to and on top of each other in the course of the centuries. The former noble palace and the collegiate convent of Sant Vicenc occupy about equal space in the area of the fortress.
The three-nave basilica, made famous as the setting for Orson Welles’ "Falstaff", is considered a jewel of early Catalan Romanesque architecture. Three semicircular apses determine the shape of the transept. The central nave is preceded by a spacious sanctuary, below which a crypt extends. Among others, Duke Fernando I and Count Ramon Folc I are buried here. The canons of Sant Vincenc lived here under the patronage of the Lords of Cardona until the end of the 16th century. At the end of the 16th century it was converted into a military post. Parts of her chambers, the noble palace and the old powder magazine together form the Hotel Parador Nacional de Turismo de Cardona.
The castle tower Torre de la Minyona
A sad legend surrounds the castle tower Torre de la Minyona (the Tower of the Miss), which is one of the most remarkable buildings within the fortress. In the 11. It is said that in the sixteenth century, a daughter of the lord of Cardona fell in love with a Saracen knight. To prevent her from escaping with her lover, her father locked her in the castle tower. For the young noblewoman there was no escape from her prison located 25 meters above the ground. Today, by the way, the round castle tower is only 12.5m high. Technological advances in weapons of war made the tower a highly visible target for enemy artillery in the event of a siege, which is why it was rebuilt at the turn of the 18th century. to the 19. In the nineteenth century, the parador was reduced to the height of 12.5 meters, which it still has today.
Medieval feeling in the Parador of Cardona © Photo: Alan Clark on Flickr, License CC BY 2.0
El Patio Ducal, the ducal courtyard
Around this central courtyard were arranged the chambers of the noble palace, which were built between the 12. and 14. Century probably constituted the lower part of the first castle complex next to the castle tower. Here resided until the middle of the 15. Century the counts and dukes of Cardona with their families resided here. They lived here surrounded by a whole court of servants, imitating the etiquette of the royal court of Barcelona.
Bulwark and defensive walls
The ring of seven bulwarks that surrounds the castle is one of the most impressive sights of the castle. Four of them are pentagonal, the remaining three adapt their shape to the features of the terrain. The front walls are up to 4 meters thick and in its ramparts there are embrasures for the artillery. In its outer corners were the shield houses of the guard posts.
Unforgettable is of course also the view from the castle over the wide countryside at the Riu Cardona:
Photo: Ferran Porta on Flickr, License : CC BY-ND 2.0
More than a monument
The old town of Cardona
A visit to Cardona Castle should be combined with a visit to the medieval center of Cardona and the Cardona Medieval Center. This is located at the plaza de la Fira in front of the city hall and offers a vivid introduction to the history of the place and the development of the city and castle of Cardona. During the subsequent walk through the old town, you can visit well-informed sights such as the churches of Sant Miquel and Santa Eulàlia, the passage of the old hospital to the market square ("Placa del Mercat"), the executioner’s tower ("Torre del botxI") and the devil’s bridge ("Pont del diable").
The Culture Park of the Salt Mountain
Mandatory program is of course a visit to the "Culture Park of the Salt Mountain". The 120 meters high visible salt mountain is only the tip of the enormous diapir with a depth of nearly 2 kilometers. A visit to the Cultural Park of the Salt Mountain gives the opportunity to admire the fantastic shapes and textures of the salt massif at a depth of 86 meters below ground.
From 1929 to 1990, the local mine was one of the most important potash salt mines in the world. In the 1990s, the old mine was turned into a cultural park, where visitors can now learn interesting and amazing things about the geology of the place and the salt and its importance for mankind.