The Aura of Charles V and Philip II Saturates the Cities of Tordesillas and Valladolid
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“This is the heartland of our nation. It’s the place where Spain was born.” Our guide appeared proud as we drove through the Castilian countryside on our way to Tordesillas and Valladolid – two of Spain’s historic cities. She continued, “From here, our greatest medieval kings, Charles V and his son Philip II ruled over the largest empire the world has ever known.”
She was still relating the story of Castile and the Spanish kings when we reached Tordesillas – an old Castilian market town, built on a hill above the Duero River. Its bridge, spanning the river and still in use, and its location on the main road to Portugal, made it a very important town in the Middle Ages.
A frequent residence of the Spanish kings, it was the place where Charles V’s mother, Joanna, called la Loca (the mad), was semi-imprisoned in a gloomy fortress for 40 years. María Padilla, lover of the king, Pedro the Cruel of Castile, also lived here, and during the rebellion of the Comuneros in the early 16th century, the city was made the headquarters of their Junta Santa (Sacred League).
However, Tordesillas is noted above all for its Monasterio de Santa Clara, originally built as a palace. Its main attraction is the beautiful Andalusian patio, designed for María Padilla by Pedro the Cruel. Its multi-foil horseshoe arches, delicate plasterwork, and multi-colored ceramic tile work make it a Moorish gem in an austere Castilian setting.
Within its walls, in 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed under the auspices of Pope Alexander VI. The treaty divided for Spain and Portugal the world into two spheres of influences. All lands in the New World, except Brazil, were to go to Spain and the lands in Africa and eastward went to Portugal, which also was given Brazil.
That night we slept well in the town’s luxury Parador, surrounded by fields of pine, putting us in the mood the next day for a tour of this now small town of 5,000. After finding that the fortress where Joanna was held has disappeared, we stopped a while to explore the town’s impressive Plaza Mayor (the name of all chief plazas in Spain) before leaving for Valladolid – once the capital of Castile and later, for periods of time, the whole of Spain. We planned to explore the town, then view an exhibition of paintings, celebrating the rule of Charles V and Philip II who, during their reigns, spent much time in this Castilian city.
Located 193 km (120 mi) northwest of Madrid, Valladolid derives its name from the Arabic, Balid al-Walid (the town of Walid – the governor after whom the town is named). The city edges the Pisuerga River, a tributary of the Duero River, long a boundary between Christian and Muslim Spain. The Arabs established Valladolid and, for many years it was an important frontier town, dominating the rich plains of Old Castile.
After the Christian conquest, the city developed into the most important town in Castile. For three centuries, Valladolid was a city of crafts, trade, wealth, grandeur, and political prominence – a magnificent heritage, much of which is still alive in our times.
In 1469 Isabella and Ferdinand were wed in the city and Columbus died there in 1506; Cervantes wrote the first part of Don Quixote on its riverbank, and it is the birthplace for both Philip II and Philip III. After the conquest of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella made Valladolid the capital of the country and thereafter, for periods of time, the seat of power was moved to other cites. Valladolid was made three times the capital until, in 1561, Philip II moved the center of government permanently to Madrid.
Today, the city is a booming industrial and commercial town with a population of 360,000. It is the capital of the autonomous community of Castilla y Leon – the largest administrative region in the European Union. However, its many attractions from its years of splendor make it an attractive and fascinating destination for those interested in history.
From that era, the Church of Santa María Antigua, with a Romanesque tower and vaulted ceilings; the university building, displaying the top Baroque façade in all of Valladolid; Collegiate Church, with Romanesque and Gothic features; Cavalry Training Academy, crowned with elegant spires; House of Cervantes Museum, evoking the age of Don Quixote; Palacio de Pimentel, where Philip II was born and noted for its plateresque corner window; and the 17th century Church of San Pablo with its plateresque façade of astonishing richness, are a few of the legacies from the city’s illustrious past.
After visiting the 15th century Colegio de San Gregorio, housing the Museo Nacional de Escultura with its rich display of wood sculptures, we crossed the street to the Palacio del Marqués de Villena where an exhibition named ‘The Epoch of Charles V and Philip II in Historical Paintings from the XIX Century’ was being held. A huge collection of paintings about their lives and that of their families were on exhibition.
A few hours later, as we sat enjoying a tasty selection of Castilian tapas in the La Criolla Restaurant, I thought of these two 16th century kings who fought endless wars with their own subjects, the Ottomans and almost every European nation. During the time of their rule in the 16th century, Spain was the number one world power and the conquest of the Americas had brought the country immense wealth. However, on-going wars almost forced the country into ruin.
Today, in Castile and most other parts of Spain, these kings are heroes, but to the peoples of the New World and those of Africa and Asia, they were barbaric rulers. However, they have left a lasting memory. The majority of the thousands of churches, convents and palaces that saturate the Spanish landscape were built under their reigns. The historic buildings in the cities of Tordesillas and Valladolid bear witness to the importance of these kings in the history of Spain.
I thought to myself as I munched on my tapas, “Were these kings great rulers or only adventurous.” To me there was no problem in answering the question, “It depends on who writes history. Of course, it is always the conquerors.”