Hands up if you ever saw the Hollywood blockbuster El Cid, starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren! If you did, you also saw Peñíscola, the spectacular fortress which became the city of Valencia for the movie.
You can see why the producers chose it – the setting is quite something. An impregnable castle set on a rock jutting out into the sparkling blue Mediterranean, plus a beautiful beach that stretches northwards for kilometre after kilometre (on which Heston famously rode his white horse).
And if you’re too young to remember El Cid the movie, Peñíscola also starred in Game of Thrones (check out this location guide).
Home to a Pope!
There’s also some impressive real-life history to go with the movies. Peñíscola was actually home to the Pope for eight years in the 15th century (Pope Benedict XIII, aka Papa Luna), and he turned the castle into his Papal palace.
OK, there were two other rival Popes at the time (one in Rome and one in Avignon in France) which devalued the title a little, but nevertheless, having a Pope in residence is still quite a boast. Even though Benedict was subsequently declared an ‘anti-pope’ by the Catholic Church – but more of that story later.
Head for the castle
The place everyone is aiming for in Peñíscola is the castle at the top, but there are some great views to take in on the way up. The best way in is via the Puerta de San Pedro (Porta de Sant Pere) next to the little port and just follow your nose.
On your way up, you’ll go past El Bufador (rough translation: blowhole), a gaping cavity in the rock, a natural underground tunnel that connects with the sea below – in stormy weather, seawater jets out of the mouth (it didn’t when we were there, but it looks spectacular in this video).
There’s also the Casa de Conchas, a house decorated with seashells from top to bottom by a couple who started doing tours right at the start of the tourism boom in the 50s.
You can’t miss the lighthouse, shoehorned onto a tiny site right next to the castle – sadly you can’t go in, but there are much better views ahead of you in the castle itself. Entrance is €5, which gets you in to the castle and also the Parque de Artillería you’ll find on the way down.
The Templar Knights
The castle was built (mostly) by the Knights Templar, who were given Peñíscola in 1294. The Templars were a Christian military order founded to protect pilgrims heading to the Holy Land, and they knew all about making castles impregnable. They built their fortress on earlier Moorish foundations and construction was done by 1307.
Eventually, the Templars became too rich, too powerful, made too many enemies and were banned in 1312 by the Pope.
Which was kind of ironic, as in the following century, Peñíscola castle became home to a Pope. His official title was Benedict XIII, but he’s known affectionately in Peñíscola as Papa (Pope) Luna – he was Spanish (or at least, Aragonese) and before he got the top job, his name was Pedro de Luna.
How he became Pope and why there were two other Popes at the same time is fiendishly complicated.
Three Popes! How did that happen?
Short version – the Catholic Church split (a schism) in a political punchup between the major powers of Europe, especially France, Aragon and the Holy Roman Empire.
The Papacy had been based in Avignon in France for a fair chunk of the 14th century, which suited the French just fine. Then Pope Gregory XI decided to move back to Rome and that started a whole bunch of trouble. Shortly afterwards, he dropped dead. Things then got complicated when not one, but two Popes were elected. Then, in 1394, our guy, Papa Luna, got elected with a brief to end the schism.
Needless to say, that didn’t work! Papa Luna lost out in the power struggle and retreated to Peñíscola, where he had royal protection from the King of Aragón. He lived and worked in the castle from 1411 until his death in 1423 and you can walk around his rather austere apartments. He may have been Pope, but Papa Luna clearly didn’t do luxury.
He did like to nibble on dried citrus fruit from time to time, which was nearly his undoing. In 1418, a plot was hatched to poison him with arsenic hidden in the fruit. It didn’t work (obviously!) and he kept going for another five years.
Leave the castle and head down the hill towards the Parque de Artillería – beautifully maintained gardens below the castle walls where they once kept the big guns of the fortress. The views up the coast of the seemingly endless Playa Norte are stunning. Your castle ticket gets you in here too.
Then keep on walking downhill to the ramp on Calle Mayor (another highlight of El Cid, the movie) through the fortifications beefed up by King Philip II in the 16th century and finally to beach level.
When they filmed El Cid back in 1961, there were a lot of rather inconvenient modern houses spoiling the shot. No fancy digital graphics existed back then – so the film-makers had to build a huge wall and a gate to disguise it all. The set was so enormous, it apparently made the Guinness Book of Records for a while. Many of the townsfolk were enlisted as extras.
Tip – eat here
Unsurprisingly, most people look for somewhere with a view in the old town to eat. But try Rojo Picota, an innovative tapas and wine place at the start of Playa Norte. Unlike a lot of places in the old town, it’s open in low season too.
So how do you pronounce Peñíscola?
If you’re not a Spanish speaker, Peñíscola looks like a verbal embarrassment waiting to happen. But the wavy line over the n (~) and the accent on the í change the way it’s pronounced. So you say it ‘Pen-YISS-cola’ with the emphasis on the YISS. Embarrassment avoided!
More Spanish Popes!
Peñiscola isn’t the only place in this part of Spain that can boast a Pope. Xátiva, a couple of hours drive south of Peñiscola, had two Popes – the infamous Borgias, no less. Check out my post here.
© Guy Pelham