During the 16th and 17th centuries fugitive mudejars roamed the area. They allied themselves with Barbary pirates to kidnap Christians who were then held to ransom. The fugitives were in turn hunted down by the local population who sold them into slavery. Following a brief period of relative calm in the early 19th century Gaucin was razed by French invaders and the remaining population largely took up the occupation of the Bandolerismo, romantic figures who held up travellers at gunpoint and stole their possessions, highwaymen in any other language. Those that favoured a more relaxed lifestyle became Contrabanistos, equally romantic figures who smuggled goods from British occupied Gibraltar into an impoverished Andalucia, smugglers to you and me. In the mid 19th century the anti monarchists sacked the town during the Carlist Wars. Gaucin was then staunchly royalist, despite the large population of outlaws. With no royal figurehead to follow after the abdication of the monarch in 1931 loyal Gaucin supported the Republican government. Loyalist views were severely punished by the Nationalists who executed many of the inhabitants of Gaucin and captured the town at the beginning of the Civil War in 1936. The population again reverted to banditry and smuggling to survive. The last seventy years have seen only a slow gradual change, there is still plenty of smuggling going on, cigarettes and drugs, but thankfully little banditry. The bandits seem to have taken up politics.
The violent history is enough to stir the young imagination especially when the whole period can be re-lived in one place, the Castillo del Aguilar, Castle of the Eagles, perched on a rocky pinnacle that the Moors called Sair Guazan or Strong Rock high above the white village of Gaucin. From the top of the bell tower you have a panoramic view down the Rio Genal to the Mediterranean. On the coast the torres were manned to warn of Barbary pirate incursions. Their signal fires would be seen by those manning the tower at Gaucin and the bell, still capable of tolling today, would be rung to warn the local inhabitants of yet another raid. Ringing the bell is an irresistible impulse, especially as the rope appears to be renewed periodically for just that purpose.
Small circular look out towers were positioned around the Moorish outer walls of the castle. They still bear the scars of the French siege and eventual capture of the town and its castle during the Peninsular War. Within the remaining walls are the ruins of a hamlet, complete with its own well, storage rooms and allotments that were designed to make the occupants of the castle self sufficient in the event of a siege. This was all destroyed during the Peninsular and Carlist Wars, modern weaponry making a mockery of Middle Ages castle technology.
The town outside the walls at that time consisted of little more than an abattoir, now an art gallery, an olive mill that was converted to a hotel and a few homes clustered as close to the castle as possible. A cannon of that period still covers the southern approaches to the castle and protects the town from the lower ramparts near the Hermitage which was built as the barracks for the troops manning the castle and remained in use until the 19th century.
Today the whole of Sair Guazan is like an adventure playground. Access to the castle from either the western or eastern end is up steep paths that start at the top of the town. The paths wend their way up the hill between rocky outcrops covered in alpine plants that create a colourful and natural rock garden. Lizards bask on the rocks and disappear in an instant as you approach. The western path is original and worn by centuries of foot and donkey traffic and takes you to the main castle gate where you pass beneath an arch in the outer wall and then a second arch through the inner wall.
The eastern path has been restored and ascends the more precipitous side of the hill. This path, easier to defend, was used to supply ammunition and other essentials to the troops and passes through a narrow gate set within the thick outer wall directly below the Hermitage. Once within the walls there is the hamlet to explore along with the allotments, walls and tower and of course, that cannon. The castle is open 10.30 – 13.30 and 16.00 – 18.00 during the winter and 10.30 – 13.30 and 18.00 – 20.00 during the summer. Closed Mondays and Thursdays.
Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.
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