Located on a windy plain beneath an ever-blue sky, the remote medieval town of Albarracín, isolated from large communication routes, emerges at the foot of a mountain range – the mythological-sounding Montes Universales – and is surrounded by precarious drops formed by the Guadalaviar River. The town feels ancient, lost and isolated, a town constructed beside the gates of heaven.
Albarracín is an ancient city; it is possible that the ancient Celtiberian town of Lobetum, inhabited by the Lobetani people and mentioned in classical texts, was located in the same place. Its strategic position made it a favourable place for shelter during the dangerous period of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. There was already a Christian community during the Visigothic period, who appear to have renamed the town Santa María de Oriente.
Nevertheless, the town only became acquired its grandeur and magnificence with the arrival of the Arabs. The town was established as a stronghold for the their territories; its defensive aspect is still visible in the imposing walled enclosure which ends with the so-called Walker’s Castle. With the break-up of the Caliphate of Cordoba in the first decades of the eleventh century, the town came to be the capital of a powerful taifa kingdom governed by a Berber family, the Banu Razin, from whose name the word Albarracín derives. After several decades, it fell to the Almoravids in 1104.
The period of de facto independence
In 1145, with the Almoravids driven out of the peninsula, the two Muslim kinglets of Valencia and Murcia fought for possession of Albarracín. In the end, the Murcian – the famous “Wolf King” – prevailed, and then handed the city over to the Navarrese knight Pedro Ruiz de Azagra for his services. Thus, for several decades – and helped too by its geographical location – Albarracín was virtually independent from both Arab and Christian kingdoms, with the Azagra dynasty holding absolute power over the the town. It was repopulated by the Navarrese, who left marks on the area which are still visible today, and in 1260 received its first city charter from Teresa Álvarez de Azagra. Governorship of the town later passed to another noble dynasty, the Castilian House of Lara, and in turn to the infante Ferdinand of Aragon.
Integration into Aragon
This situation lasted for several more decades, despite the fact that in 1300 James II of Aragon incorporated it under the Crown of Aragon, giving it the official title of City and the privilege of the second most-important place in the kingdom’s Cortes. It was not until 1379, under the reign of Peter IV of Aragon, that Albarracín was definitively incorporated into the kingdom through a pact signed in Fraga by representatives of the former independent leaders. However, it still retained almost complete administrative and judicial independence, and was ruled under judicial authority until the end of the sixteenth century. In 1598, it was incorporated into the General Charters of Aragon, losing its own city charter, and entered into gradual decline. This decline was exacerbated by the damage inflicted to the town’s industry by the French Army during the War of Independence (1808-14).
The city of Albarracín was declared a Historical and Artistic Monument in 1961, received the Golden Medal of Fine Art in 1996, and is currently waiting for inclusion on the Unesco World Heritage List. The city is home to a remarkable collection of medieval churches, fortifications and walls dating from Arabic times, and Renaissance palaces and mansions, sites which alone justify Albarracín’s renown. Furthermore, however, the town is unique thanks to its popular and traditional architecture, built in wood and the popular red plaster which is given its characteristic colour as the sun sets over the mountains. The Plaza Mayor and Plaza de la Comunidad are two of the most picturesque sites in the old town.
The Cathedral of the Saviour
Albarracín is also home to a cathedral, since it was the diocesan seat for many centuries. Dedicated to the Saviour, it was constructed at the beginning of the thirteenth century, although the building we see today is mainly the result of sixteenth-century rebuilding. Its star-shaped rib vaults are particularly impressive, dating from the end of the Gothic period, as are its Renaissance chapel niches, the belltower, the Romanesque-style cloister, the Episcopal Palace, which is attached to the cathedral and contains a splendid collection of religious art, the Great Altar,sculpted by Cosme Damián in the middle of the sixteenth century, and, finally, the fine objects kept in the Cathedral Museum which is housed in the Chapter House. Amongst these are the splendid sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries.
City walls and fortifications
The fortified area which surrounds the old town was constructed in two different stages. During the first stage – before the year 1000, when the town was under Arab rule – the bastion known as the Alcazar and the Walker’s Tower were built, both of which are conserved to this day. In the eleventh century the Arabic kings of Albarracín built the walls which surrounded the outskirts of the city, and following the Christian conquest, the new lords and then the Kings of Aragon constructed new stretches of wall, which make up the majority of the forts and towers which are conserved today.
Churches, convents and palaces
Among other buildings in this unique town, mention must be made of the Church of Saint Mary, the oldest Christian place of worship in the city, which was converted into a Dominican convent in the seventeenth century. The turret of the Castle of Doña Blanca was incorporated into the convent at the same time, and the convent’s library was installed inside it. Also of note is the sixteenth-century Church of Santiago, the Dominican convents of Saint Bruno and Saint Stephen and the Piarist convent, all of which date from the Baroque period. In addition to the religious architecture, there are several remarkable civil buildings: several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lords’ palaces with emblazoned doors, including those of the Navarro, Monterde, Antillón and Brigadiera families.
Tourist Office of the Region of Albarracín
C/ San Antonio, 2