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A Fortress Built of Salt

The mountains and hills of Spain are covered in many little towns. They are more than picturesque; so charming that they’re almost saccharine. In some of these little towns, which used to be great town centers in the medieval past, there are towering reminders of their previous glory. In the town of Cardona in Catalonia, a great fortress was built around the collegiate church of San Vicenç. This fortress was built of salt.

Standing outside the medieval entrance to the ducal courtyard

The ducal courtyard with Gothic arches and original staircase

“Kings without a Crown”

Not literally constructed of salt blocks, however this fantastic castle was built out of a fortune made through salt mines. The viscounts of Osona-Cardona began fortifying the rocky crag in the 11th century. Slightly earlier, in the 9-10th century, the adjacent territory was on the border of the Muslim-Christian front and political leaders wanted to maintain their hold on the salt mines. This resource and strategic position catapulted the family into a prominent position. The viscounts with their church on the hill are first mentioned in 980 and by 1375, the family gained the title of Count and in 1491, Duke. The family had close personal and political ties to the kingdom of Barcelona and the Crown of Aragon. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V eventually admitted the family as knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Eventually the Osona-Cardona family became so well-known across Europe, controlling 6% of Catalonia, that they became known as the “kings without a crown” and it was all due to the enormous salt mines located in their territories.

Map showing the duchy of Cardona (center) and other territories acquired by the Osona-Cardona family from the 12-15th century

Lords of Salt

Between the 12-15th centuries, the Osona-Cardonas built five major fortresses however the castle at Cardona was unique. The duchy of Cardona was the family’s primary seat and served as the main headquarters for running the business of the other estates. Of all the revenue-generating activities in their lands, the salt mines of Cardona were the most financially rewarding. Salt was a pricey commodity during the Middle Ages and the eras around it. The modern word “salary” has its root in the Latin “salis” or salt. This is a reference to the payment of Roman soldiers in salt rather than coin; a reflection on the high status of the mineral. Having salt on a medieval table was a sign of wealth and prestige. Highly decorated salt cellars were opulently displayed especially in the presence of good company, and surviving examples show intricate craftsmanship and precious metals. Salt, as a form of “white gold,” made the Osona-Cardona family the equivalent of medieval celebrities. Everyone wanted to be them, marry them, or live with them.

The cloister adjacent to the west end of the church

More than a castle chapel

The collegiate basilica and monastic community of San Vicenç had existed before the castle and maintained an independent identity from the noble household. Its vaulted crypt with its altar to St. James pre-dates the church (c. 1019-1040 a.d.) and was a pilgrimage stop on the Santiago de Compostela. It once held relics of Sts. Sebastian, Ursula, and Agnes (bonus for the pilgrims!) The main basilica, with its spectacular Catalan Romanesque vaulting, holds the tombs of two medieval Osona-Cardonas: Joan Ramon Folch I (1375-1442) and Duke Ferran I (1513-1543) with his wife María Francisca de Lara. Joan Ramon’s sepulcher was replaced by a 17th century monument, but it’s nice to know that he’s there too. Based on records, there were 23 members of the family buried here and several prominent leaders of the church community. From 1794-1903, the complex was used as a military barracks. When the castle was finally declared a national monument, a major renovation project in the 1950’s uncovered original 11th century architecture and 12th century frescoes.

Cardona in the 20th Century and Beyond

The church became a national monument in 1931 and the castle gained that status in 1949 (well, technically, they are both Items of National Cultural Interest in the Historic Monument Category). Since 1976, the castle has been one of the Spanish Paradores de Turismo.

San Vicenç, built c. 1019-1040, considered one of the best extant examples of Catalan Romanesque

These historical-sites-turned-luxury-hotels are one model of successful heritage management, and Cardona showcases one of the best adaptations. A decent section of the medieval castle is intact, with some of the interior converted into hotel rooms and services. The church is preserved as an independent historic site, with separate admission policies. Parts of the castle like the walls and the courtyard are open to the public. You can view the fortress’s progressive fortifications including the 12th century zig-zagging entry ramp, 15th century water tanks, and 18-19th century pointed star-fort bastions. Other notes of interest include the War of Spanish Succession in which Cardona was a major strategic front from 1711-1714, and the use of San Vicenç as a location for Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight in 1964. In 2001, the castle was transferred to the care of the Catalan Government which supported a major renovation of the property.

There is a lot more to the history of Cardona than what’s recounted here so I encourage you to keep exploring for more stories. Even better, book yourself a trip to Spain and a night in the Parador! You too can feel like a Lord of Salt and a King without a Crown! I promise that the hotel restaurant will have an ample supply of salt on your table…

11th century crypt with barrel arches

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