Castle Hunting: Castelo de Guimarães

When I learn that a castle has been majorly rebuilt, altered or otherwise "recreated," it feels like a betrayal - the history of the place just doesn't feel quite authentic. When I visit a castle that's little more than a pile of stones, it's also disappointing - oh, what could have been if this place had been kept up.
Then, there are places like the Castelo de Guimarães, which was built in 1139, hasn't undergone much restoration and still looks perfectly, amazingly solid. It's a fantastic small fortress, with an important place in Portuguese history and lots of interesting quirks.
When count Henry of Portugal gained his kingdom independence from the Kingdom of León at the beginning of the 12th century, he chose Guimarães as his capital and the castle there as his fortified residence. An earlier fort, built by countess Mumadona Dias about a hundred years prior, was in drastic need of repair. Henry essentially destroyed what there was of the existing structure and rebuilt the castle on the same footprint, utilizing a hard granite outcropping as a foundation and quarried stone for the walls. The local granite is excellent for castles, as it's very hard and can be cut into uniform pieces - one of the reasons the castle is still standing today.
The outer walls are extremely thick, with no ornamentation and almost no openings. Many of the towers are actually just buttresses, without interiors, and were erected more as bulwarking and height advantages than as occupiable spaces. The two entrances are especially well guarded, with narrow openings and massive, solid pillar-towers on either side. Firm footing was also extremely valuable, as the stone floor allowed the walls to remain well supported and discouraged mining or tunneling.
The walls are built around a central, square keep that is still as perfectly erect and right-angled as it was nine hundred years ago. With virtually no openings in the walls - which are themselves over six feet thick - the structure would have been extremely hard to attack. A single entrance was placed high up on the front wall, accessed by a bridge from the outer crenelations. If the initial defenses were breached, the bridge could be destroyed, leaving no easy point of attack.
Guimarães was built in the late stages of the “Reconquista,” when the Iberian peninsula was being reclaimed from the Moorish people who had previously occupied Spain and Portugal. It’s primary goal was to protect the Portuguese counts from attack by the moors and from the Viking raiders who were active in the region at the time. As Portugal grew, though, and expanded southward, cities along the coast and fortresses along the inland mountains became more important and Guimarães grew less vulnerable.
By the 16th century, the castle had virtually no military importance in an area that had very little threat from invasion. Unlike other abandoned castles, though, Guimarães was too well built to crumble with disuse. It was briefly used as a makeshift jail, then spent a long period as a royal hay barn and cattle shed. By the beginning of the 1800’s, the building had come to be seen as a relic, and the city made plans to tear it down and use the stone to pave streets. For one reason or another, that never happened and Guimarães survived. A brief restoration project – which amounted to a thorough sweeping out and a little patching up – took place between 1937 and 1940. Today, the castle is considered a national icon.
We saw photographs of the castle pre-restoration, and, aside from some sheds and rough spots, it looked almost identical. Standing on the roof, leaning against the original ramparts, the stones had a weighty permanence, so little has changed in nine centuries. While it's not that large or immediately impressive, the Castelo de Guimarães left us smiling and enamored. Not many historic sights are this quietly classic.
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