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Peniscola Castle - The Historic Oasis on Mediterranean Coast of Castellon, Valencia

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About Peniscola

The Gibraltar of Valencia, the most underrated town in Spain, the city in the sea, as interesting as it is, Peniscola gets many different names for many different reasons. It is not unjustified, the town has a very interesting history. Throughout the ages, many different factions found Peniscola as their home: Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Knights Templar, and, finally, the famous Antipope Benedict XIII, locally known as Papa Luna, found refuge until his death in 1423. Peniscola castle was a suitable fortress for the declining religious leader, who out-of-fear of being attacked, reinforced this stronghold even further. The original constructions of the keep are attributed to the Templars, but they built it on the top of a Moorish Castle, which was probably built on an even older fortress.

As a result, it is hard to tell which came first: Peniscola or Gibraltar, thus the name “The Gibraltar of Valencia” might be unfair. The name is rather due to the wide knowledge of Gibraltar. It feels like every fortification on a huge rock by the sea is called “the Gibraltar of something” these days. Meanwhile, Peniscola is relatively unknown to mainstream international tourism, even though the town has a lot of visitors. It is nowhere close to being underrated, rather marks a blind spot of the English-speaking community. One way or another, Peniscola has a lot to show off, and knowingly or unknowingly, most of its visitors will be pleasantly surprised by the city in the sea.

The views alone are worth visiting Peniscola Castle. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Peniscola Castle

Though the shape of the fortress is still intact, one can only truly visit Peniscola Castle using imagination. Only the rocks remain of what once a great castle with beautiful gardens and frescoes. Most of the fortress was restored and even some walls were added for the shooting of Anthony Mann’s movie “El Cid”. Today, Peniscola Castle is a popular tourist destination and righteously so. All thanks to an exceptionally rich history and the continuous appearances in the popular culture, including the iconic George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones”. 

The artillery park and the modern gardens of castle join the medieval walls with renaissance ones. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Peniscola Details

Map of Things to See in Peniscola

3D map of Peniscola historical city.
During his residence, Papa Luna transformed the typical medieval Templar courtyard into papal gardens. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

How to get to Peniscola?

Peniscola is located in the northern part of the Valencian Community – Province of Castellon, just below Ebro delta in Catalonia. The famous Spanish Mediterranean motorway AP-7 is situated right next to the town.

Car is the recommended way of getting around in these parts of Spain. Check the map for the available parking locations.

During the peak times, the closest parking to Peniscola Castle is almost always full. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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By train

There are local and inter-regional trains, connecting the Valencian Community with Barcelona and Cartagena, running by Peniscola. Unfortunately, the closest train station is located in the neighboring town, Benicarlo.


By bus

There is an intercity public bus running between Peniscola – Benicarlo – Vinaros. You can find the timetables here.


By car

Despite the direction you are coming from, Peniscola could be either approached by AP-7 motorway or N-340. Roads CV-141 and CV-140 connect the town to the motorways.

Peniscola is a little authentic oasis in the very touristic Mediterranean coast of Spain. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

History of Peniscola

There are so many historic layers to Peniscola that often much of it is left out in mainstream tourism. Among examples of stories, which would be advertised almost anywhere else in Spain is the legend of Hannibal swearing an oath to his father, Hamilcar Barca, to never be friends with Romans; Nor nobody talks about the mythical Greeks, to whom the name origins of Peniscola is accredited to – Chersonesos – the Greek word for peninsula; For more than 500 years, Moors also had a castle here and referred to it as Baniskula. Those times must have had some great stories as well; And finally, almost anybody ever talks about the first settlers of the area – the iconic Iberian. During their reign, I imagine it was more of a natural wonder coupled with their shrines to appreciate the beauty of the whole magical setting.

Whichever period you choose, it always appears that Peniscola captured the attention of people, there is no reason to assume that it wouldn’t capture yours.

The building known as the ‘Polvorin’ belonged to the Castle during the period of Knights Templar and was used as Templar tank. Now it is fully covered by seashells. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

The Templar Order in Peniscola

During an exchange of holdings in Tortosa, in 1294 Peniscola was peacefully transferred from the Kingdom of Aragon to Templars Order to help protect the area from Muslims and pirates.

The mighty Romanesque fortress of Peniscola was built between 1294 and 1307 by the Knights Templar, the same year they were evicted and arrested by James II of Aragon under the orders of Avignon Pope Clement V. The timing was such that the Order probably felt what was coming and built the castle in Peniscola as their final refuge. The fortress remained the main command center of the Knights Templar Order until 1312 when the same Pope disbanded the order under the pressure of King Phillip IV of France. 

The romanesque room was used by all of its masters for receptions, hearings and solemn acts. Its ceiling is still reminiscent of its past with Templar symbols and iron rings, which used to hold lamps. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

After the Templar Order got dissolved, King James II of Aragon persuaded Pope John XXII to let him reorganize the properties of the former order in Aragon and Valencia as a frontier of defenses of the Christian domain against Moors and pirates in the Iberian Peninsula. Although the main base moved to Montesa Castle, Peniscola remained under the banner of the newly formed Order of Montesa.

Anitopope Benedict XIII transformed the second level of Peniscola Castle as his headquarters. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Papa Luna of Peniscola

Other than the Templar Order, Papa Luna (Antipope Benedict XIII) was the other popular figure to find its final refuge in the castle of Peniscola. In 1411, due to his persistence and refusal, the Antipope got expelled from the Christian Church, after which he moved from Perpignan to Peniscola. Benedict XIII converted Knights Templar Castle to his Papal seat, making it the third Holy See in the world together with Avignon and Rome.

In 1406 Pope Gregory XII, situated In Rome, offered Papa Luna to resign together to elect a new Pope, who would reunite Christians, but he was stubborn and throughout his life, the rogue Pope never stopped believing that he is the only true reign to be the Head of the Christian world. During his life in Peniscola Castle, Papa Luna worked tirelessly to protect his rights and position as legitimate Pope, leaving a body of written work that was his final legacy of colorful life. Benedict XIII lived in Peniscola Castle until he died in 1423. 

Today Papa Luna is the most famous theme character in Peniscola. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

The Fortress remained the Papal seat to his successor, Antipope Clement VIII, who after an agreement with Rome, agreed to abandon his positions in favor of recognizing Pope Martin V. That terminated the remains of Avignon Papacy and ended the saga which officially destroyed the legendary Templar Order. Though the fruits of their knowledge and skills remain to this day.

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King Phillip IV of France

Personally, it feels to me like King Phillip IV of France was the main antagonist of this whole historical period, and he turned out as a clear winner. He owned large sums of money to both Knights Templar and Jews and decided to get rid of both with the excuse of them being a state within a state. Seeing the end of the most powerful order of Crusaders was no easy task. As a result, King Phillip IV of France had to confront the Pope itself, which resulted in a victory against the Holy See and Papal clergy transfer to the enclave of Avignon, just under the wing of the victorious King. As I mentioned before, both the Knights Templar and the line of Popes and Antipopes, originated from Avignon, met their end in Peniscola Castle. King Phillip IV of France came out on top of all religious institutions.

The actual name of the town, Peniscola, comes from a local evolution of the Latin word “Peninsula”. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

The Bastion of Rennaisance

The city in the sea got its final iconic shape and fortifications during the Renaissance. In 1563, during the reign of Felipe II, an Italian architect J. B. Antonelli visited Peniscola and projected the current form of the fortress. It was a modern type of fortification, many haven’t heard the word “bastion” before the transformation. It was constructed in a shadow of a possible confrontation with another superpower at the time – the Ottoman Empire. Luckily, Peniscola Castle never got to experience the battle it was built for.

Some tunnels from artillery park lead to the old castle port – Porteta, others – outside the walls. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Due to limited space, the architect had to be creative. The internal vaults were used to establish arsenals, mess halls, and munitions dump. These areas were used to house a school for children between 1912 and 1971. The spaces of gunboats were used as windows of the classrooms.

Photo Gallery of Peniscola

Church of Hermit was built between 1708 and 1714 on an older chapel. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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Personal Experience

While I have heard that Peniscola is an exceptionally beautiful and interesting town, I didn’t expect it to have such a rich history. Combined with the authenticity, it was a pleasant surprise. Peniscola is like a gust of fresh air along the coast full of hotels and various entertainment facilities, which have emerged only in relatively recent years to support the growing tourism. The mild weather and warm sea on the Mediterranean coastlines of Spain is the main attraction for most of the visitors, therefore it is a sweet treat to find such a historic bastion for a change. 

The experience of visiting the castle itself was no ordinary tour to any given museum of similar origins. While the very heart of the city is a part of the fortress, the very tip of it on Peniscola rock oversees it all. The area surrounding the castle sorts out in front of your eyes like a map. No surprise, the Knights Templar, Antipope Benedict XIII, and many others, having as many enemies as they had, found Peniscola as a natural spot for a fortress. As a result, Peniscola is a very rich and picturesque tourist destination – for sure worth a day-visit or more. 

All content and photos by Alis Monte. If you want to collaborate, contact me on info@ctdots.eu Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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