Places to visit in Spain - Monastery of Ucles in Cuenca

Dec 15, 2021
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A castle, a monastery, a monastery castle or a castle monastery? What do you think?

Halfway between Cuenca and Madrid in Spain, on the side of a steep hill, stands Uclés, a beautiful town of Celtiberian and Roman origins that seems to be anchored in the past. Surrounded by the remains of its walls, its towers, ever vigilant, watch the passing of the centuries unchanged.
And at the summit, on a hill overlooking the village and the river Bedija, stands the Monastery of the Order of St. James (a religious and military order). Its initial objective was to protect the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago and to expel the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula), an extraordinary and majestic monumental complex, which has been aptly named "El Escorial de La Mancha" (video of the Monastery of El Escorial ).
The monastery formed part of a group of fortifications that had its origins in the Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula. After its reconquest by the Christians, it was donated by King Alfonso VIII to the Order of Santiago in 1174.
The Order of Santiago turned the castle of Uclés into its mother house, forming a formidable complex of buildings, part of which are still preserved today, with the towers of El Pontido and El Palomar, still part of the Arab fortress, standing out from north to south, and linked to them by an imposing stretch of wall, the Albarrana tower or new keep, at the southern end.
With the objective of the Reconquest in the 16th century (a period of history in which the Moors were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula), the Order of Santiago gradually lost its military function. In 1529, a radical reform began, which lasted two centuries and converted the medieval monastery into the present building.
The interior of the monastery is structured around an 18th century cloister enclosed by thirty-six arches, with the beautiful Baroque cistern in the centre. Around this cloister the most notable rooms are the refectory (16th century dining room), with a majestic Renaissance coffered ceiling, the Plateresque sacristy (now used as a chapel), and the Baroque staircase. There is also the superb Herrerian church, whose spire is crowned by the cross, the emblem of the order and under it the characteristic figure of its weather vane: a cockerel that even today continues to turn to the rhythm of the winds.
Although the Herrerian style stands out, on a tour of the exterior of the building we can admire the variety of styles on its façades: the east façade, in the Plateresque style, the Herrerian façades to the north and west, corresponding to the main church, and the main façade, in the Churrigueresque style.
The knights were able to live in their monastery for barely a century after its completion. In January 1809, the sadly famous Battle of Uclés took place, the first looting, which continued throughout the War of Independence, the invasion of Napoleon's troops caused irreparable damage.
The confiscations (forced expropriation of goods and land to put them on the market by public auction) forced the closure of the building and the Order of Santiago forcibly abandoned it. In 1874 it became the property of the Bishopric of Cuenca, which established a section of the Seminary of Cuenca. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the monastery would go through the most diverse uses and vicissitudes: convent of the Jesuits who had been expelled from France, secondary school and novitiate of the Augustinians.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the monastery was in the Republican zone, first it was sacked, and the friars and students were expelled. What was left of its original splendour disappeared, together with the sacking it had already suffered at the hands of the French in 1808.
Later, a hospital was installed and after the Civil War, the deteriorated building was used as a prison by the government. It was rehabilitated by "Regiones Devastadas" (the organisation responsible for the rehabilitation of the territories that suffered the most damage during the Civil War) and adapted to be used again as a Seminary. For sixty-three years thousands of students have passed through its classrooms. Currently, most of the diocesan priests of Ceunca began their training in Uclés.
In 2012, due to the reduced number of students and the difficult economic situation, it ceased to be used as a Seminary.
It is then, when the Monastery of Uclés reinvents itself and opens to its current function: to be not only a tourist attraction visited every year by tens of thousands of people (it already was), but also to give the possibility of hosting within its centenary walls the celebration of concerts and cultural activities, coexistence, camps, spiritual exercises, meetings of groups and associations, summer courses, etc...
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