You can get to the Castillo de La Almeda (Poplar Grove Castle) in a half-hour from downtown Madrid, Spain, by subway . Go to the end of Line 5, the Alameda de Osuna stop, then walk a few blocks north to a hill surrounded by a wire fence and poplar trees. The entrance is off to the southwest side, a simple gate to a driveway flanked by a small wooden building. Its wide porch faces the ruins of the little castle.
Visits are free and open to the public on weekends, but don't expect crowds. I went on a Saturday afternoon last month and was about the only visitor during the hour I was there. The two men on the porch staffing the site seemed glad to see me and described the displays and the gravel path that takes visitors in a circle around the castle. They even offered me an umbrella to protect myself from the hot sun.
I set off through the field of weeds and wildflowers. Though the site seems humble, the path, its scenic overlooks, and display panels have been artfully arranged. The story they tell goes back to stone age times, when the abundant flint in the area attracted tool-makers.
At the first overlook, you see the moat and a wall of the castle. They offer an echo of the strength the building once projected. You can easily make out the flint rocks in the castle walls, the same flint used in many old constructions in Madrid, including its medieval city walls.
If you look behind you between the big new apartment buildings, you see a commanding view of the Jarama River as it leads to the Ebro Valley, specifically a view of an area long used as a ford and later the site of a bridge. Four thousand years ago, a Bronze Age village occupied this strategic hill, surrounded by a defensive trench and wood stockade. It left behind some recently discovered pottery and a burial.
After Rome fell, Spain suffered barbarian invasions, and this hamlet disappeared. In 711 the Moors invaded and took most of the peninsula, which led to centuries of warfare and reconquest — and the central area of Spain became known as "Castile" for its many castles.
The Moors built 16 forts and watchtowers in the Madrid area, which communicated by smoke signals to control mountain passes and river valleys. When the Christians returned in the 1100s, they expanded that network and encouraged new settlers to create farms. A hamlet called La Alameda grew up around the hilltop, and around 1400, the powerful Mendoza family built the castle there.
Though small, it had stout curtain walls and a three- or four-storey main tower, and it was surrounded by a wide dry moat that reused the ancient village's defenses. By then, Spain's front against the Moors had moved far south, but frequent civil wars and peasant insurrections kept castles useful. The ruling aristocracy served as the military class.
The castle contained rooms for the family in the main tower on the west side. The rest of the castle had two floors along two exterior walls that included halls, a kitchen, and quarters for the guards. They faced an interior patio paved with bricks, and a wall of the west tower contained a well. The round east tower probably included a chapel.
Over time, the aristocracy grew less fierce and more frivolous. The little castle became property of the Zapata family, which held the title of Count of Barajas. Between 1555 and 1580, the castle was transformed into a rural palace, and its moat was widened and became a fashionable garden.
A fire damaged the castle in 1697, and it was never inhabited again. In 1785, the Duchess of Osuna got permission to "mine" the ruins for construction stone for nearby country homes like El Capricho. The noble Fernán Núñez family also used castle flint to build its pantheon next to the ruins. The castle was reduced to two standing walls, one tower, and foundations.
The site retained its strategic advantage. During the Civil War in 1936, Republican troops built a concrete machine gun bunker next to the ruins and opened small windows for rifles in the castle's remaining walls to protect the military command in the nearby El Capricho palace.
The walk has taken you around the east tower. The bunker and pantheon stand on one side of the path, and the castle walls, still stout enough for battle, stand on the other. After the war, the castle was forgotten and became a ruin in a city park.
In the 1960s, the Alameda de Osuna neighborhood began to grow into a dense residential area, and in 1986, extensive archeological work began to investigate and restore the castle.
Now the walk has circled the castle and brought you inside to look at the two meter-thick walls that remain, with their once-grand brick windows — created during its palace stage — and the little gun-holes from the Civil War.
The rest, even the old garden in the moat, is bare dirt because archaeological digs continue. The city's Origins Museum organizes summer workshops for local teens who learn about archeology and add to the understanding of Madrid's past.
The castle has become grand museum exhibit illustrating four thousand years of history. Tourists are welcome but not expected, so the brochures and display panels aren't translated into English. If you have only a week in Madrid and want to see a castle, take a day trip to Segovia. That's where I take my guests.
This minor site is for locals, history buffs, and teens who want to show parents and friends what they did on their summer vacation. It's meant to provide direct contact with Madrid's long past as it is being recovered amid dirt and weeds and sun and pride.
Telemadrid's brief news story about the opening of the castle to the public, posted on YouTube:
— Sue Burke
Also posted at my professional website: http://www.sue.burke.name