From templar fortress to a place of pilgrimage

The castle sanctuary dedicated to San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), the Virgin of La Esperanza and the saints Fabian and Sebastian is located approximately 3 km from the town of Atzeneta del Maestrat (Castellón), in the region of L' Alcalatén.

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Located in a strategic enclave, at the edge of the former Maestrazgo, It acted as both enclosure and protection from the passes of the foothills of Atzeneta, the main access to the town from the mountains of Lucena and the ravines of Les Torrocelles and Mas d'Avall.

A territory occupied since prehistory

Although the precise origin of the earliest settlements is uncertain, archaeological sites of cave art have been found in the municipality. These include the petroglyphs of Cova de Pere Tomas, from the Bronze Age in El Collado and El Racó, and in the castle itself from the Iberian period, in Tossalet de Valera, including the notable discovery in Atzeneta of an Iberian stele in the area of la Madonya2.

The current municipality is indubitably of Moorish origin, as it is mentioned in historic accounts of the feats of El Cid and Pedro I. The toponym is derived from the Berber Zanata tribe from North Africa who settled there. 

From its origin, Atzeneta was linked to Culla and followed the same fate, becoming part of the kingdom of Aragon in 1233.

Medieval rural society was completely dependent on forests and the land for its survival. This, and the low population density until the 18th century, fostered a strong awareness of the sustainable use of these resources. The main economic activity locally was dry farming (almond, olive, hazel, vine and cereal), extensive farming (sheep, goats, cows) and wood and timber extraction. In 1345 la setena de Culla or Comunitat d’Herbatge3 was set up in order to become organized, defend its interests and regulate its activities. This was composed of seven municipalities in Bailía: Culla, Benassal, Vistabella del Maestrat, Atzeneta, Benafigos, Villar de Canes and Torre d’En Besora.

The aim of the setena or seven municipalities of Culla was to pool exploitation and conservation by applying common law and popular wisdom. The Visura General dels Termes was established for the same reason. Every eight or fourteen years this inspection was to be carried out by the authorities or supervisors in all the municipalities, controlling available resources and making sure that full advantage was being taken of these. In terms of environmental legislation this was a pioneering inspection in the territory.

The meticulous action and legislation meant that the Comunitat d’Herbatge survived as guilds and communities for over four centuries (from 1345 to 1805) until the advent of liberalism and the abolition of guilds, brotherhoods and rural communities and the disamortisation of the mid 19th century.

A castle of Andalusí origin

In Andalusí times, the Castle was a Husun centre of population or a territory of Culla (according to Bazzana, Cressier and Guichard) and the castle was included in the territorial demarcation of the castle of Culla. Along with Les Coves castle King Jaume I exchanged it for Morella so that it became the domain of Blasco de Alagón. It was later inherited by Constanza de Alagón and Guillem de Anglesola. Their son, Guillem de Anglesola, sold the castle of Culla to the Templars, who kept it for only 13 years. After the disappearance of the Order of Templars Culla became the property of the Order of Montesa. According to Miralles Porcar, the castle of Atzeneta was called el Castellar within Culla.

The Municipal Charter of Lucena, when stating the limits of its territory, makes no mention of the town of Atzeneta, although it does of Castellar. A document in the National History Archive shows that the Castellar was not sold to the Templars as it belonged to Guillem’s sister, Mergelina de Anglesola, whose husband was from the family of Queralt y Cervelló, aristocrats from Santa Coloma de Querals and related to the Counts of Cardona. A descendant of Mergelina’s, Pere de Queralt, sold the Castellar to the Maestre de Montesa in 1387.

An account from 1564 by Viciana mentions this castle: “En Adzeneta solia haver castillo y por tiempo se arroyno. En el cual los de la villa edificaron una yglesia e aquella dedicaron a nuestra señora de Sperança y a Sant Sebastián”4.

All that is left of the original fortress is the Torre del Homenaje, a 14th-century military mediaeval tower with a square floor plan.

At a later stage a chapel was built beside the castle, leaving a passage of three or four metres between both buildings. Around the 16th century the passage to the sacristy was built, with stairs to the choir of the chapel and access to the living quarters of the castle. Some buildings may have been demolished on the opposite end.

The stone chapel has a hip roof and bell gable on the main façade and a space for the bell, built in 18445. The door is a rounded arch.

The single-nave interior has an apse with four sections, with stone pilasters, rounded arches and ceilings. It also houses an original 16th-century retablo. The images in the church are located at the main altar, with paintings dedicated to the Virgin of La Esperanza, San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) and Saint Sebastián, modern works by Ángel Costa.

From defensive to religious use


Currently, the surroundings of Castell are declared a Municipal Natural Site, and popular traditions such as the two annual pilgrimages are still celebrated, the Sunday after the 20th January in honour of Saint Sebastian and on the Saturday after the feast of San Vicent (Saint Vincent), which is known as the Castell d’estiu

These pilgrimages date back to the time when our ancestors prayed to God, and to the Virgin and saints as intermediaries, for divine protection to guarantee health, peace and rain from the heavens for successful crops. One of the oldest pilgrimages is that of els Pelegrins de les Useres, where pilgrims travelled to the former monastery of San Juan Bautista, 1300 metres high, close to the top of Penyagolosa. From the second half of the 14th century pilgrimages were made from Atzeneta to Sant Joan de Penyagolosa on the third Monday of Easter. In early 18th century this pilgrimage was superseded by the current one which goes to the Castell, and since then St John the Baptist has protected the church together with Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (Our Lady of La Esperanza). However, the original route to Penyagolosa, passing through Xodos, is still known. There are still pilgrimages to Sant Joan de Penyagolosa, and given its sociocultural importance, the Diputación de Castellón has nominated the project Camins del Penyagolosa as UNESCO World Heritage. 

Although in current pilgrimages to the Castell de Atzeneta the spiritual importance has taken on social and tourist connotations, some gastronomical and liturgical traditions are still maintained: the typical fogasseta of Atzaneta is shared and religious hymns are still sung:7(Gozos a San Juan Bautista)..


1 Atzeneta del Maestrat was part of the historic region of l’ Alt Maestrat.2  Arasa, F. (2017). Una estela ibèrica trobada a Atzeneta del Maestrat (l’Alt Maestrat, Castelló). Quaderns de Prehistòria i Arqueologia de Castelló, 35.The setting up of the setena of Culla was a contract between the lord of the Order of Montesa and the residents of all the Tinença, for the usufruct of everything relating to livestock and the forest. In Miralles i Porcar, J. (1985). Els terrenys comunals a la setena de Culla. Bulletin no. 9. Centro de Estudios del Maestrazgo.

4 “In Atzeneta there used to be a castle and over time it was ruined. In it, those of the town, built a church and dedicated it to Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (Our Lady of La Esperanza) and San Sebastián”.5 According to the inscriptions on the bell it was made for the church of the Castell and features two images of the titular saints (Saint John and Saint Sebastian).6 The path of El Camino dels Pelegrins de les Useres was declared a Natural Monument by the Consell de la Generalitat in 2007. That same year the complex of Sant Joan de Penyagolosa was declared an Asset of Cultural Interest as a Historic Heritage Monument of Spain. Monferrer, A. (2013). Els Pelegrins de les Useres. Revista Valenciana d'Estudis Autonòmics, 58, 112-125.The “Los Auroros” choir from Atzeneta has recovered the popular tradition of the goigs or popular hymns.



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