Ruta de Carlos V: journey of a reluctant royal
Exhausted by the burden of an all-consuming public role and endless conflict, he unilaterally decides to retire from royal life, and surprises everyone by setting up home in an outpost of the empire. Sound familiar?
The year is 1556, and Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, has had enough. He announces his abdication in favour of his son Felipe, and says he plans to spend the rest of his days serving God in one of Spain's remotest spots: the Hieronymite monastery at Yuste, in Extremadura's Gredos mountains. The pope of the day called his decision "the strangest thing that has ever been seen". And it got stranger.
Carlos was born in the year 1500. His grandparents were Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Monarchs who invented modern Spain, defeated the Moorish occupation and sent Columbus to discover the New World, forging an empire on which the sun never set. Carlos inherited the empire aged just 16, and was still a teenager when he was elected Holy Roman Emperor, becoming the most powerful man on the planet.
Nearly forty years later, he arrived in Extremadura to begin his retirement suffering agonies with gout, and things went badly from the start. Nothing had been prepared for his arrival and the apartments he was having refurbished at the monastery of Yuste weren't ready. To add insult to injury, dreadful weather made the mountain roads impassable by his mule-borne litter, so the ex-emperor had to be carried on the shoulders of local men until he reached the castle of the counts of Oropesa in the village of Jarandilla, ten kilometres from his destination. Today, the castle has been converted into a parador, one of Spain's beautiful collection of state-run hotels. Set among the forests and boulder-strewn ravines (gargantas) of La Vera, its turrets surround a courtyard lined with palms. Carlos stayed here for four months until his apartments at Yuste were completed. It rained most of the time.
In early 1557, accompanied by a slimmed down coterie of 51 servants and 8 mules, he travelled at last by litter along the forest paths to Yuste. To celebrate its anniversary every February, local enthusiasts dress up in Renaissance gear, mount horses and strap on stringed instruments to reenact the great Habsburg ruler's final journey.
Andy writes: Arriving at Jarandilla on a crisp winter morning, the streets surrounding the parador are already busy. Horses are being unloaded from trailers and tacked up. Their long manes, typical of the PRE (Pura Raza Española), are combed and plaited. The bars are full of riders and spectators enjoying an early morning coffee and churros, and the odd chupito to calentarme por dentro, warm me on the inside. At the entrance to the parador the knights and standard bearers have gathered, along with the musicians who will lead the procession. Eventually the music starts and a speech declares the beginning of the journey. The knights set off amid cheers with some 200 riders in tow. There seems to be every colour and size of horse imaginable, and riders of all ages, male and female. We bumped into Vicente and his brother in-law Tito, friends from the village. They couldn’t remember exactly but thought it was the twenty fifth time they’d done la ruta together. It’s something you yearn to do when you’re a kid, they told us. And sure enough, right at the back of the procession was a little girl on a donkey being led by her dad: her first ruta. The journey takes them along ancient paths through the forest, originally used to avoid the bandits who waited in ambush on the main routes between the villages. The first stop is the plaza mayor in Aldeanueva. The lead riders dismount and over the next hour more and more riders arrive until the square is full to bursting. There is plenty of wine, laughter and admiration for each other’s horses. The music strikes up again and they’re off, next stop the plaza mayor at Cuacos de Yuste, from where the procession will make the final climb up the Emperor’s road to the Monasterio de Yuste. On arrival, the saddle sore riders are treated to migas extremeña, jamón and wine. The horses are directed towards their own feast of hay and water.
The Hieronymite monastery at Yuste was founded in 1404, and for several years before his retirement Carlos had his eye on it as an ideal place to get away from it all. The most striking thing about his purpose-built apartments is how austere and small they are.
The largest room is the reception where he met visiting nobles and petitioners. High on the wall is a small portrait of his late wife Isabel; a black curtain was pulled across it when visitors were present. In an alcove overlooking the valley below are replicas of the emperor's litter and his specially made gout chair, both remarkably small. The chair has articulated leg supports, an early recliner.
Adjoining the reception is a private salon where Carlos spent many hours with his clock maker. The passage of time became an obsession. A great fireplace sits between the reception room and the private salon. It has a metal plate separating the rooms, so that the fire on one side also warmed the room on the other.
The bedroom also benefited from innovative design. An opening in the corner allowed the bed-ridden emperor to view the altar of the adjoining church, where monks would perform mass several times a day. Above the altar is a copy of Titian’s enormous Last Judgement, which depicts Carlos after his death. The original is now in the Prado.
The exterior and grounds are more obviously imperial. Formal gardens surround a rectangular ornamental lake on which black swans glide. Cloisters and balconies lead to magnificent views across the valley to the South. You can often wander here almost alone in the silence, and see it as Carlos did.
The emperor's retirement was short and unhappy. To his growing frustration, his letters of advice to the new king Felipe II went unheeded, and he suffered increasingly from a variety of unpleasant ailments including fever, convulsions and haemorrhoids. He died in September 1558, from malaria contracted from the mosquitoes drawn to the ponds and fountains he'd had built at Yuste. It was a sorry end, but the inhabitants of La Vera are understandably proud of their imperial resident. "It must be the most beautiful place on earth" they still say. "Otherwise, why would the world's most powerful man have chosen to live here?"
The 2020 Ruta del Emperador on horseback will take place on Saturday, 8 February. The same route on foot will be on Saturday, 1 February.
Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Yuste, Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm (8pm in summer), admission 7€.
Parador de Jarandilla, Avda. García Prieto, 1 10450 Jarandilla de la Vera Cáceres. Tel. +34 927560117
For more information about Carlos, read: Emperor, a New Life of Charles V, by Geoffrey Parker