The Santillana reservoir, an architectural wonder and nature reserve

Between the municipalities of Manzanares el Real and Soto del Real, a majestic tower emerges from the water. More precisely, it’s a Renaissance tower with a coat of arms engraved in the center. The traveler who sees it for the first time might think that, in a past of knights and swords, the tower belonged to a castle now sunk in the mysterious waters of the lake. However, this tower is not the melancholy shadow of an ancient palace, but a part of a quite different structure: a reservoir. The truth is that the tower used to belong to the old layout of the reservoir of Santillana, which remains in the same place since the early 20th century, and it’s currently regarded as a nature reserve.

A reflection of the castle of Manzanares El Real

A lake and a tower

The Santillana reservoir. | Shutterstock

In 1902, Joaquín de Arteaga y Echagüe, the 18th Marquis of Santillana and 17th Duke of the Infantado, presented the draft of an ambitious project involving the construction of a dam in the Manzanares river. Once the project was given the green light, they had to put the land together. For that purpose, the Anonymous Santillana Hydraulic Society, founded by the Marquis himself, expropriated 37 private estates, as well as the Dehesa Boyal of Colmenarejo and a few cattle routes. The affected people were granted compensations for that.

Later on, in 1907, King Alfonso XIII himself laid the last stone of the reservoir. Influential people like Luca de Tena Aguilar or the Count of Romanones attended this event that inaugurated the reservoir of Santillana, a true milestone in the history of Spanish engineering. Moreover, the original design stood out for its artistic nature: it was built with the aim of aligning with the nearby castle of Manzanares el Real, also known as the Castle of Mendoza.

This is the main reason why the old tower has a Renaissance appearance, just like the castle. The walls of the old reservoir were made of granite masonry, and both the gate and the tower imitated the style of the fortress. This way, the tower, which is still considered the signature element of the Santillana reservoir, illustrates Toledo’s Gothic architecture, captured by Juan Guas in the Castle of Mendoza or the Toledo Cathedral.

The Santillana reservoir, a paradise for birds

Reflections of a clouded sky on the surface of a lake

The Santillana reservoir. | Shutterstock

In the sixties, it became evident that they needed to increase Madrid’s water supply. The water company Canal de Isabel II took over the reservoir and completely remodeled it. They doubled the reservoir’s storage capacity, as well as its height, and the old building was buried underwater: all except its lonely tower.

No one could possibly imagine that this reservoir, which is 2599 acres long and 2 miles wide, would become a nature reserve. However, UNESCO declared it Reserva de la Biosfera in 1993, when they found out that its landscape was a central place for shelter, migration and nesting for water birds in the Community of Madrid.

The main reason behind this phenomenon is, apart from the presence of ash and holm oak forests, the fact that the Marquis of Santillana replenished the reservoir with different types of fish, introducing species such as carps and pike. When it comes to birds, some of the species we can find on the banks of the lake are mallards, white storks, grey herons and griffon vultures. Even the famous Spanish nature broadcaster Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente used to come here and study those species, although this was before the new reservoir was built.

Besides fishing, visiting the immersed tower and birdwatching, the landscape that surrounds the reservoir is the perfect setting for a nice hike. Indeed, it’s very common to take a circular walk departing from the village of Manzanares El Real or from the lookout point of Descansadero del Espinarejo. We have plenty of options here, from two-miles routes to paths that go on for seven or eight miles. This is the perfect way of taking a closer look at this peculiar reservoir that has so many things to share, and so many fantastic views to enjoy.

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