Gama Harjono, WEEKENDER | Wed, 04/04/2012 1:13 PM |
The Spanish city of Segovia boasts a towering medieval cathedral, a fairy-tale castle and an ancient aqueduct.
After a few days of tapas hopping in the Spanish capital – turns out you can feel tapas-ed out – I needed to escape from Madrid’s hustle and bustle. A friend of mine suggested a trip to Segovia, a favorite jaunt for Madrilenos, just 90 kilometers from the capital.
So off we hurried to Atocha, Madrid’s main train station. The introduction of the AVE, Spain’s bullet train, means that Segovia is less than half an hour away, but trains are scarce, with timetables showing a major gap between midday and the next two hours. So my friend suggested taking the bus – although we first had to resolve the conundrum of where to catch said bus. Madrid has several transport hubs, each serving different destinations – which means you need to know which station serves which destinations. So two inquiries at Atocha and a subway trip later, we were at Principe Pio, from where buses were leaving for Segovia, tickets in hand.
On a Monday afternoon, the provincial town of Segovia proved to be rather sleepy. But since it’s a university town, youngsters with earphones stuck in their ears abound all year round. They got off the bus at the lower part of town while I carried on to the old town.
No Celtic legacies were in sight despite the town’s origins. The Celts called it “Sego”, meaning “victory”, but it’s thanks to the Romans that the town had its more recent “victory”. Now visitors flock to Segovia to have a look at its Roman marvels – and I was there to discover what the fuss was all about.
Lush parks surround the city walls. A couple of locals slept on the bench as I passed Puerta de San Millan, one of the city gates, to admire the vast landscape below. The scene was serene, undoubtedly why the royal court chose it when they needed an escape from the capital.
I was engrossed in exploring the still-intact medieval town. I wondered if Isabella the Catholic had walked the same alleyways as I did. Long before the warrior queen embarked on her Reconquista campaign, she received her instructions growing up in Segovia. In 1474, she was crowned the queen of Castile and Léon in Segovia, knowing her fate would be that of ousting the remaining Muslim rulers in Europe.
For the Jewish community, the policy during Isabella’s reign wasn’t that great. They were confined to a separate area, then forced to convert to Christianity or leave the Iberian Peninsula. This policy gave birth to the Jewish district, now housing a center for Jewish Studies.
Segovia’s cobble-stoned alleyways are steep and narrow, but laid out in such an orderly manner that it’s a pleasant stroll everywhere. The Old Town houses many language schools catering to international students. That is not surprising, as we are in the heart of the Castile region, home to the Castellano dialect before it was adopted as the national language of Spain.
Along Calle del Sol, the Old Town’s thoroughfare, tapas proved to be popular at the table. For my quick bite, I had balsamic anchoa y boquerón, cured anchovy with pickle in vinegar. Here, though, degustation menus nearly stole the show – €25 will secure you a fixed menu at Segovian restaurants, which are members of a local foodie consortium.
Locals, however, swarmed the jamon shops, hauling out legs of cured ham. In fact, the ham is so ubiquitous, it’s practically a national staple, and storekeepers are not afraid to tag some of their precious Iberian jamon at €170/kg.
Tourist groups gallop northward, to be dwarfed by the gargantuan cathedral. Its prickly spires give it more of a Gothic look than Renaissance, wiping out any notions it’s a structure built in the 16th century.
The first thing that popped into my mind – after the initial shock waned – was the name the Chrysler Building. It may sound shallow, but at 90 meters tall, its belfry eyeing every single entity beneath it, the cathedral was a real skyscraper back in the Middle Ages.
Another crowd pleaser is the Alcazar castle – one of two places that lay claim to being the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle, because of the conical shape of the tower (the other is Neuschwanstein in Germany). Alcazar, a former royal house, prison and military school, is now one of Spain’s most important historical sites.
Wandering through Segovia is like inhabiting a fairy tale – one piece of magic leads to another. Suddenly, at Plaza del Azoguejo, it became plain why people came here: the Segovia aqueduct.
This aqueduct has held up for the last 20 centuries with neither mortar nor cement holding it together. But again, Roman engineering is known to be very precise. In short, one stone was laid over another to come up with this exploit, all that to bring water from 17 kilometers away.
Only Segovians seem not to be awed before this magnificent structure. Students lurk underneath, snacking and chatting, folks park their cars next to it and senior citizens scurry along with their dogs. For them, it’s just part of the scenery.
At 28 meters tall, the two-tiered aqueduct is not particularly towering, but the view when the arches cast off shadows is captivating. When the sky turned darker, I understood why Segovia’s motto was “ilumina el cielo” (illuminating the sky).
Segovia is also a pit stop for pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela leaving from Madrid. Well, they would probably swing by to the cathedral to get their stamp, but my hunch told me they wouldn’t think twice about staying longer to admire the aqueduct. After all, this feat is why people come here.
If You Go
- Numerous carriers fly to Spain (Madrid) via an Asian or Middle Eastern hub. From Madrid, trains leave for Segovia from Atocha station. Buses depart from Principe Pio. By car, take the M-30 or M-40 highway, toll payment is required; Segovia is 90 kilometers away.
- Segovia is not large and makes for a good day trip. Or you can overnight at one of the hotels around Plaza del Azoguejo for a view of the aqueduct.
- Most travel itineraries take in the Gothic cathedral, a guided visit to the aqueduct and the Alcazar palace.