The name Segovia always makes me think of the fictitious place – Genovia – that the character Mia Thermopolis comes from in the Princess Diaries films with Anne Hathaway. There is nothing fictitious about this city though. It has been inhabited since pre-Roman times and had played an important part in Spanish history. It is situated in the Spanish region of Castile and León, just north of Madrid.
The Roman Aqueduct
Segovia’s main attraction is a colossal Roman aqueduct, El Aqueducto. It is 29m high, has 163 arches and is 894m long. But it is not just its size that is so impressive, it is the fact that it runs slap bang through the centre of the city. It is incredible that it has survived. The main section is in Plaza del Azoguejo, but it cuts further around the city, at one point making about a 140 degree turn to head off in a different direction. The Romans are thought to have settled in Segovia in about 80 BC and the aqueduct dates from the late 1st or early 2nd century.
It is made up of about 25,000 huge granite blocks and when you get up close you can’t help but marvel that they were put together (and remain together) without any mortar whatsoever. You can still see the round holes in the blocks where large metal pincers were inserted to raise the blocks up into position. The aqueduct is able to support its own weight because it is wider at the base, getting narrower towards the top.
It is part of a complex system of aqueducts and underground channels that brought water to the city from the mountains 15km away. Shortly after the visible section in Plaza del Azoguejo, the aqueduct plunged underground and there also still exists a long section of the ‘mother channel’ that passed right underneath the city, through the main square and all the way to the Alcazar fortress at the other end, supplying the whole city with water. You can’t see this channel because it is under the ground, but the council has placed 24 bronze plaques on the pavement marking out the route if you want to follow its course through the city.
There are some steps up at the side behind the tourist office that give you a great view looking across at the aqueduct rather than craning your neck up at it, so we climbed these and it was here that we saw another incredible sight. There was a guy making and selling cut out coins. To do this he was using a very fine filing blade in what looked like a junior hacksaw handle. He first made a tiny hole in the coin with a hand drill, then fed his blade through the hole and started to move it up and down to file the bits of metal away that he didn’t want. The result was a coin where the pattern or picture was left but the background was removed. We were fascinated, having never seen anything quite like it before.
His name was Geovanny and we chatted to him for a while about his technique, where he got his coins and so on. Some of his work was incredibly delicate and must’ve taken him ages to achieve. He had made them into pendants or pushed them into leather. He had all sorts of coins from different countries, mostly old coins no longer in use. He also showed us some large commemorative coins that he was working in and told us that someone had asked him to do one that had then been sent it the queen of Spain. If you want to check out some of his work, visit his website.
Moving on into the town and leaving the aqueduct behind, we soon found ourselves in the main square (Plaza Mayor). This very pleasant square, with a central bandstand and attractive town hall, is very much dominated by the towering honey coloured gothic cathedral on one side. On the opposite side of the square, and nowhere near as big or grand, is the Church of San Miguel, whose main claim to fame is that it was where Isabella the Catholic was crowned Queen of Castile in 1474. We have come across Isabella and her husband Ferdinand, often referred to as the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ many times on this trip. They were the royal couple who sent Columbus off to the ‘new world’; reconquered Spain for the Catholics, taking it back from Moorish rule; started the Spanish Inquisition; and raised five children, the youngest of whom, Catherine of Aragon, who would go on to become the first wife of Henry VIII of England.
At the opposite end of Segovia, perched on a huge outcrop of rock, (and delimiting the town at its western end) is the Alcázar. It was erected on the remains of a Roman fortress and was started in the 11th century by Alphonse VI, although as with all these ancient castles and palaces, it was added to and transformed by each successive generation so that what we see today dates from many different periods and takes on many different architectural styles. It is said to have been the inspiration for the castle Walt Disney created for Sleeping Beauty at his Disneyland park in California and you can see why – its deep moat and many round towers topped with sharp slate spires do give it a fairytale look.
As you approach from the town, it is dominated by the huge, crenellated tower of John II and you can climb its 152 steps for some wonderful views of the town and the countryside and Guadarrama mountains beyond. Beware though, the single spiral staircase is very narrow and takes traffic both up and down the tower, making the journey quite a tight squeeze at times.
During the Middle Ages, the Alcázar was the favourite residence of the Castilian monarchs, but once the court moved to Madrid, the Alcazar lost its status of royal residence and was used as a state prison for over two centuries. In 1764, King Carlos III chose the Alcazar of Segovia as the home of his newly established Royal Artillery School and today a section of the palace houses the School’s Museum. Much of the palace was destroyed by fire in 1862 and was rebuilt, but it still evokes a time of great power and splendour.
Among my favourite spaces were the Galley Room (Sala de la Galera) which was built in 1412 and is named after its moulded ceiling resembling the hull of a ship upside down; the Pine Cone Room (Sala de las Piñas) which is named after the 392 pine cone carvings on its moulded ceiling and the Monarchs’ Room (Sala de Reyes) which is decorated with a 3D frieze depicting the monarchs of Asturias, Castile and León.
Segovia’s skyline is given added interest by numerous huge stork nests that balance improbably on the top of church roofs and flatten the tops of pine trees around the city. It was strange to us to see such huge birds flying in and over the rooftops.
It was our wedding anniversary on the day we visited Segovia and we had planned to treat ourselves to a meal out to celebrate. However, even the best laid plans don’t always come right and we ended up falling foul once again of the crazily late Spanish eating schedule where restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 or even 9pm. We still had an hour-long drive to get back to the campsite and we were all tired and hungry so we ended up getting something to eat in McDonald’s before setting off back.
And then we learnt another important lesson…when faced with a choice, just pay the €9 and take the toll road! As you may have guessed, on this occasion we decided NOT to take the toll road and ended up on a busy, windy road up through the mountains that took a lot longer and almost certainly cost more in fuel consumption. We did see a spectacular sunset, or at least I did – I don’t think Andy saw much more than a few feet ahead of the car in the semi-darkness, but next time we’ll just pay the toll!
And finally, since we’re talking about journeys, I have to pay tribute to our wonderful driver. I would like to say that Andy and I share the towing and driving equally, but the reality is that he does virtually all of it. Some of the journeys are fairly easy drives along the motorway, but others are more tricky involving a lot of hills, especially since we moved inland in Spain away from the coast. And wherever we go, the first few and last few miles getting onto and off campsites are usually the most tricky of all, driving through small towns and often along narrow access roads. But he does it all without complaining (too much!) and with great skill. In fact, his ability to reverse onto just about any pitch that we arrive at is truly impressive.
As always, it is wonderful for us to hear from all of you out there who are reading this blog. And we know you are out there, because we can see the statistics! If you feel so moved, please do leave us a comment below. And I always reply to any comments, so don’t forget to tick the box to receive email notification of all replies. Thank you!