Friday, April 13, 2012

Segovia

Segovia, my new favorite place in Spain.

Perched on a rocky bluff at the intersection of the Clamores and Eresma Rivers, Segovia has been occupied since at least the time of the Celts. The Romans fortified it with an impressive set of walls and built a ½ mile long aqueduct that today is one of the finest remaining examples of their public works projects outside of Italy. The Moors came and rebuilt the walls which were then fortified a second time in the 11th century during the Christian Reconquista. The town is built from the pale ochre stone common to the region, which lends it a mild appearance even on a rainy day. The town’s churches were built on top of synagogues that were built on top of mosques. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Segovia was one of the wealthiest cities in Spain, the seat of culture of Castile and home to many wealthy noble families whose fortified homes guarded the city gates. Christopher Columbus came here to petition Queen Isabella (crowned here in 1474) for funding for his journey to the New World. Segovia has been a special place for a very long time.

We took the Metro from Puerta del Sol to Chamartin Station for the 30 minute ride to the northwest. The Madrid subway is wonderful – easy to buy tickets, clean, uncrowded and fast. We were able to sit for the whole ride, a noticeable difference than my most recent experiences in Beijing and Shanghai. We never felt mobbed. The train trip further increased my love for this kind of travel – what a wonderful way to take a day trip. We arrived at 11, caught a cab to town and had a nice conversation with the driver about the region and the city. He dropped us at the Plaza de Azoguejo, at the foot of the aqueduct.

Is it even possible to take enough pictures of such a wonder? Built from more than 25,000 granite blocks and completely without mortar, it makes you wonder what of our stuff will still be standing in 2000 years. It’s still capable of carrying water (although it doesn’t) and they even took time to embellish the lower level of the arches with carved cornices. I have always wanted to see one, and I’m glad this was the one I got to see.

The weather had finally failed us and so the hike up the steep medieval street to the center of town was conducted under umbrella. While I like to talk big about the weather being inconsequential, having your jeans and shoes get damp takes the fun out of sightseeing. Plus the place was dirty with tourists, mainly college-aged kids and middle-agers. We made it to the top and strolled around the Thursday town square market, a mix of fruits, vegetables, pastries and women’s underwear. The town is shaped like a big oval, with the aqueduct at the stern and the former royal palace – the Alcazar – a mile away at the bow. We decided to head there figuring a museum was the place to be in the rain. Built in the 13th century, the flammable parts burned up in 1862 and were subsequently restored. Today it houses many artifacts of the Reconquista including a beautiful mural of the coronation of Isabella. The ceilings in the big rooms are stunningly beautiful, heavily carved, painted and gilded. There is a nice armory at the back of the palace that houses the artifacts of Spain’s artillery school, housed here for more than 400 years. The views of the valley below the castle are spectacular.

In an incredible turn of good luck, the sun came out exactly as we were exiting. High above us, a lone Stork was circling, a tremendous thrill for me given that I was hoping we were here during their nesting season. My elation at seeing that one bird was premature, later we saw many nesting pairs sitting in their giant constructions on top of belfries, roofs and palace walls. The walk back to town was very pleasant, there is just something special about wandering through an ancient town with streets bathed in dappled sunlight and an azure sky overhead. There were many opportunities for pictures and to simply stop and enjoy. We stopped for lunch – sautéed pork loin on baguette and a cup of coffee before moving on to the Cathedral.

We’ve visited some incredible churches on our trips to Spain, but this one takes the cake. The last Gothic church built in Spain, its exterior is maddeningly loaded with buttresses and gargoyles. Enormous inside and ringed by dozens of chapels funded by the wealthy families, the altars in those niches were like none we’ve seen (which is saying something as we had just visited the two most extensive collections in Spain at the Prado and the Belle Arts museum in Valencia.) Most of the altars were so tall and crammed into such a small horizontal space that you literally could not stand at the back of the room and look up high enough to see the top. Amazingly, neither of the guide books mentioned the incredible excess in this church, writing it off as a poor example of something that was built at the end of one architectural era and the beginning of the next and therefore satisfying neither.

We next stopped at Limon y Mente, a pastelleria off the main square, noted in the book for the best Ponche Segoviana in town. This regional specialty, concocted from yellow cake, cream and marzipan is a great way to boost your immune system when served with a cup of chocolate. We liked it so much that we ordered two from the trip home and once we got through the misunderstanding of whether we’d paid or not, we started the walk back to the taxi stand, taking our time to wander through the old streets, enjoy the views and read the historical markers which, in a testament to our modern age, are rendered in Spanish, English and Chinese. Interestingly, the town was now almost emptied of tourists, it seems the buses come early out of Madrid (55 miles down the road), drop people off and then collect them mid-afternoon in order to hit whatever place is next on their itinerary. It was great to have the streets mostly to ourselves, and our wanderings brought us to the top of the aqueduct where we took the time to enjoy the views and to take a few more photos.

The subway was a bit more crowded than it had been in the morning, but still nothing compared to China. We had dinner once again at La Carboneria, our now favorite hole in the wall up the street from our apartment. We’ve developed a relationship with the owner, and he treated us to a plate of Iberian ham to accompany our tomato, lomo and manchego cheese tapas. I had a couple of Spanish beers and My Lovely Wife had the Rioja of the house. Our host gave us a couple of glasses to Jerez sherry as a special thank you. What a great little place, Spanish corridas on the stereo, tiled walls, uncomfortable chairs and a host who wants to habla. We promised to come back one more time.

A nice walk the long way home through Plaza Mayor where we stopped to kid around with one of the street artists, and then desert at Mercado San Miguel put a great cap on the day. Segovia was more than I could have expected in every way.



























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