While shopping for a Talavera plate to add to our collection, the owner of the shop recommended the town of Segovia to us. We wanted to do something for our last week in Spain and follow his advice. It’s a more convoluted trip than the one for Toledo: suburban train to the north train station, Chamartín, 30 minutes Very Fast Train to the Segovia train station, twenty minutes local bus to the first plaza, the Plaza del Aqueducto.
And there it is. The 2000-years old Roman aqueduct transects the square that marks the beginning of the old town. Build at the beginning of the 2nd Century BC, it was used as the main source of water in Segovia until late in the nineteenth century. It originated in the Guadamarra mountains and spanned over 16 kilometers. It has 167 arches. It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering: the stone are not joined by cement or mortar. Yet it still stands today. It is breathtaking and takes over everything around it. You can’t see anything but this majestic structure.
We were short on time and, like in Toledo, could see only the most important sites. Armed with a map, we directed our feet towards the other side of town, a mere 20 minutes walk to visit the Alcázar (citadel). Hidden behind gates and a wonderful garden, we couldn’t see it until we were fairly close to it. What a delight! It looks like a Walt Disney castle with towers and turrets and a moat. The difference was that it was a “working” citadel and palace until the late 19th Century. Built in the 11th Century, it was a royal residence in the Middle Ages. As time and need went, the residents added rooms and towers. It became a state prison in the 18th Century. In 1882, large parts of it were consumed by fire. It was reconstructed between 1882 and 1896.
Having visited citadels and castles before (some Scottish ones come to mind) we expected little: a few miserly tapestries, a couple of swords if we were lucky, and pervasive dampness. We were in for a great surprise. The castle reconstruction was faithful to its original in a lot of ways. The added rooms were restored with azulejos (painted tiles), stained glass windows, rich tapestries to ward off the cold and damp, masterful paintings, and dazzling ceilings, six in total, the next more impressive than the last.
We also climbed the 156 steps of the tower, which gave us views of the Cathedral (our next stop) rising above the rooftops around it, as well as the countryside. Maybe due to the season or the abnormally dry weather, the country appeared seared, a moon-like terrain of grey dust. Still, I would like to see the fields in June, when everything is new and green. We’ve been in Madrid and the surrounding areas for almost 40 days and we had one day of rain. One wonders.
After a very satisfying visit to the Alcázar, we went back up the hill to the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral. Its exterior is, to my mind, more appealing than the cathedral in Toledo, although it is less massive. Construction began in 1525 and was completed in 1768. Its stained glass windows are Flemish, with all the beautiful reds and blues and yellows that were produced at the time. In the centre is a large, gated choir that still has its stalls and is dominated by two massive 18th Century Baroque organs.
The walls and apse are lined with twenty chapels, and in almost all of them you find the immense altarpieces the Spanish seem to love so much. They’re mostly carved in oak or pine, a smorgasbord of gilded curves, filigrees, niches, and crosses, obscure paintings up to the roof of the chapel and plaster renderings of Jesus, Mary, angels, saints, and bishops, it’s a jaw-dropping mix.
After the elegant Basilicas of Rome, the majestic chapels and the starkly beautiful Oratories of Palermo, or the art deco paintings of Prague’s Vysherad, I can’t understand gilding everything. Instead of leading me to search for the divine in the elevated art dedicated to uplifting, if not my faith, at least my unbound admiration, I have to blink to tamp down on the glitter. Of course, I’m a total ignoramus when it comes to Spanish religious art and I probably sound like one. All I can say is that walking into those two churches was quite an experience.
And we didn’t have more time, although there is much more to see in Segovia than those three monuments. I’d like to come back one day and visit it properly. In terms of town, Segovia is much smaller than Toledo and more straightforward – they actually have straight streets. Not many, grant you, but some. Not the case for Toledo.
I can’t decide which town I liked best. They both have their charm, and are equally impressive. All I can say if that visiting one doesn’t mean you’ve seen the other. There may be some similarities but that’s all they are. What the heck. If we come back, we’ll have to do both again (and those who know me know it’s a distinct possibility).