The Alcazar of Segovia, home to Queen Isabella (she was kind of a big deal)
At about 9:10 a.m. last Saturday morning, a cabbie parked near the Guzman al Bueno metro stop took on a new fare. It was myself, and I was distressed. Our conversation, translated:
"Hello, good morning. You are in a hurry I think?"
"To Principe Pio station, please! I am going to Segovia! I need to catch the 9:30 bus and someone is waiting for me."
He looks at his watch in alarm. “Ay, ay ay!”
It’s going to be a tough one. But God bless him, the light turns green and he stomps it like we’re drag racing. ”Vamos, vamos, vamos! Rapido-rapido-rapido!” he is shouting in unbelievably fast Spanish as he swerves around corners. At one point he glances back at me, appraisingly, in the rear-view mirror.
"Mucha fiesta anoche, si?"
I probably still smelled like booze. I definitely looked like a person in disarray. I’d gone out to an Irish bar with a local rugby team and a ton of other English teachers the night before. It had been my first night out, really out, in Madrid and I apparently was looking to cut loose. But I hadn’t had that much to drink, really — I just hadn’t eaten much that day. Since my arrival here, I’ve frequently forgotten to eat, or just haven’t been hungry (you may hear the sound of gasps all across America at this news, but it’s true. It’s pretty common among my new colleagues — for a lot of us, the upheaval and excitement the past few weeks have kind of killed our appetites. For the time being). So when I left the bar at 3 a.m., I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that over the past five hours or so, I’d gotten pretty loaded.
Which is why I was not feeling great as I galloped into the metro/bus stop at exactly 9:30. Luckily my traveling companion, a fellow English assistant I’d arranged to meet via Facebook, was perfectly understanding. The bus to Segovia leaves every half-hour and is only 7.50 euros one-way, so it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But I wanted to spend as much time in the town as possible, and also not completely infuriate the responsible Emily, who had shown up early and was not dehydrated, wild-eyed, and sweaty.
It’s true what the guidebooks say: An hourlong bus ride over sere Spanish hills, and you’re in Segovia, a small city with some amazing architecture. Its biggest draw by far is a giant Roman aqueduct, which runs in a tower of perfectly cut and stacked stones, like a superbad game of Jenga, right through the city. Its scale is enormous: It is just a vast water-bridge, diverting water down from a river up in the mountains, through some towers and to the lands below. It’s one of those things you just have to stand and gape at for awhile.
Later, Emily and I would have our lunch in the shadow of the aqueduct, enjoying perfect weather and, in my case, regretfully declining wine in favor of lots and lots of water. But before that, we strolled through the narrow streets, looking at the scrollwork details that randomly adorn so many buildings there. Maybe it was the fair weather and the soft sunlight, but it was impossible not to recover from my headache and be completely charmed.
Europe is lousy with enormous churches, and Segovia has Cabildo Catedral. According to Frommer’s Madrid, it’s the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain (in 1558), and it makes for impressive viewing:
It was built on the spot where, about 50 years prior, Isabella (she of Ferdinand & Isabella, who united Spanish lands and gave Columbus his money) had been crowed queen. Speaking of Isabella, we saw her house. Or one of them, anyway.
The Alcazar de Segovia, a picture of which tops this posting, dates from the 12th Century, and probably built by Alfonso VIII, a descendant of the King Alfonso I blogged about earlier — the one who both reconquered a lot of territory from Muslim rule, but was pretty tolerant of Muslims themselves. The site had been both a Roman fortification as well as an Arab fort. It became one of the favorite castles of Spanish monarchs during the Middle Ages, so they say, and later became a state prison, among other things. As a prison, it makes sense — it’s perched on a cliff, its entrance is cut off by a deep, man-made canyon. I wouldn’t want to try to break out of there, or try to break in. Frommer’s says castle guards used to pour boiling oil on invading forces, and I can totally see that happening.
The castle’s restored rooms are interesting to walk though, although I always find myself wondering how it really looked. Where did the servants live? What kinds of furniture did Isabella have in her room? Where did everybody feast? Surely they feasted. People are always feasting in castles! Although I imagine Isabella to be a pretty dour person. Maybe it’s because of that whole Spanish Inquisition thing she started. I hear that was a pretty rough scene.
Segovia also has a contemporary art museum (under renovation) and an old Jewish quarter with a former synagogue that, only a few decades after it was built, was taken over and turned into a church. Emily mentioned that in an earlier tour of Spain, she’d seen many a church that had started life as a Jewish house of worship. Spain’s history with the Jewish people will no doubt come up again in a later post.
Emily and I hopped the 4 p.m. bus back to Madrid — so if you’re in Madrid and have a day to kill, I’d say Segovia’s a pretty good spot to head to. Easy, cheap and interesting.