Sunday, March 27, 2011

An ancient, magical city: Segovia

Where do we go from here? Oh, I see
Last Sunday, I missed doing my blog post on Segovia, but today I've got my act together (I think). First, I wish I had more pictures from this particular setting, as it was my favorite among all the cities I toured in Spain and later, Portugal. My camera chose to die on me at various points. Damn it all to hell! Oh well. If you missed the earlier related post on Avila, you can view it here. 

Segovia is a city of crumbling eighth-century walls, eighty towers, three imposing gateways, twisting alleys winding their way past Gothic and Romanesque churches with stained glass windows and ornate chapels. It boasts the most amazing views of the Spanish landscape, and apparently has some of the best suckling pig in the country. I wouldn't know. Sorry, but after our tour guide Lisa talked about the little baby pigs being killed after 28 killed my appetite, too. Although I've researched the history of Spain for Sultana, of course my concentration was on events in Andalusia under the rule of Nasrid Dynasty. But I've since learned that events in Segovia played an important role in the final demise of the Nasrids.

Segovia's 2000-year old aqueduct
 The tour bus took us south of Avila while our guide Lisa explained that Segovia, like many other cities of Spain, has an ancient history that predates the Romans. Its name has CeltiIberian origins and means "city of victory" which is appropriate for reasons I'll get to in a bit. When the Romans occupied Segovia, they built a towering monument that has been featured on the city's coat of arms, an ancient aqueduct that has stood since at least 2,000 years. The aqueduct is almost 20 miles long, stretching from the Fuente Fria River until it reaches Segovia. It's comprised of 25,000 granite blocks held together without any mortar, at least by the Romans. Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon repaired parts of the aqueduct. It soars to 95 feet at its greatest height and provided water until at least the mid-1900's. They just don't build stuff like the Romans did anymore.

When the Moorish invaders conquered Spain in the eighth century and renamed Segovia, Siqubiyyah, it's unclear whether it was a large settlement. I saw nothing that would indicate Segovia's Moorish past except its eighth century walls. Considering that the Spanish re-conquered the city three hundred years before they defeated the Nasrids in Granada, it makes sense. The Moors held Segovia until the late eleventh century (possibly in 1088) under King Alfonso VI of Castile.

After seeing the aqueduct, I stopped to have some lunch in a nearby homestyle restaurant. The seafood paella was nothing to write home about, which wasn't great since I'd been craving it for two days. Please, my sister makes better paella and she should, having lived in Spain during her college years. Unfortunately, the following was overheard during lunch, from another obviously American tourist (who was thankfully, NOT in my tour group): "You seem like you know Spanish. So, if I wanna order the suckling pig in Spanish, do I ask for roasted cojones?" Dead silence followed. It's not that the Spanish have no sense of humor but some things just don't need a reply. My apologies on behalf of the ugly American in that room. Meh.

Part of the reason the roasted cojones didn't go over so well is that Spain is still a country where religious roots run very deep. It's no surprise that Segovia is dotted with Catholic churches. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to see all of them, especially the church of San Miguel, where Queen Isabella was crowned. Here are some I did see:

Segovia's Church of Saint Martin

A Romanesque church, whose name I obviously
didn't get. I love the backdrop of the sky, very
moody and inspiring of some sort of mystery.
It's a writer thing. If you're not a writer, don't even try.
Cathedral at Segovia
The highlight of Segovia's religious architecture is its Gothic cathedral. This is where the darned camera started acting up! So, I have no beautiful stained glass windows streaming light into the cathedral to show you, nor the floor-level crypts where the bishops were buried, or great shots that would give you the full sense of majesty in this place. All I can do is describe what I experienced. I'm not Catholic (although some tenets of my Anglican upbringing make me question that) and I'm not even deeply religious. So, if I tell you Segovia's cathedral blew me away, trust me that it is an amazing sight. You trust me, don't you?

Chapel of Saint Antonio, Segovia
 The cathedral is huge. Inside, an amazing silence reigns over the space. The best time to visit any popular site in Spain is February-March; it's the off-season (except for the Prado Museum maybe, which as I mentioned in the Avila post, does not seem to have an off-season) and it's less likely to be crowded. No one's voice rose above a whisper, which I can only presume means that the entire tour group was as overawed as I was. The floor is stonework and the interior is ringed with golden, ornate chapels dedicated to various saints on behalf of Segovia's nobles. If you can ever see this monument, do yourself a favor and go.

The slate spires of the Alcazar,
which supposedly inspired
the building of the castle at
Walt Disney World
Lastly, the tour stopped at Segovia's Alcazar, which is derived from the Arabic word, al-qasr, meaning fortress. Built by at least 1120, the castle was the favorite of several Spanish monarchs, first used as an official home by King Alfonso VIII and his Queen, Eleanor of Plantagenet. Prior to their residence, presumably a Moorish fortress existed on the site. The Alcazar would have been prime real estate to anyone, situated in a strategic location. It's built atop a rocky promontory that straddles the Eresma and Clamores rivers. The view is breathtaking all-around. Did I happen to mention that Segovia was my favorite stop? I'm sure I must have. The sight of the Alcazar made the trip worthwhile and it has a great history. Queen Isabella took shelter in it while she waited to be crowned. Since its construction, it has been a royal palace (11th - 16th centuries), a state prison (17th - 18th centuries) and home of the Royal Artillery School. In 1864, fire gutted most of the interior and nearly 30 years later, it was re-built.

The tower of John II at Segovia
The approach from the direction of the cathedral brings the soaring edifice of the New Tower or Tower of John II of Castile into view. If you're supposing that a sight like this would make a medieval buff like me squeal like a little girl, you'd be absolutely right. I swear sometimes I was born in the wrong century. Of course, the entryway is accessed via a wooden bridge presumably replacing the drawbridge. Looking down on either side, there's moss growing in what must have been the moat. And here's where the dang blasted camera finally gave up the ghost. Crap! Again, you'll just have to follow along as I describe, or even better, go see it for yourself! You could do worse than spending a few hours exploring Segovia.

After a sharp turn, there's a short hallway featuring walls with a few wooden shields bearing heraldic colors and devices. A turn to the right takes you into the armory room which has, you guessed it, suits of armor, plus flags and pennons, more shields, cannon and mortar. There's even a mounted rider on a carpisoned horse. If this place doesn't stir your imagination of the medieval past, nothing will. Another turn leads you into what is called the throne room (didn't ask the guide how authentic that was). A red velvet canopy and curtains provide the backdrop for two ornamental chairs with velvet cushions. Interestingly enough, to me at least, the ceiling of this room mirrors some of the work found in the Alhambra. Further on, there is the Hall of Kings. The title is appropriate, as it has wall carvings of Spanish Kings and Queens from Pelagius of Austurias down to Queen Juana of the Mad claim, who was Ferdinand and Isabella's daughter. I specifically looked for the image of Alfonso X, as he is one of the adversaries of my protagonists in Sultana. The carving looked like all the other depictions of him that I have seen, except here he was older than in most paintings or statues. The cold wind blowing into this room made us hurry on to a smaller space, featuring a bed with a canopy and what looked like wall tapestries. Our guide informed us it was, in fact, a series of paintings.

In addition to being the place where Queen Isabella was crowned, Segovia is also the site where she spent some of her married life with Ferdinand of Aragon. Except for when they were afield campaigning against the Moors. As I walked the stonework floors they might have also trod, I couldn't help but wonder something. How much of the planning of the eventual overthow of the Nasrid Dynasty might have taken place behind these cold, masonry walls within the 'city of victory'? In the end, I was truly sorry to leave Segovia via the San Andres gate, but if my plans to live in Spain hold true, I know I'll be back.

Next Sunday, it's more pics and views from my trip in Portugal. I'll show you the fascinating stonework at the Jeronimos and Batalha monasteries, the ancient ramparts of medieval Obidos and tell you about a sickeningly sweet drink from ginja berries, the mystical wonder at the cathedral of Our Lady of Fatima and a perfect little coastal village called Nazare. Also, I'll let you in on a secret: the Portuguese make the BEST pastries and bread, and I have the proof. In pictures, of course.  Before I go, some other photos from Madrid.
Agricultural Ministry
Royal Palace / Eastern Palace
National Library
How could I forget? The mariachi band at Plaza del Sol

Fountain at the Plaza del Sol
Plaza Mayor
Fourth century Temple of Debod, a gift from the Egyptian people to Spain in 1968
Don Jamon's tapas bar, one of the best tilework facades
Thanks, as always, for stopping by the blog.


Michelle Gregory said...

love the pictures and the narrative about your trip. i'm glad you were able to go.

Lisa Yarde said...

Thanks Michelle, I only wish I could have taken better shots and more of them.

.: EXIT NINETY-ONE :. said...

Oh I can't even!!!! I was literally just writing a response to a facebook wall post to my friend in Spain. I miss it so much and I was just telling her how much I missed Segovia!!! I had Googled the name of the cathedral that Queen Isabella was crowned in and came across your recent blog about Segovia!! I stayed in Hotel Aqueducto overnight before we headed off to Avila (to see a relic of St. Teresa of Avila and the city known for it's city walls). It was amazing - I'm from Jersey, but I could definitely see myself living in Spain in those times! The times of architectually-mastered cathedrals, Spanish horses, and all the other elements that stories are made of. *sigh* I miss Spain, terribly.

Lisa Yarde said...

@.: EXIT NINETY-ONE:. Thanks for stopping by the blog. I'm so glad someone else knows how special Segovia is. Even better, it's someone who loves cake and cupcakes as much as I do! We must talk further. Seriously.

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