There are capitals in the interior of Spain that are worthwhile discovering because they represent the many cultures that make Spain such an attractive country. Segovia is one of them. The city, of little more than 50,000 inhabitants, contains more culture by the square metre that many of the large Spanish capitals. In 1985 it was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO and currently, the City Hall has presented its candidacy as European capital of Culture for 2016.
WHEN Spain’s kings and queens visited Segovia regularly, they clearly had good taste. This city, barely an hour and a half from Madrid by car, has enamoured many kings and queens of the crown of Castilla. An example is Alfonso X, called “El Sabio”, who chose the Alcázar of Segovia as the residence in which to pass the end of his days. It is believed that from there, the monarch studied the skies and learned the science of the stars and universe.
Another king of Castilla, Felipe II, the monarch responsible for the fantastic monastery of The Escorial, in Madrid, also fell in love with this city and the Alcázar. Bewitched by its marvellous views, Felipe II was persuaded to convert this military fortress into a European style palace, much like the one that you can visit today.
From the same Alcázar of Segovia, Isabel the Catholic went to her coronation as the queen of Castilla, the most symbolic queen of all the queens that have existed in Spain. From her marriage with Fernando of Aragón, the crown of Castilla and Aragón was born that would unite Spain and send Columbus to discover America.
Although Madrid, and later Valladolid, became the capitals of Spain in the true sense, it was the tiny city of Segovia that the Spanish monarchy worshipped – for many reasons.
Segovia recently declared its intention to apply for the title of cultural capital of Europe for 2016. It has a strong candidacy because the city is used to being the venue for large cultural events.
In Segovia, the International Festival of European Puppetry is celebrated, the titirimundi, which takes place every year in the month of May.
Segovia hasn’t escaped the Brits’ notice, either. They have celebrated the Hay Festival of Literature here, with the sponsorship of The Guardian. This year this festival of prestigious British authors will be held in the fantastic city of Granada.
Segovia is an unusual city since, despite its diminutive size, it boasts a vast cultural heritage.
The Roman aqueduct is the most symbolic monument of the city, and all those who see it are astounded by its magnificent state of conservation.
It was constructed to convey water from the Acebeda (17km away), in the nearby Sierra of Guadarrama, and crosses the city to arrive at the Fortress.
Historians have suggested that it was built in the first century. Its 166 arches of granite stone are supported by joined ashlars or supporting stones, placed without any type of mortar, by means of an ingenious equilibrium of forces.
This aqueduct provided water to the city until recent times. And through the centuries, it has barely suffered any modifications.
Only in 1072 during the attack against Segovia by the Muslim leader Al-Mamún of Toledo did the aqueduct suffer any damage.
A total of 36 arches were restored in the 15th century.
For centuries, two niches in the aqueduct existed that probably protected the statues dedicated to pagan gods, but that were substituted in the time of the Catholic Kings by the images of San Sebastián and the Virgin.
Wandering around Segovia
In this city with its regal air, the aqueduct is not the only jewel in the crown – there are many more. The best treat is to get lost along the winding streets of its historic centre.
Begin your walk in the Azoguejo, which means ‘lefthanded little one’, because left-handed people were celebrated in ceremonies in the main square.
The Azoguejo has always been the nerve centre of the city: centre of meetings, communications, streets and highways, centre of commerce and contracts and is one of the places that has experienced the greatest transformations, which can be appreciated on reading the old engravings on many buildings.
The main street of the city, which leads up to the main square, is the Calle Real, the busiest street for traffic and commerce.
Routes from the Azoguejo are divided into the following sections: Cervantes, Juan Bravo, Plazuela del Corpus and Isabel the Catholic. This main artery of the city holds an interesting architectural array divided between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and finishing at the beginning of the 20th century.
The first stop is the Mirador de la Canaleja or look-out point from which you can contemplate the mountain of the Mujer Muerta and the Neighbourhood of San Millán.
A few metres further is La Casa de los Picos. This building belonged to Juan de la Hoz who added peaks to the façade to change the character of the building that was known as the House of the Jew or House of the Executioner.
On one side the Puerta de San Martín opened, which was destroyed in 1883. Next to this building, the curious visitor can see a patio of Renaissance columns from the Palace of the Torreagero, built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its structure – three sides with porticoes and one without columns – is typical of the courtyards and patios of the city.
Continuing along Calle Real, in the small plaza of Platero Oquendo is the Palace of the Count Alpuente, built at the end of the fifteenth century.
Its delicate windows of flamboyant Gothic style emphasize its esgrafiado. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a drawing technique that consists of making incisions on the body of the object or wall, on the superficial part, so that the lower layer is revealed. It was a style employed by the Romans and extended during the Middle Ages.
A few metres distant from the Palace of the Count Alpuente we find the Alhóndiga, a fifteenth-century building that was a cereal store and that has now been converted into the Municipal Archive and Exhibition Room.
Returning to the Calle Real we find the delicious Plaza de Medina del Campo, an architectural structure configured on different levels reminiscent of Italian plazas with its elegant buildings.
Presiding over this plaza you’ll find the Church of San Martín, a splendid temple that is a textbook example of the different demonstrations of the Spanish Romanesque art. It is defined by a double column and triple atrium – a welcoming meeting place in cold cities – and also has three apses, a Mudéjar tower and a dome.
But there are more enjoyable details in the Plaza of Medina del Campo – for example, it becomes a type of playroom for the Segovians when, during the good weather, the bars and restaurants extend their terraces out into the plaza for jazz concerts, popular music or puppet shows for children.
In this plaza the Casa Solier is located and also the Casa de Bornos, both of sixteenth century design, fronted by a fountain with figures of lions and children.
Next to them you will see the Tower of Lozoya (from the fourteenth century), an arrogant rectangular tower used for defence. Its interior, beautified by two Renaissance patios, has been converted into an arts centre by the Bank of Segovia.
The fifteenth century house known as Casa de Juan Bravo and the Casa de los Mexía Tovar are other examples of stately houses adorning this plaza.
A statue of Juan Bravo created by the sculptor Aniceto Marinas, is situated in the first section of the stairs and two neo-classical sphinxes of stone with the head and bust of a woman and the body of lionesses, acquaintances popularly known as the Sirens, complete the plaza.
Nearby, in the Calle José Canalejas, we find theHospital of Our Lady of Conception, known popularly as the ‘Hospital of Old-timers’.
This 16th-century building forms part of the old Palace of Enrique IV, who was known as the Royal of San Martín. This monarch of the house of Trastámaras had an oriental background and favoured the construction of important works in the Mudéjar style.
Walking along the main commercial and civic artery of the capital, to the right is the old jail, today a public library. It was used as a prison until 1933, and in its cells they imprisoned the playwright Lope de Vega in 1577.
The front entrance is presided over by the shield of Austria and in the interior Romanesque remainders exist, transferred here from the church of San Medel.
The last stop before reaching the main square is the small square of the Corpus, dominated by the convent of the same name, which was the old Greater Synagogue. The building, damaged by a fire in 1899, was reconstructed at the end of the last century.
The main square
The heart of the city and fruit of the urban development politics of the 17th century, its current shape is the result of the collapse of the church of San Miguel in 1532 which was located in the central zone.
The removal of this church freed precious space and the catholic hierarchy remained happy because the temple was constructed in a side street of the plaza.
The plaza is dominated by the presence of the City Hall (1610), with its granite façade, towers with mudstone spires and clock with bells.
Built in 1525 by the Gil de Ontañón family, after the old cathedral was destroyed, the new cathedral is situated in the gardens of the Fortress.
The sixteenth-century stained-glass windows emphasise the collection of seventeenth century tapestries from Brussels that cover the walls of the Chapterhouse.
The Cathedral Archive has conserved more than 500 ‘incunabula’, among them the Synodal book of Águilafuente, the first printed book in Spain.
Set against the Cathedral is the Palace of the Marqués del Arco (sixteenth century) with a beautiful Renaissance patio.
Further on, the old Corral del Mudo appears, one of the last traces of the corrals of the Jewish quarters, a traditional brick building with a wooden framework.
Noble houses with esgrafiados and pretty courtyards bring us to the Plaza de la Merced, with the Romanesque church of San Andrés, in a typical corner of the city with a green space that invites you to rest.
Together with the aqueduct, the other gem of Segovia’s architectural heritage is the Alcázar. This is approached through the neighbourhood of Las Canonjías.
The profile of the Alcázar, or Fortress, appears like an imaginary ship on the riverbank. To both sides of the castle are splendid views of the Pinarillo (with the Jewish cemetery) and the Churches of Vera Cruz and Zamarramala.
A deep ditch with a drawbridge opens onto a fortress set in a privileged location, probably inhabited since the Celtic era.
The castle, which became the fortress, was a royal residence in the thirteenth century, but acquired its Gothic façade in the times of Juan II and Enrique IV. Its restoration has been continuous, after a serious fire occurred in 1862 almost completely destroying it.
In 1882, during the reign of Alfonso XII, its reconstruction was initiated, continuing ever since with the Patronage of the Fortress, which has restored stuccoes, friezes, altarpieces and walls.
The silhouette of the monument emphasises the tower of Alfonso X the Wise, in the north angle, since it was from here that the monarch studied the skies.
Also you can see the tower of Juan II, 80 metres high, with beautiful markings and twelve mini-towers adorning its height.
Up a steep winding stair, the visitor can ascend to the upper part of the tower, from which there is a beautiful view of the city, as well as the neighbourhoods of San Marcos and Zamarramala and the quarry where some of the stone employed in the construction of the Cathedral was extracted.
In the interior, and around the parade ground – a habitual site for concerts of chamber music – and around the Patio del Reloj, are yet more attractions of the Palace. To the left are rooms dedicated to the School of Artillery; to the right, the Palace of the Kings of Castilla, the main nucleus of the building.
The Room of Ajimecesis is remarkable for its beauty, with portraits of kings and suits of armour; of the Galera, with modern stainedglass windows executed by the Segovian artist Carlos Muñoz of the Throne – with a gaudy Mudéjar dome – of the chimney, the Cordón and the Piñas, which is a stucco formed by 92 golden pineapples, the Cámara Regia; the Player of the Queen and Chapel, with a tapestry by Bartolomé Carduccio.
But moreover, you must see the Room of Kings with its extraordinary stucco of hexagons and golden diamonds and an original frieze in which 52 seated and poly- chrome images represent the Kings and Queens of Asturias, León and Castilla from Don Pelayo to Juana la Loca.
This city, which captivates monarchs and is the seat of the best contemporary culture in Spain is a small treasure that remains on the margins of mass tourism. However, it represents an exquisite bite for a wise minority of travellers.
Where to stay:
Hotel Palacio San Facundo
Is an old palacial house of the sixteenth century, situated in the old part of the city less than 100 metres from the main square, which has been transformed into a modern and charming hotel.
San Facundo, 4 - 40001 Segovia.
Tel. 921 46 30 61
In the neighbourhood of San Marcos, at the feet of the Alcázar is a completely rehabilitated building with 5 apartments with room services. From there the visitor can enjoy some magnificent views of the walled precinct of the city.
C/ Marqués de Villena, 2 and 4.
Tel. 921 42 30 42
Where to eat:
Restaurante José María
In Segovia it is absolutely essential to try roasted suckling pig, a speciality of the area – locally-raised pigs are cooked to perfection by a specialist chef. The pork is placed in the oven, whole, with only salt and water added to reach a perfect harmony of tasty tender meat. José María is one of the greatest exponents of Segovian gastronomy, balancing the traditional kitchen with the latest innovations. Seasonal products are the main protagonists, with a special attention to quality, flavours and fragrances, and always with a personal touch.
C/ Cronista Lecea, 11 - 40001 Segovia.
Tel. 921 46 60 17