Category: Segovia.

Segovia: a tale of two cities

The medieval fortified towns of Segovia – the ‘ship of stone’ with its famous Roman aqueduct – and Ávila – the highest city in Spain, surrounded by immense walls, are the heart of Castilla Leon, and ideal for exploring together

William Cook,

The cathedral in the old town of Segovia. Photograph: Gräfenhain Günter/SIME-4Corners Images

The cathedral in the old town of Segovia. Photograph: Gräfenhain Günter/SIME-4Corners Images

In the centre of Segovia, between the old town and the new town, there is a Roman relic that makes Hadrian’s Wall look like a heap of rubble. Segovia’s famous aqueduct is nearly 30 metres high and more than 800 metres long, and although I’d seen countless photos of it, that’s still no substitute for the real thing. Standing before it for the first time takes your breath away.

This monumental aqueduct has 120 pillars and 166 arches, but these numbers really don’t do it any justice. Stacked two storeys high, made without cement or mortar, it towers over the surrounding buildings like a skyscraper in a shanty town. The 200-year-old houses around it look decrepit by comparison. It’s nearly 2,000 years old yet it almost looks brand new.

The aqueduct is the first thing you see when you arrive, but there’s lots of other stuff to see here, and lots of other sight-seers too. Segovia used to be two hours from Madrid by train, long enough to deter most daytrippers, but now the new high-speed line will get you here in half an hour. You won’t be the only foreigner onboard, but don’t worry if you want to escape the crowds. Most tourists head for the main sights, leaving the back alleys subdued and empty. Most of them depart at dusk so it pays to stay the night.

Beneath the arches of the aqueduct I meet María Teresa Arévalo, my local guide. She was born here and her affection for her hometown is infectious. As we walk along its cobbled streets she tells me a bit about its past. Surprisingly, Segovia wasn’t a big city in Roman times. The aqueduct was built to supply a Roman fort, and although the Moors were here for several centuries, Segovia really boomed after the Reconquest, on the back of the wool trade. The city centre is full of medieval and Renaissance buildings, like the lavish Casa de los Picos, the House of Spikes. Segovia has hardly grown since then. Sheep still graze on the nearby hills, just as they did in the middle ages, and the city still stands isolated, silhouetted against the distant mountains. With the spire of its pale cathedral rising above us like the mast of a gigantic man-of-war, it’s easy to see why the Spanish call Segovia the “ship of stone.”

Begun in the 16th century, and completed in the 18th century, Segovia’s lovely cathedral was the last great gothic cathedral built in Spain. By the time they’d finished building it, Segovia was already in decline, so the interior is unusually light and plain. “A lot of other Spanish cathedrals have a lot of decoration,” says María, proudly, “but in this cathedral the beauty is the building.” I can see exactly what she means. After the dark, crowded cathedrals you find in most Spanish cities, it feels refreshingly simple and serene.

The other must-see sight is the Alcázar, Segovia’s knights-in-armour fortress, which reputedly inspired the fairytale castle in Disneyland. You get a great view from the tower, but Segovia’s best attractions are more discreet. It’s in the cul-de-sacs, away from the guided tours, that you really sense the city’s history: the Romanesque parish churches, full of flickering candles; the Renaissance palaces, adorned with esgrafiado, an intricate style of plasterwork that dates back to Moorish days. The convent church of Corpus Christi used to be a synagogue. There are historic echoes everywhere.

We finish off our walkabout at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s in a 15th-century mansion, but the interior is stark and modern. It’s a peaceful place to escape the midday heat. The museum is devoted to Vicente Esteban, a local artist who worked in Paris alongside Picasso before settling in the US. Most of his paintings are abstract, but his figurative pictures are equally appealing: a portrait of his sister; street scenes of Madrid and Barcelona. His ashes are scattered in the museum garden, alongside his wife.

In a little lane called Infanta Isabel, lined with tapas bars, I stop for a bite to eat and a few beers: mackerel and onions; chorizo and pimientos; olives and sardines. It’s like a pub crawl but a lot more civilised, and not a drunken Brit in sight. After three helpings I’m too full for supper, and I’ve still got change from five euros. Who’d have thought Madrid was only half an hour away?


My next destination is Ávila, about an hour’s drive west from Segovia. Like Segovia it’s a Unesco world heritage city, but it gets a lot fewer sightseers. It’s hard to work out why. It’s almost as close to Madrid (Ávila is 110km from the Spanish capital, Segovia is 90km) and there’s just as much to see, yet here you feel like a real traveller, rather than just another camera-clicking tourist. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Over a thousand metres above sea level, Ávila is the highest city in Spain, and though the winters can be bitter, summers are relatively cool. If you take the train from Madrid you’ll pass through some dramatic mountain scenery on your way up here, but the journey only takes 90 minutes. It’s an easy drive from Segovia, and these historic cities make a perfect pair.

If people go to Segovia to see its aqueduct, people come to Ávila to see its walls – and if anything, Ávila’s walls are even more impressive. They were built at the end of the 11th century by the Castilians, after they’d retaken Ávila from the Moors (although they made their Moorish prisoners do the donkey work). For several centuries this was the front line between the Christian north and the Islamic south, and these fortifications were built to last.

Nine hundred years after they were built, Ávila’s walls are still complete, and they’re still incredibly imposing, 15 metres high and three metres thick. They run for 2.5km around the old town, taking in nine gates and 88 towers along the way. Looking down from these ramparts, the granite glinting in the sun, it seems even a modern army would have trouble scaling them, never mind a medieval one. The best view is at sunset, from the Mirador de los Cuatro Postes, a graceful Romanesque relic just outside the old town.

Yet there was a time when this city was regarded as rather fossilised. “Ávila is like an aged nut, whose shell is hard and shiny still, but whose kernel has long since shrivelled,” wrote Jan Morris in her eponymous book about Spain. “The life of the city has escaped the ramparts and settled among the shops and cafes of the modern town outside.” That was in 1964, but since then Ávila has changed. The modern town is still lively, but within its robust battlements the old town is buzzing again. Its streets aren’t just full of palaces and churches, but also shops and cafes, and busy restaurants and smart hotels.

As I stop for supper at one of these restaurants – a brightly lit canteen full of Spanish families celebrating the end of the working week – it begins to rain. It hasn’t rained for three months, but now the sky darkens – and like the rumble of advancing artillery, thunder booms across the plain. Suddenly the streets are full of water, more like a waterfall than rainfall, pouring down the alleyways like a river in full flow. Now everyone is outside, marvelling at this monsoon, then just as suddenly it ceases and the sky is blue again.

It’s my last night in Spain and I wish it wasn’t, but there’s something magical about these cities and I know I’ll be back again. As I retrace my steps to my hotel, I remember a brilliant bit from that Jan Morris book, about Segovia and Ávila – and Toledo, too. “No other towns on earth are anything like them. They have no peers, no rivals, no imitators. A circle 100 miles across would contain them all, but you can stand 10,000 miles from their walls, close your eyes and think of Spain, and see them clear as sunlight still.”

Medieval Festivals in Ávila

Ávila is an inviting destination at any time of the year, but one of the best times to visit is during the first week of September, when the Ciudad Cantos y Santos (city of stones and saints) rediscovers its ancient roots. Then the hometown of Santa Teresa, Spain’s patron saint, returns to the middle ages, with medieval markets, jugglers, puppeteers and even slave auctions. And if you can’t make it here in September, there are plenty of other festivals throughout the year. At the end of November there’s a local food festival (Tapitas a la Cazuela), in June there are outdoor performances of Castilian legends, in July and August there’s alfresco music – and every Thursday, Friday and Saturday throughout the summer, actors and storytellers retell the story of these walls, on the walls.

Paradores in Segovia and Ávila

In Britain a nationalised hotel chain would probably be like staying in a youth hostel run by National Rail. However here in Spain the state run Paradores are a much-loved institution, more like the National Trust. The original idea was to stimulate tourism in undiscovered parts of Spain by renovating historic buildings and turning them into hotels. That was 80 years ago and now there are more than 90 Paradores, all over Spain. Some of them are newly built, others are housed in ancient monuments, and the Paradores in Segovia and Ávila are good examples of both styles. Segovia’s modern Parador is on the edge of town, with splendid views of the city and an indoor and outdoor pool. Ávila’s Parador is built around a 16th-century tower in the heart of the old town. The garden is full of archaeological relics, dating back to before the birth of Christ.

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Category: Segovia
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