Segovia is spectacularly sited with its sandstone old town perched high on a rocky spur encircled by two rivers, and in front of the snow-dusted Sierra de Guadarrama.
Set at 1,005 meters above sea level and above a green belt of trees and rivers, its crystalline atmosphere illuminates centuries of architectural treasures in pure, clear light.
The ancient town was made habitable by those great engineers of classical times, the Romans. Their wondrous construction of an enormous aqueduct brought fresh supplies of water from the nearby Rio Frio, along a series of towering stone arches into their important military base, at the end of the first century.
Flowing at up to 30 litres a second, the water poured for 220 meters along a stone channel sat on top of the aqueduct’s 167 arches which were formed by 120 gigantic pillars built using 20,400 granite blocks or ‘ashlars’.
We followed its path from outside our parking at the old bull ring and walked alongside the single tier aqueduct initially at our hip height. As the ground sloped steeply down the aqueduct quickly rose to above head height and then became two tiers, towering up to 29 meters as it entered the old city walls at the Plaza del Diaz Sanz. From here the water supply was subterranean to public fountains and private homes.
The ingenious system was in use until the 1900s largely as a result of careful preservation begun during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs and continued throughout the centuries, each time engineers were careful not to change any of the original work.
The Romans began enclosing their towns in the second century and most likely began the fortification of Segovia at that time. The walls that survive today are medieval in origin, built to defend the city from the Moors.
It’s possible to wander along much of their 3.5km stretch, except for where private houses have been built into them in the past. We enjoyed the sunlit afternoon view looking east along the golden sandstone skyline of the old Jewish quarter to the snowy mountain range of the Sierra.
Segovia’s cathedral is thought to be the last Gothic church in Spain, built at time when European church-goers had developed a taste for the Renaissance.
It was built on the sight of the town’s earlier cathedral which was destroyed during the revolt of the Castilian towns in 1520. Begun in 1525 and eventually consecrated in 1768 its gorgeous golden dome sits on top of three tall naves, supported by flying buttresses and decorated with pinnacles and spires.
If it was created as elaborate confectionary (and indeed several shop fronts sported marzipan ‘cathedral’ cakes) it would be splendid enough, but its mastery of stone work is simply awe-inspiring.
We perched in the ornate ironworked band stand of the Plaza Mayor watching the sunlight play across the many golden angles of the naves and rousing resting storks, for which the cathedral is said to be a major meeting place on their migration north.
Passing Romanesque towered churches and secretive fortified palaces we wound our way down the twisting cobbled lanes to the old town’s most westerly point, a pointed spur of sheer rock out of which grows Segovia’s most famous building, the Alcazar.
Rising above the crag with a multitude of gabled roofs, turrets, crenellations and pointed spires it was easy to understand the overheard remarks comparing it to a fairy-tale castle. ‘Say is this more like Cinderella’s Castle than the German one?’ asked a bum bag-wearing and ice-cream munching American mom.
It being a Tuesday, the Alcazar was free to all EU nationals to visit, in recognition of the enormous sums of funds that have been provided for its restoration and upkeep.
We were delighted to venture inside the extraordinary halls and rooms of the royal palace, built at the beginning of the 12th century on top of a Roman fortress. A favourite of the Kings during the Middle Ages, it was the venue from which Isabel the Catholic made her way to the Plaza Mayor to be crowned Queen of Castile in 1474.
The rooms shone in vibrant painted colours of golds, reds and greens and the decoration on the ceilings was in the ‘mudejar’ style – that of Muslims who lived under Christian rule after the expulsion from Spain of unconverted Moors by the Catholic Monarchs in 1502.
The effect was of opulence and great luxury, despite the furnishings being a simple collection of battered old wooden chests, hanging tapestries and four poster beds.
It was enchanting to wander around and imagine the lives of the rulers who’s alabaster and painted faces lined the upper walls of the Monarchs Room.
A young Spanish girl spontaneously broke into a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace in delight at it all. I thanked her in my pidgin Spanish and learned she was from Barcelona, visiting for Semana Santa to see the sights and sing at mass.
Heading homeward in the early evening warmth and feeling spellbound by the beauty of Segovia, we passed a quiet corner with a statue of a famous resident of the town, the mystic and poet St John of the Cross.
Together with St Teresa of Avila, he arrived in 1574 and co-founded St Joseph’s convent. He returned in 1580 to found and live at a Discalced Carmelite Friary. He carried out his post as a Prior whilst writing spiritual poetry, working in the vegetable gardens and workshops of the Friary, and laying out pathways along the steep hillside to aid local people to access his chapel.
St John left Segovia in 1591 but died a few months later at Ubeda, aged 49. The two towns fought over the remains of his body but Ubeda did return most of it to the Friary where it now rests (minus his lower legs). Listen to a recording of St John’s poem ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ set to music by Loreena McKennitt.