Friday, April 13, 2007
April 1: Spectacular Segovia
Above: Mountains, churches and rooftops at Segovia, Spain.
On Sunday we had breakfast in our hotel's basement restaurant, which was served buffet-style and was good. There were even eggs and warm bacon available, which is unusual for the Continent. It was quite crowded and we ended up sharing a table with a nice older Spanish couple. We left feeling a little more full than we intended, but it turned out to be a good thing as we had a long day ahead of us.
We had planned to spend our first full day in Spain on a day trip to Toledo, a wonderful historic city about 45 minutes south of Madrid on a fast train. But alas, it was not to be.
We successfully took the Metro (right) to the Atocha Train Station on the south side of the city, where we stood in line for the ticket desk for 20 minutes only to discover that we would miss the 10:50 train and there wasn't another one until 12:50.
How can there be so few trains to such a popular day trip destination?? And since it was a Sunday, most of Toledo's sights closed quite early and it would be impossible to see more than one or two with that later train. So I was rather heartbroken and David was disappointed too, since Toledo was to be one of the highlights of the trip and neither of us were thrilled with Madrid for more sightseeing.
And while we were dealing with this, because we were carrying cameras we were told sternly by three or four different station personnel that photos were not allowed, even when we were not even trying! We can somewhat understand their paranoia due to the bombings that took place here a few years ago, but it began to get on our nerves. We did take one picture before we realized the rule (and were immediately shouted at for it):
In the end, David came to the rescue. He asked about buses, but those would take even longer. Then he tried every rental car agency in the train station but they had no cars available. Finally, he suggested that we go to Toledo on the way to Seville tomorrow, and asked me if there were any other day trips from Madrid we could do today. Why yes, there are! There's the palace-monastery of El Escorial, the walled city of Avila, and the cathedral-castle city of Segovia, all of which I had dismissed as better seen on a future trip since they were north of the city.
So we headed back into the train station, checked the departure boards, and made a split-second decision to go to Segovia since a train was leaving for it in 10 minutes. We got our tickets and were on our way! The train was quite nice and nearly empty, and we had a pleasant ride with lots of scenery.
It was a bit of an adventure into the unknown since we didn't know how long it would take to get there and had no map or guidebook with us, but I knew it was a worthwhile trip and didn't think the journey would take more than an hour. Well, as it turns out I was wrong about the second part. :) Even though it looks pretty close to Madrid on a map, Segovia is more like 2.5 hours away because the train makes many stops and passes through a rather significant mountain range on the way! Oops.
When we finally arrived in Segovia at around 2:00, the cathedral and castle were nowhere to be seen and it just looked like a huge, run-down modern city. There were very few other tourists, there was no place to buy a map, there were no signs directing us to any attractions, and the streets were practically deserted (probably because it was Palm Sunday). And it was freezing cold.
Not being familiar with Segovia's attractions, David understandably began to wonder if I was crazy to bring us all this way for this! But he gamely trusted me for the time being and we set off in the direction that seemed right. We made sure to check the departing train times before we left the station, and planned to head back no later than 6:55, and perhaps even on the 4:50!
It was pretty bleak for quite some time, but after about 20 minutes of walking things began to improve. We came upon a wonderful old Romanesque church that was closed, but it would have been at home in Rome and was covered in wonderful carvings.
Since returning home I've learned that this is the 12th-century Iglesia San Millan. It looked so closed up that we assumed it was derelict inside, but my guidebook tells me its interior has been restored to its original form and it's open daily from 10-2 and 4:30-7:30.
Not long after that, we passed what I now know is the 13th-century San Clemente. It was also closed, but apparently has 13th-century murals inside.
And then we caught sight of Segovia's most famous attraction, which I had forgotten about - it's magnificent Roman aqueduct.
Built around the end of the 1st century AD, the aqueduct is over 2,600 feet long, made of granite blocks, and has 166 arches and 120 pillars. The blocks are fitted together with no mortar or cement - what magnificent engineers the Romans were!
From there we headed up into the old walled city, where it was a pleasant wander through narrow alleys and attractive plazas towards the cathedral and castle (alcazar).
Segovia Cathedral was begun in 1525 and took over 200 years to complete. It is the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain and is very Gothic indeed, with pinnacles, spires and buttresses all over the place. It is massive, attractively situated at one end of a large plaza, and honey-hued like the rest of the city.
There was an admission charge and a ban on photos inside the cathedral, a combination which never fails to irritate us. But happily, we had the place nearly to ourselves and there was no one around enforcing the photo rule. The interior of the huge cathedral was quite bare and not all that interesting. It basically consisted of wide open spaces with side chapels in the outer walls, and a choir in the center with some nice carved wooden stalls. Parked at the west end were Segovia's floats for Semana Santa.
More interesting were the cloisters, which centered on a nice little garden with a well in the middle. No gargoyles or weird old carvings here, but the architecture and dappled sunlight were pretty and there were nice views of the bell tower.
A small room off the cloisters housed a museum of beautiful religious treasures in silver, gold and ivory along with tapestries and paintings. Someone was watching in there, so no photos. But nearby was a gorgeous reception room that was used by the bishop to entertain visitors, and we were able to take some unsupervised photos there.
Despite the warm appearance from all the lush tapestries and velvet, it was absolutely freezing in there and I couldn't believe there was no fireplace! I suppose the bishop and his esteemed visitors wore many layers of robes.
For more history and info, and more photos, see Segovia Cathedral at Sacred Destinations.
Our final planned stop was the Alcazar, or castle of Segovia.
The Alcazar is located at the very end of the old city on a dramatic outcropping of rock that overlooks the surrounding valley. It's easy to see why they picked this spot for a fortress - it is virtually impossible to reach it other than by the narrow, breathtakingly high bridge that spans its moat (now mostly dry):
The castle was originally built in the 14th and 15th centuries, but was almost completely rebuilt after a fire in 1862. If it looks familiar, it's because it was the model for the Disneyland castle in California.
We arrived at the same time as a tour bus full of American high schoolers and another group of French middle schoolers (bottom left), so we did a very quick walking tour in an attempt to stay ahead of them. The inside was not super exciting, but had nice furnishings, wall paintings, and highly elaborate ceilings. There was also a museum of weapons and armor that David enjoyed.
But the best part for us was probably the views, which were spectacular despite the gray weather. We could have climbed the tower for even better views, but by that time our legs had nearly had enough, and it was still a long walk back to the station.
We saw mountains, valleys, and several interesting churches and monasteries that would have been nice to visit if we'd had the time, including this one:
Back home with my guidebook, I now know that this is the Iglesia Vera Cruz (Church of the True Cross) and it was built by the Knights Templar in the early 13th century to house a piece of the True Cross. It has a round nave (like the Temple Church in London) and is patterned after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
From the castle we embarked on our long walk back to the train station. After we had passed the cathedral we spotted a small church, and although I was content to pass it by, David insisted on checking it out. The church-crawling disease is clearly contagious!
In the end I was very glad he did, because it turned out to be the only surviving synagogue in Segovia, although much renovated and in use as a church for several hundred years. With its white walls and horseshoe arches, it was a foretaste of the even more spectacular synagogues-turned-churches awaiting us tomorrow in Toledo.
According to a sign on the door there was an admission charge of 1.50 euros, but the church official was giving a tour to another couple the entire time we were there so we just slipped in and slipped out. We didn't see any place for a donation or we would have given some coins.
Our final church stop of the day was about a block further down, and despite our weariness neither of us wanted to pass it up. It is called San Martin and is a large Romanesque church that is still in active use and was actually open.
By now it was approaching 5:30 and we were mighty tired and very hungry, not having found time to eat since breakfast. We headed back to the train station through the new town, where there wasn't much in the way of fast food to be found and most restaurants and shops were closed for the holiday.
We had resigned ourselves to stopping for Pringles and Diet Cokes at the open gas station we'd seen on the way when we came upon a far better option - a Spanish fast-food chain called Pan, which has warm baguette sandwiches, fries and such. It was open, it was warm, it was fast, it had tables and a bathroom, and we couldn't have been happier. We had hot "Provencal" baguettes with chicken, brie and mushrooms, and they were delicious.
After relaxing and warming up for awhile, we made the final push to the station, which was another 15 minutes or so on foot. We caught our 6:55 train as intended, and had a smooth and scenic 2-hour ride. Back in Madrid, we caught the Metro to our neighborhood like old pros.
For much more information on Segovia, including a great satellite map, please see the Segovia City Guide on Sacred Destinations.
Coming up tomorrow: We make it to Toledo, and Seville too.