In our series of pieces looking at excursions and day trips that can be enjoyed within a short distance of Madrid, we look at Segovia, situated less than 100 kms from the capital and easily accessible by road or train.
Besides being home to one of the best-preserved Roman aqueducts in Europe and a spectacular Alcázar fortress, the old Mediaeval streets of Segovia are also dotted with Romanesque churches, Renaissance mansions, Moorish city walls and the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain.
While its iconic 2nd century Roman aqueduct impresses visitors who choose to start their tour of the old town there, the Alcázar fortress they discover at the end makes it patently obvious that history, culture and art overflow in abundance throughout Segovia.
In 1884, a Spanish Royal Order gave Spanish Heritage status to the Aqueduct of Segovia; a declaration that was expanded to include the walled old quarter in 1941 and in 1985 UNESCO gave it World Heritage status.
The UNESCO status was given to it in recognition that “Segovia is symbolic of a complex, historical reality. Moors, Christians, and Jews coexisted for a long period of time in the mediaeval city and worked together” – it is ” a prime example of the coexistence of different cultural communities throughout time”.
Indeed the very history of Segovia is written stone by stone. On the ground now occupied by the Alcázar fortress once stood a Celtiberian settlement, until the arrival of the Roman legions 2,000 years ago.
It was the Romans that built Segovia as an important town and fortress and who left it it´s famous Aqueduct – the best-preserved Roman construction in Spain.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Iberian Peninsular was invaded by the Visigoths – one of many Germanic tribes that peoples that brought the empire to an end in the 5th century AD.
The Visigoths settled and thrived – keeping the Roman buildings intacts as well as adding their own – much of which can be seen in the city´s museum.
The invasion of the Peninsular by the Arab and Berber armies in 711 brought down the Visigoth kingdoms within a short period and by the 720s the Moorish armies had advanced as far north as modern day southern France, where their advance was halted by the Frankish army of Charles Martel.
It was the Moors under the Almoravid dynasty, who built the city´s famous Alcazar ( fortress) as well as its city walls though it is believed that the city lost its importance until the Moors too were displaced by the reconquering Alfonso VI of León in the 11th century and Segovia once more began to grow in size and importance. ,
Migratory routes (such as for cattle and sheep) as well as booming trade in wool and textile manufactures gave Segovia into a Golden Age during the Middle Ages, becoming home to a sizeable Jewish community as well as a Royal court. Indeed, Queen Isabella was proclaimed Queen of Castile at the Church of San Miguel in Segovia in 1474.
As the economic centre of Spain moved south following the discovery of America. Segovia began to to lose much of its importance but still remaining a small market town and regional trading centre.
Segovia´s role in resisting the arrival of the new king of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles I and whose forces put down the Segovian uprising with severity added to its demise.
Besides its impressive size and double arches, the most eye-catching feature of the Roman Aqueduct of Segovia is the excellent state of conservation in which it can be found today.
Standing at 820 metres in length (of a total 15 km) and almost 30 metres high, the most iconic section of this aqueduct is the series of arches that cross Plaza de Azoguejo, where its construction from mortarless granite blocks is clearly evident (25,000 blocks in total).
Alongside the Aqueduct, perhaps the most representative landmark in Segovia is its Alcázar fortress, a royal palace sitting atop a rock that rises between the rivers Eresma and Clamores. The present construntion is a Gothic in style with Mudejar features which compliment it´s Moorish roots.
It was one of the favourite royal residences used by the kings and queens of Castile. The Mirador de la Pradera de San Marcos, a patch of land adjacent to the river, is the best place for a great view of this incredibly beautiful palace.
The Cathedral of Santa María was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain and is considered a masterpiece of Basque-Castilian Gothic architecture. Known as the “Lady of Cathedrals” because of its size and elegance, it was built between the 16th and 17th centuries, meaning it also has several Renaissance features.
Other sites to visit included the Gothic Monastery of San Antonio el Real with its rich Mudejar-style coffered ceilings, the interior of which houses numerous works of Flemish school of art.
The Casa de los Picos is a mansion from the late 15th century with a façade decorated with 617 granite blocks carved into pyramid-shaped reliefs. The interior, which houses a majestic Renaissance patio, is used as an exhibition hall today.
The narrow twisting and winding streets of the old town include Calle Real and Calle Cervantes, with such churches as those of San Martín (12th century), a jewel from Spanish Romanesque times; San Millán, with an outstanding bell tower; and San Juan de los Caballeros, the oldest in the city. Not to be forgotten are the Plaza Mayor, the Medina del Campo and the Jewish Quarter, where the legacy left by the richest Jewish communities in Castile can still be admired today.
The old main synagogue (currently a church dedicated to the Corpus Cristi) and the Jewish cemetery of El Pinarillo, wih one of the most important palaces of any Moorish-Jewish quarter in Spain, are two other outstanding landmarks well worth a visit.
All this is surrounded by the ancient city walls, of Moorish origin and later extended following the Christian reconquest of the city, which run through the old town.