Every once in awhile you stumble across a place that’s not at all what you expected. Sometimes your expectations are high, and the place is a dud. And sometimes you visit a place not because the guidebook’s description moved you especially but because you needed a place to stop for the night. You may have chosen to drive right past it in the daylight. But fate stepped in and put an opportunity smack-dab in the middle of your path, and this bit of happenstance turns out to be an unexpected delight. This was the case with Segovia.
Yes, I knew about the Roman aqueduct. I read about it in Fodor’s and saw photos of it in the listing of the apartment we rented. You can see it from our apartment window. But all that only registered in a subliminal way; I was too focused on finding an apartment between Madrid and Santiago de Compostela.
We arrived in Segovia, found the apartment, met our host, got the tour of the apartment, unloaded our bags, the host left, and finally we took a deep breath and looked around us. And there it was – the aqueduct, literally larger than life. At first we observed that it went from our apartment down a few blocks to a remote part of the city where we parked the car and found a restaurant to get a bite to eat. Then we walked back to the apartment, walked round a bend, and – Holy cow! – the thing extends way past the apartment to this fantastic fortress upon a hill – the old, walled city of Segovia. The old city is surrounded by an amazing crenelated wall that encompasses the Plaza Mayor (the main square, an integral social component of any Spanish city), the Cathedral, and, most magnificently, the Alcázar – the Royal Palace/Moorish fortress/Roman outpost at the top of the hill. All of this visible from where we were standing with our mouths wide open.
The ancient city itself would have been jaw-dropping, but that aqueduct! Almost half a mile long, it’s made of over 25,000 granite blocks with no mortar to hold them together. And it’s been standing for over 2000 years! It has more than 170 arches. What we had seen earlier was the short part of the aqueduct, only about 45 feet high with one tier of arches. At the tallest point, the aqueduct is almost 90 feet tall with two large tiers. And did I mention that it’s stunning?
Before I go any further I have to explain a bit about Spanish history, as I understand it. To keep it brief, I’ll start with Roman times. The Romans came to Spain around 260 BCE and thrived here for about 600 years, until the Western Roman Empire came to a grinding halt. (The Eastern Roman Empire continued for another thousand years.) About this time the Visigoths (or Goths) and other European tribes came into the Iberian peninsula through France and pushed out the declining Romans. The Goths lasted for about 300 years until one non-Christian splinter tribe, feeling persecuted by the Christian Goths, traveled into North Africa (the Strait of Gibraltar is only nine miles wide) to ask for support. 7000 Berbers (a tribe from North Africa) returned with the Goths to invade Iberia. In a few years they had conquered almost the entire Iberian peninsula beginning an almost 800-year Iberian civilization. These African Muslims, called Moors by the Europeans, tolerated other religions and, unlike the Christians who ruled before them, allowed the indigenous Jews and Christians to remain without conversion to Islam. For 800 years all three religious groups lived together harmoniously, until the Christian king and queen in northern Spain, Fernando and Isabel, decided to reconquer Spain for the Christians in 1492. Yes, they were the king and queen we call Ferdinand and Isabella who sponsored Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Later the same year, they also “expelled” any Muslims and Jews from Spain who wouldn’t convert to Christianity, otherwise known as the Reconquista, or Reconquest – the polite name for the Inquisition.
Okay, back to Segovia…. The aspect of the city that most intrigues me is the blend of history. The Roman influence is obvious in the aqueduct, but historians believe that the Moorish fortress, the Alcázar, at the highest point on the hill, is built upon an earlier Roman fort. And when los Reyes Católicos (as Fernando and Isabel are known in Spain, as if they were the first or only Catholic monarchs) expelled the Moors, a Catholic palace/church was built on the site. One of the things that excites me most about European history is the layers of history that can be observed in any one location – one civilization built on top of another. Archeologists must have a field day here!
I am thrilled by the history, but I’m also enchanted by what I am seeing. They say that the Disney logo is based on the slate-turreted towers of the Alcázar here in Segovia. (I’ve heard that about other European castles as well.) True or not, the important thing to take away from this is that the fortress is extraordinary, as is the aqueduct, the walled city, and the rest of ancient Segovia.
Marcus commented within the first few hours that we were in Segovia that he could spend at least three weeks exploring and enjoying the incredibly welcoming people, and so could I. We are so fortunate that this amazing town serendipitously fell into our path as we made our way to Santiago.