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Walking down the pages of history in Segovia

Segovia, a city that has evolved over centuries, effortlessly blends its past with the present

The Alcázar—a grand medieval fortress. Walt Disney took inspiration from it for the Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom
The Alcázar—a grand medieval fortress. Walt Disney took inspiration from it for the Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom

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Roman-era engineering wonder that holds one in thrall, a brooding fortress-cum-fairy tale castle and a grand, Gothic-style cathedral make up the many charms of one of Spain’s most historical cities.

My hands are freezing and I can barely hold the cup of hot chocolate in which I am about to dunk crisp, sugar-coated churros. It’s a bitterly cold November morning in Segovia and I am sitting in front of the Aqueduct, a grand Roman structure with 167 arches that goes back more than 2,000 years. This is not the first time I am looking at it—I have seen it bathed in orange glow at sunrise and drenched in rain and its sheer grandeur keeps growing on me. “How the hell did they construct this back then?” I keep thinking.

I have to leave for my next destination in a couple of hours but I decide to sit and pen down my thoughts on the two days I spent in one of Spain’s most historical cities, alternating between admiring World Heritage sites and sipping wine at tapas bars.

As I drive into Segovia, about an hour’s drive from Madrid, I cross an ancient gate to enter. The walled city originally had five gates but only three survive; two were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. Set amid rolling hills about 1,000m above sea level, Segovia is cooler than the Spanish plains and hence became the summer retreat of kings and queens. And with them came a medieval fortress, the Aqueduct and a grand Gothic cathedral.

I make my way to Plaza Mayor through the narrow, cobbled alleys of the Jewish quarter that are flanked by carefully restored homes, with some dating back to the 12th century. Soon, I am face to face with the magnificent 16th century Segovia Cathedral that towers over the town. Standing at the highest point in the city, it is the last Gothic-style cathedral built in Spain. Elegant spires make up the impressive exterior, the stained-glass windows are beautiful, while the gorgeous interiors include artwork, paintings and an altar carved with marble, jasper and bronze. It has many chapels.

History meets the modern era at Plaza Mayor, which is surrounded by tapas bars and restaurants. I am lucky to be there on a Tuesday, when farmers bring fresh fruits and vegetables while vendors hawk everything from shoes to clothes at a weekly Farmers’ Market, continuing a tradition that started in the 15th century. I enjoy just strolling around, getting a feel of the place and pondering how the market would have changed over the centuries.

Then it’s time for my encounter with the town’s soaring Roman-era wonder, the Aqueduct. One of the town’s main alleys takes me straight to the top of the structure, from where I can comprehend its full glory and understand just how enormous it is. The tallest columns stand about 28m tall. It is raining but that does not deter me. I walk to the adjacent Plaza del Azoguejo, one of the main squares, home to cafés, shops, bars and restaurants. I sit with a drink outside one of the bars, gazing at the Aqueduct and letting it impress me more with each passing minute.

The next day, we begin early and cross a lovely garden to reach the Interpretation Centre, where the story of the Aqueduct is revealed. It was constructed sometime around 50 AD and a narrow stone channel on top of the structure helped carry the water into the city from the nearby mountains. What takes me by surprise is that more than 20,000 huge blocks of stone were used to build this, with no help of mortar or cement, and it’s still perfectly balanced.

My next stop is the Royal Mint, which goes back to the reign of Philip II in the 16th century and lies next door to the Interpretation Centre. It stopped making coins around 1868 and is now preserved like a museum, displaying the forge and tools used to produce coins. The Aqueduct was the symbol on the coins.

After sitting peacefully in the gorgeous gardens of the Royal Mint, just savouring life in a quiet Spanish town, I walk to the iconic Alcázar—a grand medieval fortress perched atop hills that looks more like a castle. With its brooding stone towers and turrets, it isn’t surprising that Walt Disney took inspiration from it for the Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom. On my visit to Disneyland some weeks later, I did find a striking similarity.

Like other structures in Segovia, the Alcázar goes back centuries and has witnessed the rule of many kings. My guide reveals a little-known nugget—it was here that Queen Isabella funded Christopher Columbus for his voyages, which led to the discovery of America. I realise I am standing at a spot which played an important role in fashioning recent history.

As I walk in, I learn that the Alcázar played many roles, serving as a palace, a prison and a military college. In the 1800s, a fire swept through the fortress and much of it was rebuilt in the 19th century. Some of the rooms are stunning but what I really find pretty is the “Pine Cone” room where the celling is decorated with 392 pine- cone carvings. The picture-postcard view from the terrace is stunning, with Segovia spread out below and the rolling hills in the backdrop.

With my guide Marta, I then walk along the periphery of the city wall which starts from the Alcázar, drinking in views of the structure and the cathedral. About 20 minutes later, we stop for coffee at a quaint café near the cathedral. Marta tells me life in Segovia usually moves in the slow lane except on weekends, when it buzzes with students. For Segovia is also a university town, home to the well-known IE University that has become quite popular among Indians for its MBA course.

In the evening, I head out to Jose Maria, one of the most popular bars and restaurants. As I sip a glass of red wine and enjoy the tapas with it, a group of musicians walks in and starts singing, livening up the evening. The restaurant is famous for its roasted suckling pig as well but I leave that for another visit.

As I sit beneath the Aqueduct the next morning, I think how this structure has stood the test of time, watching the city evolve. To me, this remains the quintessential charm of Segovia, a town that effortlessly blends its past with the present.

Pallavi Pasricha is a travel and food writer.

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