Oh, fairytales. Nothing makes me think of fairytales more than bus rides across Spain – the landscape turning from rolling hills to endless plains and then abruptly to mountain peaks; orderly forests of low trees that begin abruptly at the edge of a cultivated field and stretch toward crumbling churches and castles. The bus ride for our excursions to Segovia and Avila, an early morning affair tempered by crisp sunshine, headphones blaring Lady Gaga, and a suitably trashy romance novel, was of this persuasion.
I won’t bore you with the details – I’ve told you about too many bus rides as it is – and will skip to our arrival in Segovia. Blue skies tend to make the most beleaguered of places picturesque, but they turned Segovia into a page out of a child’s picture book. From a distance, Segovia looks like Salamanca – modern city filled with old touches dominated by a soaring cathedral. Their cathedrals were even designed by the same architect, though he was unable to complete the one in Segovia before his death, so the work was continued by his son.
We began our tour of Segovia at the base of the Roman aqueduct – an enormous structure built at the end of the 1st century A.D. to bring water from the Rio Frio (Cold River) about 18 km away. The most impressive part of the structure (besides it surviving some 2000 years without mortar, clamps, or anything holding it together besides the granite it was made from) is the final kilometer, which is a raised section some 28.1 meters (100.53 feet) high.
The legend of the aqueduct is the story of a young woman responsible for hauling water from the mountains to the town each day. One day, as she carried her heavy pails, the devil appeared to her and offered to give her whatever she wanted in exchange for her soul. She asked him to build something so that she could stop carrying water, expecting him to say that was impossible. Instead, he agreed to her request, but she added one condition – he had only one night to accomplish this. That said, the devil set back to work and the young woman hurried back to town in distress, falling on her knees in her church before a statue of Mary and praying for the Virgin’s help.
The devil’s workers worked all through the night, their demonic hands leaving deep impressions in the stone that can still be seen today. As the night went on, the work continued until there was only a single stone yet to be placed. The devil himself picked up the stone and as he went to put it in place, the sun rose. Mary had intervened on the young woman’s behalf and caused the night to end a minute early, thwarting the devil and driving him from Segovia. The place where the last stone was to be placed – an empty niche near the very highest point of the aqueduct – today holds a statue of the Virgin Mary in remembrance of her help.
From the aqueduct, we proceeded through the streets of Segovia to the Iglesia de San Justo (the Church of St. Justus). A small Romanesque church, San Justo houses one a classic example of the artwork from that period, uncovered beneath a layer of plaster during renovation. It is believed that many of the churches of that period – many of which are in and around Segovia – are home to similarly covered works of art, belying the idea that Romanesque churches are starkly decorated on purpose.San Justo is also home to (in fact, it was built to house) the Gascony Christ, a twelfth century articulated figure in the shape of Christ.
The statue (which is really more of an oversized wooden doll with moveable arms) was uncovered in Gascony, on the border with France, and there was great argument over whether it belonged to France or Spain. To solve the dispute, the figure was strapped to the back of a donkey, which was then let go. Wherever the donkey stopped the figure would stay. Well, the donkey walked and walked, crossing into Spain but not stopping. He continued for days and days until finally arriving on a hill in Segovia where he keeled over and died. The Iglesia de San Justo was constructed on this site and the figure has remained in Segovia, participating in holy day festivals, ever since.
From San Justo we crossed back under the aqueduct and meandered through the city, learning of its wealth of religious history, the importance it held for the 15th century Castilian kings (especially during the dynastic struggles between Henry IV and his half-sister, the future Queen Isabella), and its trade reputation as a supplier of wool cloth. We walked through a Catholic Church that had once been a Jewish synagogue in the Jewish quarter of the city and abruptly found ourselves in front of the massive Cathedral.
Though the Cathedral bears a definite resemblance to the Cathedral Vieja in Salamanca, its situation in the close quarters of other tall buildings with only a small portion of its façade settled directly on the open space of a plaza where the Romanesque church of Isabella’s coronation once stood (in its place is a small, 20th century pavilion for musical performances) makes it seem much more overwhelming than the Cathedral Vieja, which sits back from its closest surroundings on a slightly elevated grade (grade refers to the level of the ground in architecture).
We walked through a winding medieval street past the Cathedral and down the hill to the slightly removed Alcazar of Segovia. The Alcazar – a twelfth century structure repeatedly remodeled until becoming a military college in the 19th century – is believed to have been situated on the remains of Roman fort from the time of the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Its fairytale appearance – it’s the model for one of the iconic Disney castles – was created by two major additions. The first, the addition of a massive tower, by John II and the second, the addition of blue slate spires by Phillip II after his marriage to Anna of Austria (this design was much more representative of castles in Northern Europe than in the south).
After touring the castle, we had free time and the choice to climb the 152 spiraling steps (a very narrow, curling staircase of slippery marble steps) to the top of John II’s Tower. Which, of course, we did. The view from the top was incredible – all of Segovia lay before us in one direction while some of the most beautiful landscape in Spain stretched around us. The Alcazar’s rooftop gardens seemed impossibly far below, despite seeming so high up when we’d seen them during the tour. Looking down (I only recommend this for those with strong constitutions) the front of John II’s Tower to the castle’s foundations, you can see the remains of the moat and drawbridge that would have been part of its defenses. In short, the terrifying prospect of climbing back down that narrow, slick staircase (I love staircases, but they seem to take a perverse pleasure in knocking me off my feet) notwithstanding, I was sorely tempted to drop all this “modern independent woman getting an education” nonsense and immediately began making plans for what my castle (with the requisite Prince Charming, of course) was going to look like.
Fortunately, we were bundled back onto the bus to Avila and I was reminded that a) I like being educated and not having to fill my time with embroidery (this is a longer explanation I’ll judiciously omit) and b) I am not a princess (unless…).
In Avila, we arrived as the afternoon waned, too late to walk its famous Roman walls, though we were able to visit the statue of St. Teresa of Avila that sits at their base. We walked around the outside as the sun began to set before taking the bus to a site a little removed from the town where we could fully appreciate the length of the walls. As we drove off, returning to Salamanca, the landscaping lights along the base of the wall seemed to turn it into golden chain in the dark night’s setting.
I’M COMING HOME IN FOUR DAYS!
I would love to be more considerate of my friends who are convinced that this is their “only chance to see Europe,” but I’ve spent a fair bit of time accepting that at just past 21 years old, I have another 60 years of life to fill ahead of me – as much as I’ve learned here, I’m certain some of that almost depressingly massive amount of time will be spent in Europe. I’ve loved Spain – the people, the culture, the art and architecture, and the sheer wonder of being in a place where I go to school in a refurbished palace and walk past 16th century buildings on the way to class – but I am so ready to come home.
See you in the US and thanks for reading!!!