By Jim Ferri
Oftentimes when travelers in Spain take a day trip from Madrid, they opt to go to Toledo, the former home of the artist El Greco, about a half-hour train ride south of the city.
For many, however, Segovia – a half hour by train north of Madrid – could be a better choice.
It also is a beautiful city but with an important difference: it’s a more relaxed place to spend a day or two since it doesn’t get the hordes of tourists that Toledo does, one of the reasons it’s a favorite place for Madrialeños to go off to for lunch on the weekends.
You may want to do the same.
A Beautiful City
Sitting on a rocky outcrop, Segovia is one of the most spectacularly positioned cities in all of Spain. Inside the old crenellated 11th-century city walls (partly built with gravestones snatched from a Roman necropolis) you’ll find one of the greatest surviving examples of ancient Roman engineering in the world, a bevy of Romanesque churches from medieval times, a beautiful castle, and narrow winding pedestrian streets wending their way through a lovely old city. The entire old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The skyline is dominated by the fairytale-looking Alcazar, a beautiful castle, thought by many be the model (along with Neuschwanstein in Bavaria) for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. With its Rapunzel-like turrets and towers, you have to admit that it does look a bit more German than Spanish.
Nevertheless, what you see now is not the original. It was rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries before it burned down in 1862 and later partially reconstructed.
Inside you’ll find two interesting salons, the Sala de las Piñas and the Sala de Reyes. You can also see the throne room, bedroom and Chapel of Ferdinand and Isabella, who later became Queen of Spain. Climb the ramparts for a good view of the city and the surrounding area or the tower for an even better view.
The Old City
Leave the Alcazar and walk south downhill along Calle de Daoiz, a pedestrian lane lined with little shops, galleries, and restaurants. It’s a great little street much less crowded than any you’ll find in Toledo or any of the other more popular Spanish cities. As we walked along we stopped in several shops and galleries and took our time ambling along, just wandering into places here and there and absorbing the ambiance.
A block or so away is the home, now a museum, of Antonio Machado, one of Spain’s pre-eminent poets. There’s a statue of Machado, a book tucked under his arm, down the street in the Plaza Mayor, across from the city’s renowned and many-spired cathedral, the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain. The cathedral stands on the spot where Isabel I was proclaimed Queen of Castile.
Construction of it begun in 1525, and it took more than 200 years to complete. Its austere interior, encompassing some 20 chapels, is a bit brightened by 16th-century Flemish windows. The attached Museo Categralicio, as one might expect, houses a collection of religious art.
To me though, the real charm of the area was outside the cathedral on the Plaza Mayor, a historic square ringed with restaurants and bars often filled with those Madrialeños on the weekends. It’s one of the most comfortable little squares I’ve seen in any small city or town.
The colonnade on one side is lined with restaurants and outdoor cafés, and people were either finishing their late breakfasts or gathering before lunch under a canopy of umbrellas. I watched one large family group, all well dressed, that had likely just come from a christening in the cathedral. As the women gathered around the tables beneath the umbrellas, the men stood off to the side sipping their beers and coffees.
You can do some serious lunching in Segovia where the meal often starts about 3 PM. If you haven’t made reservations at one of the better restaurants just show up a bit earlier, perhaps at 1-1:30 PM, and you likely won’t have a problem.
Mesón De Cándido and El Acueducto
The plaza was the kind of place where we could have easily whiled away the afternoon watching the passing parade. But after a while we had to move on to meet some friends at the Mesón De Cándido, a famous restaurant on the Plaza Azoguejo.
The Azoguejo is where you can best see El Acueducto, the nearly 3,000-foot long Roman Aqueduct built in the 1st century AD. Along with the Pont du Gard in Southern France, it is one of the last remaining marvels of Roman engineering in the world. Amazingly, not a drop of mortar was used to hold together its 20,000 rough-hewn granite blocks.
We soon joined out friends in the Mesón De Cándido, a restaurant well known for both its suckling pig – a famous regional dish – and its ambiance. It’s old plaster walls, beamed ceilings, and narrow, worn stone stairway take you back a century or more as it has for celebs ranging from Hemmingway to Nixon.
Our waiter had told us that the suckling pig is cut with a plate. Still, though, I was surprised later when the pig was brought out and “plated” by Cándido’s owner, who then smashed the plate on the stone floor to the applause of everyone in the room.
In some respects it was almost as amazing as that Roman marvel outside the door.
If you go:
Turismo de Segovia