Madrid day trip: Segovia

Segovia, Madrid, Spain
Madrid offers a wide range of interesting day trips, from a Renaissance castle and Spanish Civil War bunker to challenging hikes. My personal favorite is the ancient town of Segovia just on the other side of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. With a beautiful cathedral and castle, one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts anywhere, winding medieval streets, and delicious cuisine, it’s a great choice for a day trip or overnight stay.

The best way to get to Segovia is by bus, which takes a little over an hour. Segovia’s Wikipedia entry says a high-speed train gets there in half an hour, but the high speed train doesn’t go to Segovia, it goes to a station called Segovia several kilometers away from town. You have to take a bus from there. To get to the train station in Segovia proper you go on a local train that takes an hour and fifty minutes. Wikipedia has mistakes!? Shocking!!!!

Anyway, Segovia is a convenient, delightful trip from Madrid. The three big hits are the aqueduct, the cathedral, and the Alcázar, or castle. The Roman aqueduct dates to the late first century AD. Segovia, like many Spanish cities, was a Roman town and perhaps has more ancient roots. The aqueduct is one of the best preserved anywhere and stands 93.5 feet tall in some places and starts at a water source almost ten miles away. It supplied the city with water until the early 20th century. The Romans sure knew how to build things!

The Santa Iglesia Catedral is an impressive Gothic pile started in 1525 and consecrated after many remodels in 1768, making it possibly the youngest Gothic cathedral in Europe. The expansive Plaza Mayor stands to one side. Take time to sip a coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes and enjoy the view. Inside are a series of chapels with often gruesome art, like a dinner party atop a tree. Death is cutting down the trunk with his scythe while Jesus rings a bell. Everyone is ignoring Jesus and a demon is about to pull the tottering tree into Hell. Nice!

%Gallery-128499%Segovia is built on a promontory, and its 12th century castle, the Alcázar, sits at the highest end like the prow of a ship. A rectangular tower soars towards the sky, topped by a beautiful set of round turrets. Inside are the usual displays of armor, weapons, and medieval art that you’d expect in a castle, and a large artillery museum too. The most impressive part of the castle is the view from the top. You get sweeping vistas of the Renaissance skyline of Segovia with its many churches and old houses, as well as the rolling countryside around the city. It gets my vote as one of the best views you can get anywhere close to Madrid.

To learn more about Segovia’s past, check out the Casa del Sol Museo de Segovia. Here you’ll see prehistoric artifacts, Roman sculpture, Visigothic jewelry, medieval and Renaissance art, and tools from Segovia’s early modern period. It’s a great museum but easy to miss, so don’t miss it!

After seeing these sites, take a stroll through the medieval streets of the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Harar, Ethiopia, another medieval walled city that’s on UNESCO’s list, the labyrinthine streets and alleys can get you lost pretty quickly, but the city’s small enough that you won’t stay lost for long. Check out the local artisans specializing in ceramics, the food shops selling tasty meats and cheeses, and more than a score of Romanesque churches.

Segovia gets pretty full in summer, so book your hotel well ahead. Two hotels I’ve stayed at and enjoyed are Natura and Los Linajes. Spring and fall are better times to go, especially September when it’s still warm but the school groups and university backpackers have left. Winter can be bitterly cold.

There are plenty of places to eat. Many restaurants serve two local specialties: cochinillo, roast suckling pig; and Judiones de la granja, which is faba beans with chorizo, garlic, and, if you’re being traditional, a pig’s ear! For a cheap lunch option find a place offering menú del día, a set menu where you have three or four choices for appetizer, main course, and dessert with a drink included. La Taberna de Abraham Seneor at Calle Judería Vieja 17 & 19 in the old Jewish quarter serves up a filling one for €11.90. There are also numerous cafes with outdoor seating in good weather. My favorite place to sit is Plazuela de San Martín, where you can gaze out on a sparkling fountain, a 15th century house, and a Romanesque church.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking more about the Alcázar, my favorite castle in Spain, and Wednesday I’ll be exploring the many beautiful churches of Segovia. Stay tuned!

Top five castles of Extremadura, Spain

castle, castles, Spain, Badajoz
Spain is one of the best countries in the world to see castles. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Iberian peninsula was split between various Christian states and the Moors, Muslim invaders from North Africa. These factions fought and traded with each other in a constantly changing network of political alliances. Leaders protected their domains with castles and walled cities. One of the hot spots for fighting was in the southwest in what is now the autonomous community of Extremadura, including its provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres. There are literally hundreds of castles here. Below are five of the best, picked for their accessibility and general coolness.

Olivenza
Olivenza is a town in the province of Badajoz. It’s right on the border with Portugal and is actually claimed by that country, although it has been under Spanish jurisdiction since 1801. The castle of Olivenza is an impressive Templar fortress adapted from an earlier Muslim castle taken in 1228. It features high walls and imposing square towers. As you can see from the photo in the gallery, these included “murder holes” set out from the edge of the tower from which to drop rocks and boiling water on attackers. The idea of dropping boiling oil is a myth. Water was much cheaper and easier to obtain, although one account from a siege in France talks about using boiling lead! The castle at Olivenza was expanded in the 14th and 16th centuries and is very well preserved, still dominating this small town of 12,000 people. A gate flanked by slender, semi-round towers, and a wide moat also survive.

Fregenal de la Sierra
This castle is also in Badajoz and guards the road to Seville. As you can see from the above photo, courtesy Fregenal01 via Wikimedia Commons and taken under much better conditions than the crappy weather we had on our trip to Extremadura, the high walls and seven towers now share the skyline with church spires. This wasn’t always the case. The first fort here was built by the Romans, later reworked by the Visigoths and Moors. After the land was taken from the Muslims, King Fernando III gave the castle to the Templars in 1283. They expanded and improved the fortifications and they were still being used as late as 1808 by Napoleon’s troops! The castle courtyard is now the town’s bullfighting ring.

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Trujillo
Perhaps the most visited castle in Extremadura is in the charming old walled city of Trujillo in Cáceres. In the 16th century Extremadura was a poor region that had seen generations of warfare. This bred tough and desperate men willing to take a chance to better their lives. Trujillo was the home of many of the Conquistadores that won the New World for Spain, including Francisco Pizarro. His house is now a museum and sits in the shadow of one of Spain’s most impressive castles. Trujillo was taken during the Moorish invasion of 711 and remained in Muslim hands until 1232. You can see many Arab flourishes to the design, such as the horseshoe-shaped arches. An informative tour takes you all around the battlements. The guides like to point out where the Virgin Mary appeared to rally the Spanish in their final assault against the Moors.

Castillo de Floripes
For something a little different, head to this partially submerged 15th century fortress. Close to the small town of Garrovillas de Alconétar in Cáceres, it got inundated by a reservoir project in 1969. The main tower still rises majestically from the waters, and when there’s a drought you can see much more of the Gothic stonework and even walk around the grounds. It’s a bit squishy, but atmospheric. Supposedly it has its origins in Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish times, but there’s no chance to conduct an archaeological excavation.

The Fortified Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
Spain was a rough place back in the Middle Ages, and monks weren’t immune to the violence. This World Heritage Site in the town of Guadalupe, Cáceres, has been one of Spain’s most important monasteries for centuries. Founded in 1340, it became a center of learning and medicine. The tour takes you around the tall towers, the cloisters, and painting of monks done by Zurbarán. The highlight is Our Lady of Guadalupe, a holy image of the Black Madonna. It’s a popular pilgrimage spot, so the town has many hotels.

For more information and photos, check out the Castillos de España website (in Spanish) and its English sister site (which sadly doesn’t have as much material) Castles of Spain. Both feature a handy interactive map. For more general information on castles, go to the website of castle expert Lise E. Hull. She focuses on the British Isles, but includes a lot of general information on castle construction and daily life in the Middle Ages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Paradores: the luxury hotels of Spain!

The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

Spain, Visigoth, Visigoths, Visigothic, MéridaWhen most people think of the fall of the Roman Empire, they think of hordes of howling barbarians swarming over the frontier and laying waste to civilization. That’s only partially true. In reality, many tribes were invited, and even those that weren’t came with their families not just to conquer, but to settle. This is why historians prefer the term “Migration Period”. And although these tribes conquered, the Romans ended up changing them more than they changed the Romans.

Take the gravestone pictured here, for instance. The product of “barbarians” who had taken Spain, it has Christian symbolism and is written in Latin. It reads, “Cantonus, servant of God, lived 87 years. He rested in peace on 22 December 517 AD.”

The Visigoths spread over much of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Their attacks prompted the emperor Honorius to withdraw his legions from Britain so he could get reinforcements, but this didn’t stop the Visigoths from sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. Like other Germanic tribes, they came to settle, and eventually moved as far as southern France and Spain. There they took over the government but left the society pretty much intact. Roman bureaucrats still ran day-to-day affairs. The Visigoths were already Christian like most Romans by this time, and since they lacked a written language they started using Latin.

Their kingdom lasted from 475 to 711, when they were defeated by the Umayyid Muslims. That’s a long time, but the Visigoths have basically become the Invisigoths, a forgotten people sandwiched in time between the Romans and the Moors. Why? Because they had little effect on the people they ruled. The Iberian Romans continued pretty much as they were, developing from the crumbling Classical era into the Early Middle Ages. These Ibero-Romans vastly outnumbered their Visigothic rulers. The only Visigothic word to make it into Spanish is verdugo, which means “executioner”.

If you look hard enough, you can still see traces of the Visigoths. Four of their churches still stand, two in Spain and two in Portugal. One of the best is San Pedro de la Nave near Campillo, Spain. Two shots of this church are in the gallery. Bits of other buildings have been incorporated into later structures. In Mérida, a Moorish fortress called the Alcazaba uses a bunch of pillars taken from a Visigothic hospital. They’re shown in the gallery too. The Visigoths had a distinct artistic style of carvings in low relief, showing plants or animals or people in Biblical or battle scenes. The Visigothic Museum in Mérida has an excellent collection of these.

The Germanic tribes were also good at making jewelry, and the Visigoths were no exception. They liked huge, intricately carved pins called fibulae to hold their cloaks, and wore bejeweled belt buckles big enough to make any Texan proud. Several of their chunky gold crowns also survive, with the names of their kings spelled out in gold letters hanging like a fringe around the edge.

So when visiting Spain’s many museums and historic sights, keep an eye out for remnants of Spain’s underrated rulers!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The wine and cuisine of Extremadura!

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