Madrid, the modern city, is beautiful and exciting, with splendid tree-lined avenues, sparkling squares, handsome buildings, green parks, pretty sidewalk cafes and fine historical monuments.
It is also clogged, like all European cities, with frenzied little automobiles that race up and down the avenues from red light to red light, snorting and beeping, circling madly, parking on sidewalks and surging forward at green lights like a tide.
It is noisy, hazardous, nerve-wracking and intimidating.
It was into this maelstrom that I was loosed in my rented Ford Escort. The car-rental man brought the car over to our hotel and parked it in the basement while we signed the papers in the lobby. I couldn't believe that he was actually going to turn a car over to me to drive in that traffic.
He brought the car up and parked it on the corner in front of the hotel, right under a traffic signal, and turned the keys over to me. He showed us on our map how to get out of town. We loaded the car and my wife got in beside me. She was watching the signal. A massive block of cars was lined up, waiting for the green light.
She said, "Now--go!"
I let the clutch out and shot out into the intersection just ahead of the swarm of cars. I had made it. There was no slowing down. I was in the mainstream.
We were soon lost. Using her map, my wife re-oriented us and guided me back to our route out of town on the road to Segovia. I felt a surge of confidence.
"You done superb," she said.
Segovia is only 88 kilometers from Madrid, a picturesque drive into Old Castile with crumbled stone castles on almost every hilltop. As our itinerary had predicted, we recognized the town by its 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct.
By following the road up the hill above the aqueduct I had no trouble finding our hotel. It overlooked an ancient monastery and a chapel built by the Knights Templar in the 12th Century.
In the evening we walked over the hill, past the cathedral and a treasury of Romanesque and medieval monuments and down a narrow cobblestoned street teeming with locals out en famille to shop and stroll.
Below the aqueduct we were accosted in a jewelry shop entrance by a young American female. She was from Ohio, she said, going to school in Segovia. She was starved for the sound of English.
She loved Segovia. The people were polite and kind, though the men were unrelentingly aggressive, especially toward American girls. The crowds in the street were taking their evening paseo, she said. At 9 the shops would close and they would all go home to dinner.
We dined in a famous restaurant under the aqueduct, and in the morning we walked to the Alcazar, where Isabella first met Ferdinand. With its spires and crenelated turrets the Alcazar is said to have inspired Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland--a dubious claim to fame.
An old gentleman guided us through the castle for 300 pesetas. We passed through the throne room, rooms of armor and a grand hall with the carved figures of 52 kings and queens in niches around the walls; at the foot of the great tower he left us.
"We have to climb it," I said, and we started up the spiral stairway. The steps were steep; the spiral was tight; there was hardly room for two people to pass. I felt claustrophobic. As we neared the top, a young couple gained on us. We found a niche and stepped aside. As they passed, I saw panic in the girl's eyes.
We plodded on and in a minute or two we emerged in the sunlight on a roof that overlooked the countryside. The girl was in the boy's arms. For a moment we thought it was the usual public spooning. Then I realized that the girl was in serious trouble. She was wracked with sobs. She went to the wall and vomited. She clung to the boy, gasping.
I walked to the edge and looked down. The height made me dizzy. There was no way down except by those steps. What had overcome her? Was it the height? Was it claustrophobia? Was it the exertion? My wife gave the girl a Kleenex and we started down to sound the alarm.
Carefully we descended the 152 steps, and I arrived at the bottom much disillusioned about the delights of living in a castle.