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History Colors the Canvas of Segovia

A castle in the clouds and remnants of the Romans leave an indelible mark on this Iberian city

June 02, 2002|JERRY HAINES

SEGOVIA, Spain — Looking back on it, I'm sure it was just confusion over English grammar, but it was one of the best pieces of advice I got in Segovia: the Plaza Mayor, a Segovian told me, is the place "to get down."

Segovia is northwest of Madrid, only about an hour and a half by train, so it's often recommended as a nice day trip from the capital. Segovia's lofty position--it rises above the surrounding terrain--may be why many Spanish monarchs chose to live here. It appeals to that instinct to repair to the high ground, where you can keep a close eye on anyone who might approach.

The city rests on an arrow-shaped hill whose steep-sided point is framed by the confluence of the Eresma and Clamores rivers. From some angles it looks like a ship, with the Alcazar at its bow, the raised Plaza Mayor as its bridge and the towering cathedral as its mainmast.

With my wife, Janice, and son, Paul, I stopped in Segovia earlier this year, intending to use it merely as a place to recover from jet lag before moving on. But we found ourselves returning repeatedly to the hotel desk, asking, "Would it be all right if we stayed another night?"

With its spires, storks and spirit, Segovia held us, even after the jet lag evaporated.

The first portents had not been promising. On the train trip to Segovia from Madrid, during which I repeatedly nodded off, I kept waking with a start and seeing increasingly threatening weather in the Sierra de Guadarrama, the diagonal slash of mountains through the region northwest of Madrid. The skies were the color of slate, and the wind blew icy snowflakes parallel to the ground, so that they came at the train like vengeful bees.

As the train entered Segovia, however, the sinister clouds relented and allowed a few natural spotlights on the landscape. Then more good luck at the Segovia station. It is well outside the city center and beyond the edge of our guidebook's map, and we had no idea how to get downtown. But we boarded the bus that everyone else seemed to be taking.

Sensing our confusion, a fellow rider told us we should "get down in the Plaza Mayor," a syntactical snarl rather than a '70s sentiment that made us smile. But, indeed, the Plaza Mayor is the place to get down. The plaza, or main square, is the highest point in this town of 54,000, so it makes a useful reference point for all travel within the city.

But it also is of historical interest, particularly for Americans: This is where the "Infanta Isabel" was crowned Queen Isabella of Castile in 1474. A few years later she and her husband, Ferdinand V of Aragon, would finance the explorations of Christopher Columbus.

The Plaza Mayor makes the logistics of Segovia easy for visitors. Need a hotel? You'll find one at the edge of the plaza. Hungry? There are restaurants, cafes and bars at the other edge. Want to shop? Just down that alley. Want to tour the cathedral? Not a problem.

So we chose the Hotel Infanta Isabel, right on the square. City officials try to keep the square's appearance authentically historic, but fortunately this requirement does not extend to hotel interiors, and we found our accommodations comfortable, modern and convenient.

As we stepped out of the hotel each morning, we were greeted by the formidable presence of the Cathedral of St. Mary across the plaza. Although some guidebooks characterize it as "ladylike," that would be true only if the lady in question were inordinately fond of hat pins: Its fair-complexioned stone exterior bristles with pointy spires. Not consecrated until 1768, it is one of the Continent's last Gothic constructions.

The interior was cool and subdued under a 100-foot ceiling, a reverent setting for an ornate choir and organ reposing within a fancy grillwork, and a marble altar holding the relics of St. Frutos (also called Fructus), an 8th century hermit and one of the city's patron saints. (His brother and sister, Valentine and Engratia, also are patron saints of Segovia.) Stepping out through a side door, we found a peaceful cloister garden framed by walls of Moorish-style windows.

The church also serves another purpose, as a resting place for storks. During the day we would see a few of them here and there nesting on towers and chimneys, but as night fell, squadrons of them would return from wherever they had spent the day.

Watching them perch was fascinating; one of these large, almost pterodactyl-looking creatures would soar in and, through some kind of aerodynamic braking maneuver, settle onto the tip of a cathedral spire. They apparently stayed there, balancing like that in their sleep, all night long.

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