Of all the hotels in the old hill city of Segovia, the Hotel Victoria is most rife with atmosphere. It is situated under the shadow of the cathedral on the little Plaza Mayor, the main square, occupying some mysterious part of the old Town Hall, a fine ramshackle building with a working clock that was built — I was astonished to learn — in 1615. There are thriving bars beneath its colonnades, with tables on the pavement; and beyond the wrought-iron bandstand across the square lies the mouth of the Calle Real, Segovia’s main street, where Segovians come to stroll in the cool of the evening.
The fact is the Hotel Victoria is up for sale. Its gate is padlocked and its curtains drawn, and it is only nostalgia that steps out from under the curling tin sign above the doorway, suggesting the barouche at the door, the grandees upstairs and Carlist radicals in the restaurant. The local real estate agency would be delighted to sell it to you, with all its ghostly good will, for about $1.5 million. It is cheap.
Segovia is one of those small cities that Europeans do so well: sophisticated, full of sights and mysteries, it is graced with a castle and a cathedral and the greatest monument of Roman occupation in Spain, an aqueduct that forms the city’s coat of arms. You could explore for days without having to worry about getting around, and without hurting your feet. The old town on the hill is encircled by walls, separating it from the newer town below.
One useful guidebook refers cyptically to an inscription somewhere in the city that reads: In this cellar lay a treasure guarded by a mustachioed dwarf who knew the Bible, the Talmud and the Koran by heart. The guidebook gave no clues, and though I never found this tablet, I had a delicious time trying. When the siesta hours had whipped the people from the streets, I wandered at will among the sloping alleys, serenaded by the gentle clatter of cutlery in upper rooms, peering into doorways and discovering not dwarfs but treasure, certainly: cool Moorish patios, those colonnaded inner courts where the old rulers of Spain sought shade and the gentle trickle of running water; great doors laced in ancient ironwork; a pile of mildewed columns that seemed to have fallen from some huge lost temple.
The city’s single greatest mystery is the aqueduct. Segovia sits on a crag scored by two rivers like a moated castle, and commands the old road that breasted the mountains to the south. There is suprisingly little evidence of Segovia’s importance to the Romans, yet they chose to construct here this magnificent aqueduct to carry water to the upper town, 92 feet high at its highest point, made of hewn stone laid without a shred of mortar and raised on a series of double arches. The Moors in rout had it partly demolished, but Isabella, proclaimed Queen in Segovia (thereby through her marriage to Ferdinand delivering Spanish unity), had the monk Escovedo rebuild it in 1483. Sadly it is dry, and the old purification buildings stand empty and barred like the Hotel Victoria.
Whatever Segovia may have been in Roman times, by medieval days it was an important religious center, with a wealth of lovely churches and splendid monasteries — many of them worked on by the Moors, who were the finest masons in Spain before they were finally expelled in 1523, and who left to Segovia in particular their technique of sgraffito — etching plasterwork with swirling patterns and geometric forms.
If Moorish work is to be found, ironically, in Segovia’s Christian churches, an old synagogue can be traced in the lines and siting of the Iglesia de Corpus Cristi, on the Plaza del Corpus Cristi, close to the cathedral. (The church is open only in the evenings at 8, for Mass.) The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and the oddest trace of their presence is to be found farther down the Calle Real in a building known as Casa de los Picos, house of the spikes, because it is entirely prickled over with granite points. The house was inherited, after the expulsion, by a man who grew so sick of hearing it referred to as the Jew’s House that he hit upon this extraordinary way of distinguishing it anew. Now a vocational school, Casa de los Picos it remains to this day.
You cannot move very far in Segovia without coming across some beautiful Romanesque church, a palace, a tower, a carved doorway, or one of the delightful cloisters with which the Spanish were wont to surround their churches: acting as marketplaces and shady walks, many of these arcades are carved with an intense variety of scenes. The Church of San Martin, on the historic plaza of the same name, is surrounded by an arcade with particularly fine carved capitals. But the best, indeed, are to be found about 20 miles outside the city, in a town called St. Maria la Real de Nieva, in the cloisters of the monastery church of the same name. Theyshow flocks and shepherds, eagles swooping down on lambs, guard dogs and strange beasts and goats with half-human faces. Storks’ nests crown Segovia’s towers, and you hear their billing echo around the alleys like a riff on castanets; here, as everywhere else, the stork is a bird of good omen, and some churches have gone so far as to install bases upon which storks will be encouraged to build, turned to the sky like benign satellite dishes.
To visit the churches, you must be inquisitive and prompt. Outside the hour of Mass — it is generally celebrated daily, with hours posted on the door — they tend to be locked, though down in the valley to the north stands a curious church that is open in the mornings and afternoons and may be visited for a small and worthwhile fee.
The Church of La Vera Cruz was built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century on a mysterious plan. Twelve-sided, the church contains a stout central chamber with four doorways aligned along the points of the compass, where novices were ushered into the mysteries of the cult, passing the night in vigil and performing unorthodox rites that insured their bond with the order. It is said to be based on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, for the crusading Templars developed in the Holy Land a doctrine that approached sufism and surpassed the bounds of formal Christianity — an echo, perhaps, of the mustachioed dwarf again, with his arcane knowledge of the three great books. The Templars were ruthlessly suppressed in the end by monarchs greedy for their material goods. The church warden at La Vera Cruz advised me to walk toward the center of the chamber, humming; all at once my voice spread out and seemed to shiver through me, as if my chest had become quadrophonic. It was very strange and satisfying to do, and the small child with or in you will be overjoyed.
I WAS also delighted by the Alcazar, the model of Disney’s castle in California, all slated turrets and toppling crags, with a massive crenelated tower above the drawbridge. Sadly for antiquarians, the bulk of the interior was bombed out by the artillery school billeted there in 1862 and longing for transfer to Madrid instead. (They got the transfer and the ruined shell of the Alcazar was subsequently repaired.) I fought a terrific urge to throw myself off the roof of the tower by concentrating on the graffiti etched into the soft yellow stone — some of the early lettering is very beautiful indeed. It is said that at a window of this castle a royal nurse once let slip the heir to all the Spains, Don Pedro, and instantly leaped headlong after the infant.
This yellow stone gives Segovia much of its charm, and utterly makes the cathedral. Rebuilt in 1525, it was the last in Spain to be designed in the Gothic style, and its faintly gingerbread exterior does nothing to prepare you for the grandeur of the interior, soaring on bundled columns 330 feet into the dome. The altarpiece, carved by Juan de Juni, is crowned by a magnificent Pieta.
Segovia can seem, at times, dauntingly Catholic; it has seven parishes and more holy places than most. St. Dominic, founder of an order that vied with the Franciscans for dominion over the minds of medieval commoners, sought refuge in a cave at the foot of the city, over which was soon built the magnificent Dominican Monastery of Santa Cruz. Torquemada, whose name is a byword for cruelty and intolerance, studied here; but so too did the benign St. Theresa, who was not so unlike her Calcuttan namesake, and the mystical divine St. John of the Cross, whose shrine, when I visited on a Sunday evening, was more fully attended than any other I’d seen.
This may have something to do with Segovians’ capacity for enjoying themselves: on a sunny evening the park beneath the cliff on which the shrine of St. John stands is filled with decorous lovers, couples with their children, whole families out for a picnic on the grass. This is the cliff — and very red and forbidding it appears — from which, according to legend, a young Jewish woman named Esther was to be hurled until, in desperation, she appealed to the Virgin of the Christians to save her, and was immediately borne up by four angels. She became a most pious convert and a saint, St. Mary of the Jump. These tales of precipitation make more sense when you consider how small the rock is on which Segovia stands, and how deep the chasm that divides it from the surrounding plain.
When the sun moves off the park, Segovians reappear making the paseo along the Calle Real, window shopping, stopping for tapas or maybe an astonishingly sweet and gelatinous cup of hot chocolate, peering back at the mournful piglets that stare from every restaurant window, mutely proclaiming roast suckling pig as the city’s specialty. Bon viveurs, though, are likely to be disappointed by Segovian cuisine, which is not cheap and shirks the promise extended by wonderful wines, sybaritic siestas and the delightful habit of nibbling tapas with drinks.
I wondered about this, because the quality of the food soared almost as soon as I left the city walls behind me. I found myself enjoying glorious seafood (eel, with a rich scattering of clams and shrimps, mopped up by fine hard bread) at a lovely establishment called El Bentorro de San Pedro Avanto with Segovian families who had driven a couple of miles out for lunch.
ON another occasion, though, directed by a proud citizen to the “best restaurant in Segovia” — Meson Jose Maria — where my appetite was whetted by a framed photograph of the proprietor greeting King Juan Carlos himself — I had one of the most dismal meals I had eaten since I left the plane in Madrid, mockingly accompanied by a half-bottle of good wine, which I was trustingly permitted to pour myself from a whole one.
Segovians no doubt offer what they think visitors will want: meaty, hefty food for a feast, rather than home cooking and the humble salad. And who can blame them? The hotels are generally full, and visitors come back year after year, and Segovia is frankly so delightful that if no one else will buy the Hotel Victoria, I might, and eat forever at a restaurant run by me.
By JASON GOODWIN
in The New York Times