Gorgeous and quaint, Segovia is only one hour from Madrid, yet far removed from hectic city life. Step into this walled town where history is written on every street, sometimes literally, and you immediately slow down to a gentler pace.
For the architecturally inclined, there are more Romanesque churches here than in any other town in Spain, a castle that wouldn’t look out of place on the Rhine, sculptures tucked away in odd corners and myriad formal gardens.
Build up an appetite with a stroll along Calle de Daoíz, a narrow street lined with stone buildings housing residences, small shops, galleries and restaurants. Or, gaze up at the cathedral while drinking an aperitif in Plaza Mayor in the shade of the colonnades.
Segovia sits on a rocky outcrop, protected by crenelated 11th century walls, partly built with gravestones pilfered from a Roman necropolis. Moors, Christians and Jews lived and worked here together for centuries, resulting in a large number of outstanding monuments. So much so the town was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1985.
One of them is an aqueduct built during the time of the Roman Empire, sometime around the 1st century CE, give or take a few years. It’s a marvel of engineering with a great backstory. According to local legend, a young girl was so tired of fetching water from the river that she made a pact with the devil, giving her soul in exchange for a hydraulic system... As you would.
The structure is around 800 metres in length, built from more than 24,000 granite blocks and almost 30 meters at its highest point. When you walk beside the supporting columns, look carefully at the stones and you’ll notice there’s nothing holding them together, no mortar or metal clamps.
Look for the unusual Moorish plaster decorations called esgrafiado adorning one of the walls. They’re said to be the ancestors of graffiti, and you’ll find many buildings throughout the town covered in these exquisite 14th-century patterns.
Positioned at the highest point, the medieval Alcazar looks like every small child’s idea of the perfect fairy tale castle. Once home to a former princess, it’s where Isabella was proclaimed Queen of Castille in 1474, and the site of her first date with Ferdinand who became her king.
Originally erected around 1122 to repel the Moors, the Alcazar was rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries but sadly burned down in 1862. La Sala de la Piñas, a room with a carved and gilded ceiling encrusted with pineapple shaped stalactites, is reminiscent of palaces in parts of North Africa.
In the Throne Room, it’s easy to picture Colombus asking the King for gold to fund his expeditions. Before you leave, climb to the top of the John II Tower for views of the entire city, showing the cathedral and the layout of the walls.
When you make your way back down to the cathedral, keep an eye out for a statue of a man captured in an insouciant pose, holding aloft a large flag.
The man is Juan Bravo, once a supporter of the House of Castille who led a revolt of the common people against the court in 1519. Bravo was captured and put to death, sparking mass protests. This memorial was only erected in 1922, four years after the Juan Bravo Theatre opened in the main square.
The cathedral, begun in 1525 by Juan Gil de Hontañón and completed 65 years later, is a masterpiece of Basque-Castilian Gothic architecture. It was the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain, so while the interior is rather solemn, the exterior is a joyous nod to the Baroque.
The decorations on the spires make them look like candles on a multi-tiered wedding cake topped by two elegantly chiselled cupolas. It’s worth walking the full 105 by 50-metre perimeter, past all three entry doors, to absorb the full scale of this building. You can also take a tour of the tower.
Once inside, note the elaborate choir stalls and Hispano-Flemish Gothic cloister. The first chapel on the right houses a moving wooden sculpture titled ‘Entombments' by Baroque artist Juan de Juni.
By the 15th century, 47 churches were inside the city walls. Even now you’ll find plenty of other examples of ecclesiastical architecture in Segovia in the 21 churches still remaining.
Just south of the cathedral, you’ll find La Juderia, where Segovia’s Jewish population lived from the 12th century until they were expelled in 1492.
The town has a modern face too. The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Estaban Vincente (The Estaban Vincente Museum of Contemporary Art) is named after this famous painter who was friends with writers and artist such as Lorca, Buñuel, Picasso, Dufy, Rothko and Pollock, to name a few.
The museum was originally the palace of King Henry IV of Castile, built in 1455. It now contains 153 works produced by Vicente over the course of his 97 years and his ashes, interred in the garden as he requested. As well as the permanent collection the museum regularly holds temporary exhibitions of both Spanish and international contemporary artists.
In contrast to the lofty ceilings and vaunted history of the Vincente museum, the La Cárcel Segovia Centro de Creación (La Cárcel Segovia Creation Centre) is a former prison that has been converted into a cultural centre. Cells where people were once incarcerated for their political ideas during the Spanish Civil War and during the rule of Franco, are now multidisciplinary spaces where artists and creators can freely express themselves.
Four of them contain display explaining the history of the prison, including a video, walls of poetry, the names of those imprisoned here and in other Spanish, French and German prison camps as well as photographs in tribute to everyone who has suffered for their beliefs. Other cells display the works of individual artists. Do note this arts space is currently only open four days a week so plan your visit accordingly.
End the day with a late lunch of the region’s famous suckling pig. Food is an expression of many things - culture, beliefs and tradition - and the Segovian philosophy concerning Cochinillo, roast suckling pig, combines all three.
Eating pork is ingrained in Spanish culture and locals believe the pig should be fed only on their mother’s milk and be no more than three weeks old. Butchered the morning they’re roasted, they need nothing other than salt for seasoning.
After at least three hours in a giant wood-fired oven, the skin is so crisp it cracks like the top of a crème brûlée. Traditionally the pig is carved with the edge of a plate as proof of its tenderness. The first two thrusts are made along the length of the spine and then four across it. Cochinillo masters, trained in the art, serve out portions of meat as reverently as an offering.
It’s worth walking a little bit out of the way to eat at Taberna López just over the other side of the river. The friendly wait staff serve up generous portions of suckling pig as well as steak and prawns, in an old world setting complete with stone walls and traditional dark wooden furniture.
Leave room for a slice of Ponche Segoviano, a light vanilla sponge cake topped with marzipan icing. Thankfully it’s not too heavy, well, as long as you limit yourself to one.
High-speed trains from Madrid to Segovia leave regularly and take under half an hour. However, train stops at the Segovia-Guiomar station, about 8 kms away from the city centre.
You can take buses 11 or 12 to the city centre, or just get a taxi or rideshare. High speed trains leave from early in the morning to around 9pm at night.
Other options are to hire a car and drive yourself, or take an organised day trip.
If you want to enjoy Segovia for longer, some good hotels are: