Segovia, Spain hits all the notes for a good day trip: small town just an hour away from Madrid the big city, feels utterly different, and contains striking sights one can’t find in Madrid. Segovia is hardly undiscovered, but not nearly so crowded as other day-tripper-places such as Toledo, which is so packed with tacky souvenir shops as to be rather off-putting. Moreover, Segovia has better sights. It has a long history with the Romans and the Spanish royals, and a good general rule for visiting Europe is: find out where the royalty used to go to get away from it all, follow them there, and play with their toys.
Segovia is nicely set up for visitors, in that it’s a long and thin town for which you wander its length starting at one narrow end near a landmark and end up at the other near the other landmark, a highlight. All towns should have been designed this way. You don’t have to know much about it to visit; just keep looking down the street to the next interesting thing and soon enough you’ll have seen the place.
There are three main sights here, and then the rest of the town which is quite charming. Segovia also has oodles of small churches, as does yes yes every little town in Europe, but these are little Romanesque beauties. Even if you can’t enter, the exteriors are worth a photo. Through the back streets you’ll find the stone towers of the formerly rich, which apparently used to be much higher.
Segovia used to be a Roman military base, and soldiers get thirsty. The Emperor Trajan ordered a 14-kilometer (9-mile) aqueduct built. What you can see today at the entrance of the town is the tall, impressive part, 800 meters long and almost 30 meters high. There’s more than 100 arches on double layers, more than 20,000 granite stones, and the whole thing is so intact it could be put back into operation if needed. This is the first thing you’ll see, rising above a square just outside the town, and how fortunate that you’ll instantly be glad you came. There’s a staircase that will take you higher on the structure, so that you can check for cracks. Of the entire town, the aqueduct is the thing that will strike you the hardest.
Start walking, and you’ll come to the cathedral, big sight number two. it’s one of those cathedrals about which no one has to think, “I wonder if this is the main cathedral?” It isn’t very old by Euro-standards (built from 1525-1768) and is supposedly Gothic (one of the last around), but it’s not the dark, shadowy, Quasimodo Gothic, and that dome on top ruins the Gothic finish. It’s massive. It costs a few euro to enter, not much, and has a cloisters area to one side. There’s a “no photos” rule but it’s not enforced, unlike in Toledo’s cathedral where it’s announced in two languages every once in a while.
The cathedral stands on the main square, the Plaza Mayor, a large open area of course lined with eating and drinking places. Tables and chairs are set out in front of every place, because Europeans correctly recognize that public spaces should be used to consume things, and it’s best if we all do this together. Some things happen here – we saw a small military parade pass us and there were a few costumed people about, surely up to something but sadly not in front of us.
View from the castle terrace
Your whole stroll through the town has been leading up to the number three sight at the end of town, looming over you as you approach. It’s the Alcázar, a mighty castle, just what this place needs. Entrance is only €7.50 as I write this, and it’s most everything you want in a castle. A mighty fortress, a headstone to a walled town, and a neat yellow color so it’s as pretty as its inhabitants. Some claim it inspired the canonical castle image for Walt Disney, but there are other castles that vy for that honor. It’s the type of sight you can spend a half hour admiring before approaching.
The inside décor isn’t original, but being a sensible tourist, you rarely expect that anyway. Some highlights are the Hall of Monarchs, with a mural of Isabel the Catholic being crowned here in 1474, the armory, and the view from the top, which is one of the finest in Spain, since the entire town is in it. It’s a one-way linear trip inside, through about a dozen rooms.
The other view from the castle terrace
Some towns have the One Thing You Must Eat, and then all the visitors eat that, no matter how not good. Here, it’s suckling pig, cochinillo, so your task then is to find the pig restaurant that appeals to you most. Somewhere in town is probably the one restaurant claiming to have invented the dish and who does it best if anyone would bother to appreciate this, but I didn’t see it. Not a baby pig fan myself, but if you give it a try, you’ll find baby pigs aren’t cheap dates. You might want to get off the main pedestrian (and thus, tourist) drag for this.
That main pedestrian drag (oh, you’ll find it) has plenty of cafes and shops, including a decent number selling the tacky souvenirs you see everywhere in the country, except with “Segovia” painted on them instead of the other city names. There plenty of real, non-touristy, shops, and of course there’s a Zara around. For other eating, you can find paella and tapas and such, but this really isn’t the town for those. Fried pork seems to be everywhere. We got a snack and went back to Madrid for dinner. You can find desert here easily; we bought a chocolate napoleon, some other chocolate ball, and two almond cookies, and could have easily continued.
How to get there: Buses run regularly every 30 minutes from the Principe Pio station in Madrid, but they take about an hour and a half. High speed trains take only half an hour, but they leave from the Charmartin Station in Madrid, not very central, and you’ll need to take a bus (#11) once in Segovia (get off when you see the aqueduct), or a taxi into town (€10). Better get on the right train from Madrid, because the non-high-speed local train to Segovia takes two hours. If the train doesn’t look new and sleek, if it looks like a subway train, don’t get on.