Segovia lies just 57 miles north west of Madrid and, although a city of only just over 50,000 inhabitants, it has enough fascinating sites to justify at least a one-day visit. Segovia is one of Castilla y León’s six World Heritage sites and it’s easy to see why as you approach the Alcazar standing on its hill. It also has Spain’s ‘newest’ cathedral – built in the sixteenth century – as well as a Roman aqueduct and a picture-book old centre.
Segovia was originally a Celtic settlement taken over by the Romans around 80 BC and, largely because of its spectacular and imposing situation at the top of a long, narrow promontory, it became an imperial city of some note. The original name of the settlement, Segobriga, came from the Celtic word for a fortress and the town was used as such during both Roman and Moorish rule. The Moors left behind the legacy of thriving wool production that helped Segovia maintain its importance until the industry’s decline well into the sixteenth century. During the following years, although still remaining a popular hunting centre with Spanish royalty, Segovia became something of a backwater but, in 1985, UNESCO declared the entire monumental complex of the city a part of the ‘Heritage of Mankind’. Since then, Segovia has become an increasingly popular attraction for visitors wanting to see its wealth of monuments.
Getting to Segovia by Road or Rail
You can drive to Segovia in not much more than an hour once you have left central Madrid travelling on motorways just about all of the way – including a section through the twin-bore tunnel underneath the Guadarrama Mountain range. Leaving on the A6 join the AP6, the Autopista del Noroeste for 12 miles until you reach the AP61, the Autopista de Segovia, which will take you into the city. Although many people choose to park on the roads and use parking metres, these can mount in cost if you are staying for a few hours. There is a large underground car park on Avenida Fernandez Ladreda in the centre of town and on Via Roma. There is also an excellent underground public car park near the aqueduct at Hotel Eurostars Acqueducto.
Much more fun might be to travel to Segovia by the high-speed AVE train which leaves Chamartín station in the north of Madrid and takes just 22 minutes. The new station built in Segovia for the AVE is outside of the town but there is a bus service that links it with the centre.
Should you want to go to the traditional Segovia station by the regular train service (Alvia), there are eight daily trains in each direction. From the train station, you can take bus route Number 2 right into the heart of the city.
Buses operated by La Sepulvedana bus service leave Madrid for Segovia every 30 minutes, from the Paseo de la Florida with the journey taking 75 minutes.
The most convenient option for most visitors to Madrid is to simply go on one of the regular coach excursions to Segovia.
What to See in Segovia
Arguably Segovia’s most recognised attraction is the Alcázar, situated on the tip of the promontory, towering over the countryside beneath it. The construction of the building began during the 11th century and the kings of Castile added various parts to the building, changing it from a fortress into a suitable royal residence. It was Philip II who added the characteristic conical spires at the tops of the twelve towers – usually referred to as ‘the witches’ hats’. It was here that Isobel promised Columbus the necessary finances for his first voyage to the Americas. Although a fire in 1862 destroyed most of the roofs, they were rebuilt in their previous style. The castle, allegedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle in Disneyland – and it’s easy to see why – offers fabulous views over the city and towards the surrounding mountains, especially from the top of the Torre de Juan II. Also not to be missed are the Sala de Reyes, with a frieze of Spanish kings, and the Sala de las Piñas, with an incredible pineapple-shaped ceiling.
Equally as important in the history of Segovia is the aqueduct that terminates at the entrance of the historic centre of the city. Built at the beginning of the 1st century AD, the Romans manufactured the aqueduct to transport water from the Río Frío, 18kms away, into the heart of Segovia. The final elevated section is an engineering marvel – constructed of more than 20,000 granite blocks, a 728 metre bridge with 166 arches and 120 pillars, with a maximum height of about 100 feet. This is the largest and best-preserved aqueduct of its kind anywhere in the world and it was used as the mintmark on all the coins made at the famous Segovia Mint from 1455 until it stopped production in 1864. Incredibly, the aqueduct was still in use well into the 20th century.
The 16th century cathedral of Segovia, one of Spain’s last great Gothic constructions, is often referred to as ´the Lady of all cathedrals´. Right in the heart of the Plaza Mayor its main features are its choir stalls, cloisters and a fabulous main Baroque altarpiece.
There are many other impressive sights within the ancient city walls. These walls themselves are extensive and interesting. Built in the 8th century, on a Roman base, they were largely renovated during the 15th century and surround the centre. No cars are allowed within the twisting alleyways contained in the medieval sector of the town.
Other buildings worth spending time in and around include the Casa de Los Picos, the Alhóndiga Corn Exchange, and the Torreón de Los Lozoya tower – once a defensive structure but now often a site for exhibitions. The circular Templar church, Vera Cruz, just outside the city walls is also quite engaging – and it has fabulous views of the Alcázar. Inside the walls, the churches of San Esteban, San Martín and San Millan contain Mozarabic, Romanesque and Mudejar elements within them. San Miguel was the place in which Isabella I was crowned Queen of Castile.
Wandering around the Caballeros area, one can see many palaces and villas of the wealthy Segovian families as well as numerous other Romanesque churches –including San Nicolás, now the home of a Theatre Workshop. It’s also possible to go into the house of the writer Antonio Machado, now a museum dedicated to him, and the Esteban Vicente Contemporary Art Gallery, in the glorious 15th century Palace of Enrique IV.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that some people might enjoy the Witchcraft Museum, Museo de la Brujeria, where there are some ‘unusual’ exhibits of suitably satanic materials.
Where to Stay
Most visitors to Segovia tend to be there for the day but there are some charming hotels, should you wish to spend more time exploring this captivating city. Two places particularly notable are the Hotel San Antonio el Real and the Palacio San Facundo.
The Hotel San Antonio el Real, right in the heart of the city, is in fact a carefully converted monastery. Preserving many of the original architectural features, it nevertheless manages to include all the modern amenities of a luxury hotel. With 51 bedrooms, this is the chance to stay in a genuine National Monument.
One hundred metres from Plaza Mayor and situated between the Cathedral and the aqueduct, Palacio San Facundo is a completely renovated 16th century palace where guests can enjoy breakfast in the inner courtyard under the impressive glass dome. There is also a Parador in Segovia, located 3 kms from the centre. This modern, large hotel has some wonderful views of the city and has an impressive outdoor pool and a very well-spoken of dining room.
Where and What to Eat in Segovia
Segovian restaurants are justifiably proud of their famous cochinillo – the wonderful roast suckling pig but the roast lamb is also as good as anywhere in Spain. The La Granja area is known for its giant broad beans, which figure prominently in many soups and casseroles.
The most iconic local restaurant is the Meson de Candido on the Plaza de Azoguejo, right at the foot of the aqueduct. The late owner, Candido, was one of Spain’s foremost chefs and the restaurant has maintained the high standards he promoted. There is a fine open-air terrace with views of the aqueduct and a wine list featuring more than 350 Denomination of Origin wines – but you advised to book a table in advance, especially in the summer or at weekends throughout the year.
Restaurant Jose Maria, near Plaza Mayor on Calle Cronista Lecea, is another place where you really need to reserve your table in advance. The game, roasts and cochifrito (a meat dish with white wine and eggs) are popular here – along with the pickled wild mushrooms.
Other popular places include Meson Duque on Calle Cervantes and La Concepción, with a bar and terrace on Plaza Mayor. Then La Cocina de Segovia in the Hotel Los Arcos and Restaurante Maracaibo are both located on Plaza de Ezequiel Gonzalo. A really nice little bar for a tapas and a ´caña´ is Bar El Sitio on Calle Infanta Isabel.
Local Festivals in Segovia
There are several popular international festivals held in Segovia annually, in addition to the customary Easter and Christmas celebrations, which are impressive in the old town. The festival known as Titirimundi, each May, is a weeklong celebration of puppet theatre and all things connected with puppetry. At the end of June and the beginning of July there is a Folk festival where the plazas and streets come alive with groups and musicians from all over the world. On the first Sunday each February is the Santa Agueda Women’s Festival and, during July, the Segovia International Festival of Dance and Music.
In recent years the well-known Guardian Hay Literary Festival has had an ‘offshoot’ in Segovia in late September. This has proven to be enormously popular with both Spanish and British book lovers. Many of the leading Spanish literary figures attend for readings, discussion groups, lectures etc and increasingly their UK counterparts have also travelled over – their contributions being simultaneously translated for the Spanish listeners. Notable authors who have attended include Paul Preston, Germaine Greer, Michael Morpurgo and Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). The event has now established itself on the calendar – but those interested in attending need to make sure they book early as both accommodation and the events themselves are becoming increasingly in demand.
Places to See Nearby
Two places close to Segovia which can be incorporated within your visit are San Lorenzo de El Escorial and Valle de Los Caídos. Also close by, in the town of San Ildefonso, 12 kms east of Segovia, is the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso – a baroque palace set in stunning formal French gardens – modelled by Philip V on the Palace of Versailles, which had been built by his grandfather, Louis XIV. This highly impressive complex, at which construction began in 1721, has a splendid palace with some suitably majestic rooms – with a vast array of paintings and tapestries on display. Close by is the La Granja Royal Glass Factory, another 18th century building, and home of a permanent exhibition dedicated to glass-making. Most visitors to La Granja, though, are mainly captivated by the elaborately designed 1,500 acre gardens, with an enormous variety of plants, vases and statues and, memorably, the 26 fountains. All the fountains represent themes taken from classical mythology and rely on gravity to project the water upwards – sometimes, as with the La Fama fountain, to a height of 40 metres. Only a few fountains are in daily operation but, twice a year, all the fountains are in full flow – on the feast days of San Fernando and San Luis, 30th May and 25th August respectively.
The Sierra de Guadarrama itself, favourite hunting grounds for many members of the Spanish royalty, separates Madrid from the plains of Castilla y Léon. The region has always been the main supply of water for the capital and there are many scenic lakes and rivers adding to the impressive mountain scenery. In summer, this can be a delightful retreat from the searing heat of Madrid, with its almost alpine feel to it. The highest peak of the Sierra is Peñalara at 2,430 metres or 7,970 feet. There are some extensive and impressive pine and oak forests, fields full of thyme, Spanish bluebells and lavender and, if you’re lucky, you could see roe deer, wild boar, foxes, otters, badgers, and even wolves. In the sky, there are black and griffon vultures, golden and Spanish Imperial eagles, goshawks, red and black kites and honey buzzards.
With excellent access, this is a highly popular walking and hiking area and most of the larger towns – Lozoya, Miraflores, Navacerrada and Rascafria, for example – have good maps and well-marked routes for visitors.