Travel 2013. Day 13 Madrid to Segovia

Mon. April 29. Day 13. Madrid to Segovia.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, a who’s who of those travelling, and our itinerary.

After a pleasant buffet breakfast at Hotel Los Condes, we left for Segovia 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Madrid. It was chilly and the sky was overcast when we set out.

It was easy to get out of Madrid from the hotel. We took the Gran Vía north which led into the Calle de la Princesa and then straight into the main highway north to A/La Coruña, the A 6. On the way, we passed General Franco’s undistinguished Triumphal Arch (built between 1950 and 1956) and then the Complutense University of Madrid.

It was a nostalgic moment for me because I used to walk along the C/Princesa daily when I was a student at the university. I didn’t see the rugby pitch where I played with a team called Ciencias in 1959, but I remember the field as one of the best groomed I’d ever played on. We played on Sundays, and in those days playing on Sundays was taboo in Wales and, I was later told, I could have been suspended from playing rugby in Wales for breaking the rule!

As we left the city it began to rain, reducing visibility substantially.  Ahead of us lay the pine-forested Sierra de Guadarrama, a granite mountain range separating Castile-La Mancha and Castile-León.

Parts of the Sierra are now dotted with chalets and, on the upper levels (which rise to over 2,000 metres/ 6562 ft.), with ski resorts. In the summer, the Sierra is popular with Madrileños escaping the heat to enjoy hiking, mountain-biking, rock-climbing and horse riding.

After about 55 kilometres/34miles, a long tunnel took us to the north side of the sierra. Here we ran into a steady snowfall which prevented us seeing the views. Since it was still early, we decided to turn left on the N 110 and take a quick side trip to see the 11th-century Romanesque walls of Avila, which rank with the best preserved medieval walls in Europe. Even through the snow, they were “awesome” (to quote Andrew and Alex)!

The walls of Avila.

John: As a castle-loving kid, Avila’s walls take me back to a different time. This year, we did not have the clear view that I remember so well as we were in the middle of a snow storm (in May!), but that did not detract from the feeling of being taken back in time to the age of the knights. .

We then doubled back on the N 110, crossed the highway/motorway, and 38 kilometres/24 miles later arrived at Segovia, which had escaped the snow totally.

The hotel where we had reservations, Hotel Don Felipe, was on Calle Daoiz 7, near the Alcázar on the western edge of the old part of the town. It was a little challenging to find, despite the instructions we had received. There was a garage with ample space at the back, off the Ronda de Don Juan II, and an elevator up to the lobby. Forget about trying to manoeuvre through the narrow, cobbled Calle Daoiz.

Like the Retiro del Maestre in Almagro, the Don Felipe was a gem. It looked modest from the outside, but inside was beautifully renovated, with rooms tastefully and elegantly furnished and bathrooms ultramodern.  At the back, a lovely terrace with lawn and flowers looked out on the countryside and Segovia’s fairy-tale castle, the Alcázar. In the corridors, there were some lovely pieces of modern sculpture. The personnel were courteous and attentive.

Our room in Don Felipe
View of the alcázar from Don Felipe.

Segovia is situated at an altitude of approx. 1,000 metres (3280 ft) and has a population of roughly 55,000. The old town perches spectacularly on a rocky ridge at the meeting of two rivers, the Eresma and Clamores. The rocky spur is frequently compared to a ship, its prow being the castle (Alcázar) cutting its way to where the rivers join, the cathedral its masts, and the aqueduct the rudder at the stern.

It was in Segovia that Isabella was crowned queen of Castile in 1474, and it was here that the leaders of a rebellion of local nobles against the foreign-born and absentee king, Charles/ Carlos I/V, were beheaded in 1521. You can see the statue of one, Juan Bravo, in the Plaza de San Martín in the centre of town.

Jewish corner in Segovia.

Segovia also had a thriving Jewish community in the Middle Ages and the narrow streets below the cathedral form what is still called La Judería (Jewish quarter). It was in Segovia that Pablos, the Converso protagonist of Francisco de Quevedo’s picaresque novel El Buscón was born.

The Jews were particularly active in the cloth industry for which Segovia was famous well into the 16th century. On the hillside, across the valley from the Jewish Quarter, there is a Jewish cemetery.

By the time we had settled in, it was mid afternoon and time for lunch

For us that meant one place: Mesón de Cándido, tucked below the Roman aqueduct.  Cándido’s is an institution, famous for roast suckling pig (cochinillo asado) and suckling lamb (cordero asado), two specialities of the region. Cándido died in 2003, and the restaurant is now managed by his family, headed by his son who inherited the title bestowed on his father: Mesonero mayor de Castilla (Master Innkeeper of Castile).

Mesón de Cándido exterior. Note aqueduct to the left.

The cochinillo usually weighs around 4 kilograms/9 pounds. It is roasted slowly in a wood-fired oven, and presented whole at the table.  To demonstrate how tender it is, the waiter cuts portions at the table using the edge of a plate (get your camera ready).  Margaret and I had been there on a few occasions and had always enjoyed our meals.

To get to Cándido’s from our hotel, we walked 15-20 minutes the length of the old town, past the cathedral, through the Plaza Mayor, past the Romanesque church of San Martin and then downhill on Calle Juan Bravo and Calle de Cervantes. Although we got there only just before the restaurant closed for the afternoon, we were greeted warmly and at no time during our meal did we feel rushed.  The place is a warren of small rooms and the walls are festooned with photos of celebrities who have dined there, including King Juan Carlos.

We started with a delicious menestra (vegetables sauteed in olive oil) for the six of us, followed by the cochinillo (with head removed before serving, at our request!). The cochinillo was as succulent as we remembered.

We left well after closing time, with the waiters lined up at the door to see us out. I commented just as we were leaving that we had first visited the restaurant in 1978 and that Cándido himself had given John and his brother, David, a small earthenware jug each, which they still have. “Ah, one moment,” said one of the waiters and disappeared into an office. He soon returned accompanied by an elegantly dressed gentleman carrying two similar mini earthenware jugs, which he graciously presented to the delighted Andrew and Alex. A generous touch. (I am not sure who that gentleman was, but I believe he was one of Cándido’s grandsons.)
John: In 1978, we first came to this iconic restaurant and I had been looking forward to going back since we arrived back in Spain. It is situated under the massive aqueduct and is an easy walk from any part of the old town. We decided to go with their signature dish: roasted suckling pig and were certainly not disappointed. If time and finances permit, this place is definitely worth the stop.

The famous aqueduct stands above you as you leave Cándido’s. It is around 900 metres/ 2953 ft. long and 28 metres/92 ft. high at its highest point.

The aqueduct from just outside Cándido’s.

It consists of two tiers supported on 166 arches. Amazingly just pressure (no mortar) was used to hold the 20,000 plus large granite blocks that make up the structure. Look up from the road under the arches, touch a stone and remember that some individuals had placed it there some 2,000 years ago. Remarkable! The aqueduct is a wonderful testament to the ingenuity of the Romans.

On our way back up C/Juan Bravo, we happened to see in a shop window some beautiful Sargadelos porcelain.

The Sargadelos company was founded in 1806 in Galicia, closed down in 1875 and reopened in 1945.  It’s famous for its bold, vibrant colours and whimsical designs, quite different from the famous, delicate pieces from Lladró of Valencia. We’d looked for Sargadelos in both Barcelona and Madrid, but had been disappointed with the selection. Here unexpectedly, we were spoiled for choice, and all of us ended up with small, but distinctively beautiful little pieces.

Our Sargadelos collection

At the corner of C/Juan Bravo and the Plaza Mayor, we bought some lovely pastries at Limón y Menta, well known for its desserts.

Across from Limón y Menta and dominating the skyline of Segovia stands the beautiful cathedral.

East end of Segovia’s cathedral, from the Plaza Mayor.
The cathedral dominates the skyline of Segovia.

Begun in 1525, after its Romanesque predecessor had been destroyed during the 1521 rebellion, the cathedral is the last Gothic church built in Spain. (Neighbouring Avila boasts the first Gothic cathedral in Spain.) Although it doesn’t have projecting transepts, it is profusely embellished –especially on the triple-level eastern front facing the Plaza Mayor— by filigreed pinnacles, slender windows and elegant buttresses. Only the northern entrance and the plain western end with its tall square tower reflect Renaissance influence.

Opposite the cathedral, on the Calle Marqués del Arco, we popped into a small shop selling local honey. After tasting some delicious samples, we bought a jar of scrumptious orange blossom honey to take back to Canada.

Carrying on along Marqués del Arco and down the Calle Daoiz, we soon came to our hotel, Don Felipe. After quickly refreshing ourselves, we took a short walk to the Alcázar.

The Alcázar from near the Eresma river

Looming large on a rocky crag, it’s the archetypal fairy-tale castle, complete with “witches’ hats” topping the towers (it’s said to have inspired Walt Disney).  Although originally occupied by a Roman and later Moorish fort, the present Alcázar is the result of several changes and expansions, dating from the 11th to 16th centuries. For several centuries, it was a royal residence, then for a while in the 18th century, it was a state prison, before being converted in 1764 into a Royal Artillery College. It now serves as a military museum and archive, after undergoing major restoration in the late 19th century following widespread damage caused by fire in 1862.

From the Alcázar, there are great views. Below, across the river Eresma, you can clearly see the twelve-sided 13th-century Templar church of La Vera Cruz (The True Cross), so called because it housed a relic of the Holy Cross, a gift from Pope Honorius III in 1226. Its curious design is said to be modelled on the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Vera Cruz Templar church from the Alcázar

Across the road from Vera Cruz is the Convent of the Barefoot Carmelites (Carmelitas descalzas). If you like mystic literature, you won’t want to miss this convent because it was founded by and contains the tomb of St John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), one of Spain’s most gifted poets and one of the world’s greatest exponent of mysticism. A little gruesome detail: only his head and trunk are buried here; the rest of his limbs were amputated for relics! The present building dates from the 17th century and the garden contains a cypress said to have been planted by the saint himself.

Along the road between Vera Cruz and the convent, you can just make out on the horizon the village of Zamarramala. It celebrates a popular two-day fiesta on the weekend following the day of Santa Agueda/St. Agatha (February 5), when women — dressed in colourful traditional costumes– preside over various religious and secular ceremonies. It is said that it celebrates the role played by women in distracting the Moorish guards of the Alcázar of Segovia with wine and dancing, thereby ensuring its conquest in 1085. (The tradition, however, is said to date from 1227!).  An amusing local explanation of this day by the women is that they require only a day to set the affairs of the village in order after the chaos caused by men over the rest of the year. Conversely, the men say that it takes them a year to restore order after the chaos caused by women in only a day!
John: Wandering Segovia. I love the white towns of the south of Spain, but the yellow brick and stone work of the centre and north has a particular attraction to me too. We had a beautiful evening for a wander around the old town from the aqueduct to the fairy tale castle that was beside our hotel. I would have to say that if I had to pick only one structure to see, it would have to be the Roman aqueduct. It is amazing that it should look as good as new when it is around 2,000 years old.

Article on the women of Zamarramala: 
Website for the Mesón de Cándido:
The following blog records a visit by Imanol to Cándido’s about a month after us. The photographs are superb:
Photo of exterior of Cándido’s : Wikimedia 
An interesting article on visiting Segovia: