I traveled by train to Segovia, which is now my favorite city in Spain, and I’ve seen more of Spain than most Spaniards. The population of Segovia hovers around 50,000, the mandatory number required in the United States to be deemed a city and receive federal funding.
Segovia was founded in 75 B.C. It’s aqueduct was built in the first century A.D. and is perhaps the finest aqueduct in Europe. The city is compact, medieval and is easy to walk around. There is much to see. Old Segovia is shaped like a ship. At the ship’s bow sitting on the highest point of the city overlooking a river and a gorge is the alcazar or castle, which is also shaped like a ship – a ship sailing within the ship-shaped city.
This is the castle where Isabel and Ferdinand spent time before starting the Reconquista or effort to reconquer Spain from the Moors, who invaded in 711. Muslims ruled Spain for over 700 years until Isabel and Ferdinand expelled them in 1492.
Unlike Toledo, where virtually every shop in the historic quarter caters to tourists, many stores in Segovia’s castro historico or historical center sell items that appeal to residents rather than tourists. Hence, the city is a blend of locals and visitors.
While Lyon is the capital of cuisine in France, Spain lacks a specific city renowned for its food. Yet, in Spain it’s hard to find a city without wonderful food. But if Spain had a capital of cuisine, it would surely be Segovia.
Segovia is famous throughout Spain for its signature dish of “cochonillo” or baby suckling pig. It comes with crispy skin, a layer of fat and tender meat that it falls off the slender bones. Another popular dish is “el cordero asado” or baked lamb. Both meals are easily complimented with a glass or vino tinto or red wine.
For desert, there is torta Segoviana – a butterscotch tart made with liquor. Visit El Duque – my favorite restaurant in all of Spain – or the nearby El Bernadino which lacks the historic décor but offers excellent cuisine. Segovia abounds with good options for dining including Meson de Candido, located beside the Roman aqueduct, one of the great wonders of Spain.
I stayed at Hotel Infanta Isabel, which overlooks the Plaza Mayor – a wonderful place for enjoying a café con leche or an afternoon drink. A block from my hotel is the church where Isabel was crowned Queen of Spain. She married Ferdinand II, king of Aragon, in order to consolidate the kingdoms of Castille y Leon and Aragon. Thus, they unified Spain and created a power strong enough to expel the Moors.
I ordered a glass of sweet vermouth and sat in front of my hotel waiting for my friend Miguel Angel Alvaro to join me. Miguel is an actor, teacher and poet. He is 32 and looks like he just stepped out of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers. I have traveled to Segovia to spend several days studying Spanish with him.
His Spanish is wonderful. We converse for several hours. Our conversation is interrupted by a parade. Church leaders, musicians and soldiers process with the Virgen de Fuencisla on what resembles a float from the Rose Bowl Parade. They march past our table and down the royal road. The Virgin is being moved from a sanctuary outside the city walls not far from the church where the torso of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross lies in a stunning green marble tomb.
John’s body was hotly contested after he died. The relics of saints were always in demand. So, the city of Ubeda, where he died in the south of Spain, has his legs and arms, and Segovia has his head and torso. It’s a nice division of body parts.
The procession is gone and the plaza is quieter. There’s a virgin in virtually every Spanish city or town. The cult of the Virgin Mary is incredibly powerful in Spain. Enter a church in Spain and you will find a large carving of the Virgin Mary in the golden retablo behind the altar, but search for the figure of Jesus and you will be lost. Looking for Jesus in a Spanish church is like looking for Waldo. He’s very hard to find.
Every city of village in Spain has its own virgin, a sighting of the Virgin Mary who came in some mysterious way to the local people. There are black virgins and crying virgins, dark-skinned virgins, bleeding virgins and white virgins. There’s a virgin fit for everyone. On feast days the virgin of each village or city is processed in a parade celebrating the community’s spiritual life, shared traditions and history. Even Communists like the fiestas in Spain!
But only in Spain would the military and church be march side by side in a parade. The dictator Franco adored the Church. He saw himself as the leader of a crusade to ride Spain of nefarious Communists, anarchists and socialists, who had burned hundreds of churches throughout Spain and killed hundreds of priests, nuns and monks, even gouging out their eyes. The Church depended on Franco and the army to defend it. The church, government and military are closely aligned in Spain.
The following day, I met Javi and Isabel for drinks. We first met on the Camino del Norte in 2016. I walking and they were bicycling the Camino. We were staying in an obscure town. My option was to sleep on a bare cement floor in a gymnasium with 50 high school students or spend 50 euros for a hotel room. I chose the latter and met Javi and Isabel over dinner.
We’ve since met twice in Segovia. Now, they introduced me to Carlotta, their sleepy one-month old daughter. Isabel’s sister, Raquel, stopped by. Then Ricardo, Javi’s father. Drinks turned into lunch. Lunch turned into an invitation to spend the next day hiking in the mountains with Ricardo. One never knows what a day in Spain will offer.
With love and prayers from Spain,