The Towering, Well-Preserved Roman Aqueduct at the Heart of a Spanish City
As I set out of my hotel onto Segovia’s sunny streets, a Roman aqueduct looms ahead of me, making the signposts to it redundant. I walk alongside it, following the arches and touching the cool stones. I was expecting something grander. After all, this structure in central Spain was built by the ancient Romans, and I had imagined that their public works were on the same scale as the Colosseum, and the many temples, baths, and amphitheatres that still stand across Europe.
I turn right towards Segovia’s historic Old Town, and suddenly, I am not disappointed any more. The Old Town and the Aqueduct together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing before me in the Plaza del Azoguejo is the “monumental” stretch of the Aqueduct: 128 stone pillars topped off by two tiers of arches, all built by stacking massive blocks of granite acquired from the nearby Guadarrama Mountains. The entire structure is built without mortar; only the equilibrium of forces holds the huge granite blocks together.
Many Roman aqueducts, designed to bring water from springs and rivers to cities and towns, still survive across the erstwhile Roman Empire. However, the Segovia Aqueduct is one of the few that still stands in all its glory; at its tallest, it measures 92 feet.
Segovia is a tiny town, less than a hundred kilometres from Spain’s capital Madrid. Its charming terracotta and sandstone houses provide a picturesque backdrop to several historical monuments, such as the Alcázar or royal palace, the massive Gothic cathedral, and Romanesque churches of various sizes. But the most stunning of its monuments is the remarkably preserved 17-kilometre-long Aqueduct.
Mariano, my guide for the day, tells me the Aqueduct was in use until the mid-19th century. The old quarter of Segovia which includes an 813-metre section of the Aqueduct was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. “The Aqueduct is a protected monument now, but as a child I remember seeing cars driving in and out of these arches,” Mariano laughs.
The structure was likely built to tap water from the River Frio in the late 1st or early 2nd century A.D., by Roman troops who were sent to conquer the area and eventually settled here.
Local legend has its own version of the Aqueduct’s creation story, linked to Christianity. It talks of how a young Segovian water carrier who was tired of carrying her pitcher through the town’s steep streets, made a deal with the devil. He could take her soul if he could bring water to her home before daybreak. The devil began building the Aqueduct, but as the rooster crowed, he was just one stone short of completing the structure, and so was unable to take her soul. The holes visible on the stones are said to be the devil’s fingerprints.
Leaving the Aqueduct behind, Mariano and I walk northwest for about ten minutes to reach Plaza Mayor, the main square, dominated by the Cathedral of Segovia. This was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain, in the mid-16th century. I’m awestruck by its size, and find it difficult to fit the entire structure in my camera frame. The bell tower soars to nearly 90 metres and there are numerous, intricately carved spires rising up from every conceivable corner.
The relative austerity inside is surprising; I was expecting something more opulent. After a look around the cathedral’s museum, which houses a superb collection of paintings, tapestries and rare manuscripts, Mariano and I walk through the narrow alleys of Segovia to another of its crowning jewels—the Alcázar.
As we near the moat, the castle fortress comes into view, and I’m reminded of the Walt Disney logo. It turns out that the castle is said to be one of the inspirations for Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World, Florida. The fairytale palace stands on a rocky crag at the confluence of two rivers. It was built between the 12th and 13th centuries as a royal residence for Castilian kings. Its towers, turrets and sharp slate spires were built over different periods of time, giving the castle a part Romanesque, part Moorish feel. The fortress houses an artillery museum and opulently decorated rooms.
The Gallery Room with its ornate ceiling, shaped like an upside down ship’s hull catches my eye. So does the Monarchs’ Room, with its golden frieze depicting Spain’s kings and queens. I climb one of the towers and survey the Spanish countryside, feeling very much like Isabella I of Castile, who lived in the castle, and was one of the most influential queens in Spanish history.
Later, I return to the Plaza del Azoguejo for a cup of coffee. The late afternoon sun casts a warm glow over the Aqueduct. I marvel at the skill of Roman engineers who knew exactly how to pile stones without mortar to build a magnificent structure that has withstood the ravages of time.
Segovia is 96 km/1.5 hr northwest of Madrid and a 30-minute ride away by the high-speed AVE train network (tickets from €12.90, lower promo prices offered occasionally; www.renfe. com; every 20-45 minutes). Hotel San Antonio El Real is conveniently located near the aqueduct. The heritage building has large bedrooms with traditional Moorish elements; doubles from €90. Hotel Don Felipe offers rooms with a view, looking over the Alcázar.
Segovia’s most famous dish is the cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig cooked slowly in huge wood-fired ovens, leaving it crispy on the outside and perfectly tender and flavourful on the inside. Order to share, as most restaurants serve a massive portion. Another Segovian speciality is judiones de la Granja, a thick creamy stew made with enormous local white beans. This warming stew usually has a bit of chorizo and bacon added to it. For a sweet end to your meal, try a slice of ponche Segoviano, an airy sponge cake layered with cream and wrapped in marzipan.