Shortly before I left Madrid to spend Christmas in the UK, I visited Segovia with a couple of English friends. After I returned, I began to write a blog post about the city, but in the chaos of term ending, hurried packing and a week of birthday and Christmas celebrations, I didn’t quite finish it. I was then lucky enough to be invited to spend a night at a house belonging to my Spanish family, in a small town called La Granja, which lies in the Province of Castilla y León just outside the city of Segovia. The experience has prompted me to return to my neglected entry and finish it – both Segovia and the surrounding region are incredibly beautiful and deserving of attention.
As December reared its frosty head, I decided it was time that I visited another city. Providentially, no sooner had I made the decision then I received a text from a friend, asking if I wanted to visit Segovia the following day. Having heard only wonderful things about it, I jumped at the chance. My two friends and I caught the bus from Príncipe Pío station the next morning and settled in for the hour or so journey. If you ever find yourself travelling between Madrid and Segovia, the bus is a great way to do it; it’s surprisingly cheap and more like a plush coach than a bus, with wide, comfortable seats and free wifi. The spectacular views are an added bonus. The road to Segovia is lined by the Sierra de Guadarrama, the beautiful, snow-covered mountain range just outside Madrid. The time passed quickly as we rose higher into the mountains and the landscape gradually changed. By the time we arrived in Segovia, there was a smattering of snow on the treetops and everything was partially obscured by a light mist. As we disembarked, we noticed that the temperature seemed to have dropped by at least a couple of degrees. The bus station was in the modern outskirts of the old city, so, following the well-trodden tourist tracks, we started walking upwards towards the distant spires. When we arrived at the Plaza Mayor (every town, city and downstairs loo seems to have one), the sight that had the most immediate impact was the cathedral. It’s built at the highest part of the town and towers over the main square. It was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain, and the architecture (about which I know very little) is imposing but beautiful enough to merit the 3 euros entry price. (The elderly Spanish lady behind the cathedral counter handed my two olive-skinned, dark-haired companions their leaflets without question, before looking me up and down and asking, dryly, if I was sure I wanted my leaflet in Spanish. The curse of the English rose in a Mediterranean country – you’ve got tourist written all over you, even before you open your mouth.) The inside of the cathedral was also very impressive, particularly the enormous stained glass windows, but my friends and I were more preoccupied by the very Catholic but mildly disturbing figures of saints in various poses of agony that were dotted around the church and that, as you approached, were suddenly illuminated like some grotesque and deliberately provocative modern art exhibit.
We were starving when we left the cathedral, and so went in search of lunch, using my guide book to locate an appropriate restaurant. It took us ten minutes of following the windy cobbled streets to eventually track down a place that had sounded great on paper, only to find boarded-windows and a graphitised front door. The place had obviously been closed down recently, a fate that had befallen many other shops and restaurants that we passed during our explorations – a sign of the current economic climate in Spain. By this point, it was icy cold and had started to snow. Every restaurant, cafe and bar that we walked past was packed with people escaping the bitter chill. Eventually, just as our fingers and noses had turned to icicles, we stumbled across a little cafe with space at the bar and three full tables. A couple and their baby had just finished eating, and seemed to be getting ready to leave, so we ordered drinks and sat at the bar to wait. Half an hour, two toilet trips (on their part) and a lot of death stares (on our part) later, they finally left and we nabbed the table and quickly ordered three burgers (we had had a lot of time to peruse the menu). When the food arrived after only a few minutes, we thought our luck was looking up; then we examined the food. The ‘chicken’ burger that I had ordered consisted of stale bread, limp lettuce and a questionable substance that was bright pink and had the consistency of a frankfurter. My companions fared no better; to our mixed amusement and disgust, the ‘beef’ and ‘chicken’ in our burgers seemed to be exactly the same. Nonetheless, starving and wary of the icy winds whirling around the café, we swallowed our fears of salmonella – and our food.
After hurriedly paying for our lunch, we left in search of something more appetising. My guidebook had informed me that, when visiting Segovia, it is important to try their local delicacy – Ponche Cake. It had also helpfully provided the name of a café that was particularly famous for serving said sweet treat. We quickly found the place, just off the Plaza Mayor, and were relieved to find that it looked not only decent, but warm and inviting. There was a counter filled with pastries and various other sweets, and a café section at the back with round wooden tables. We took our seats and ordered tea and a selection of cakes to try. The Ponche Cake was not quite what I was expecting, and was quite rich, but still very tasty. It is made of an almond and lemon sponge, and covered in marzipan with a faint cross on top. However, the flavours are quite difficult to describe; just as in Toledo, the marzipan has quite a different taste and texture to the shop-bought marzipan we have in the UK. Still, it is definitely worth trying should you ever visit Segovia! I find that tasting the local food can give you a genuine insight into the history, traditions and style of a place – plus, in Spanish cities, the local delicacies are almost always delicious!
Fortified by our tasty treats, we went in search of one of Segovia’s most famous landmarks – the alcázar. If you’re a Disney fan (like I am), then the alcázar is an unmissible delight. Walt Disney based the drawings for Princess Aurora’s castle in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ on the building, and the resemblance is unmistakeable. The old fortress is all towering turrets and pale stone, with amazing views of the countryside on one side, and of the city on the other. We didn’t pay to go inside, because we were so excited about the exteriors that we felt that there was no need to see any more (plus the entrance fee was a little steep for our student pockets!). We wandered around the building, taking photographs and admiring the suitably intimidating (although regrettably empty) moat and drawbridge. Even without seeing inside, it is one of the most memorable places I have visited in Spain so far.
By this point, we were quite tired and had spent a long time wandering around in the cold, so decided to head back towards the bus stop, taking in the famous aqueduct on the way. One of the most iconic features of Segovia, the Roman aqueduct is in the South of the city and at ****** foot tall, is difficult to miss. We saw it as the sun was setting, and the pink light streaming through the towering arcs was a remarkable sight, and a fitting way to end our day in that lovely city.
Having spent New Year’s Eve celebrating in Madrid, on New Year’s Day my English companion and I were invited to have dinner with my Spanish family, who were spending the holiday at their house in the town of La Granja outside Segovia. We caught a lift in the car with the two elder kids, Ines and Ricardo, and Ines’s boyfriend Jaime. The five of us squashed ourselves into a pale blue Mini and set off along the motorway, towards the mountains. The quantity of people in the tiny space meant that it was not the most comfortable of journeys, but this was no great problem, as it took under an hour to get there. La Granja is a typical Spanish town – winding cobbled, sloping streets, narrow houses with coloured shutters, and a little town square lined with cafes. We arrived to a house that was warm and cosy, with dark wood furnishings reminiscent of a French chalet, and a large table set for dinner. Within minutes of arriving, champagne corks had been popped and the table was spread with smoked salmon and Parma ham, various breads, asparagus and homemade mayonnaise, and an enormous Portuguese cheese – and that was only the first course. It was later followed by a traditional Madrid dish made with meat, tomatoes and large white beans, and then platters of kiwi and oranges and a huge box of Guylian chocolates. In true Spanish form, the meal lasted around two hours, with plenty of time to savour the food and conversation. Even more remarkably, the entire family spoke in English for the entire time that we were there, even to each other. I am still slightly in awe of their generosity and sheer linguistic competence.
After we had eaten, the family went to mass and then to the cinema to see Les Miserables; as neither my companion nor I are particularly religious, and had seen the film a few days before, we were left alone in the house for a few hours, with an enormous jug of Paulo’s infamous “gin-tonic”. Considering that my acquaintance with this family spanned in total only a couple of weeks, their trust in me was remarkable. Moreover, the sudden influx in kids and boyfriends meant that they were short on bedrooms, so Elena handed my companion and I the keys to her sister’s flat across the street. We woke up in the morning and opened the shutters to an unbelievably beautiful view of the mountains. After skipping across the road and enjoying a family breakfast, my companion and I went for a walk around the town to see the Royal Palace and gardens. According to Paulo (the patriarch of my Spanish family), La Granja is the “Versailles of Spain”, as the Spanish Royal Family spent every summer for a long time at the palace. After spending half an hour strolling around the grounds, I can see why – the gardens are spectacular, even in the depths of winter, when the many fountains are covered up.
After a lovely walk in the cool mountain air, we returned to the house in time to hitch a lift back to Madrid. This time we drove along a small winding road that stretched higher and higher into the mountains. At the highest point we reached 1800m up and drove through a tiny, hidden ski resort! It was a wonderful twenty-four hours, full of beautiful scenery, relaxation, brilliant company, excellent food and miraculous “gin-tonics”.