Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sunday in Segovia

Present day

Sunday evening and the very last of the day’s light is disappearing fast. From somewhere nearby I hear shots being fired. It is not unusual for around here even though it is not deer season yet. This time it sounds like someone is shooting target. Getting ready for deer season? Or maybe the person just wanted to spend some bonding time with his/her rifle, clean it, oil it, put it back in the safe. Each to its own.

But sitting here in a rocking chair on the back porch after dinner with a cup of coffee laced with a little whiskey, I recall our trip to Segovia, Spain, a few Sundays ago. Segovia. It is a word that rolls so effortless from the tongue. Segovia. It was the best of times it was the worst of times.

Sunday, Late March 2016

I gave us 1 hour to get from Atocha metro train station in the south of Madrid to Chamartin train station in the north of the city for our connecting train to Segovia, which is about 92 km north of Madrid. Arriving at the metro the information board informed me that the next train will arrive in 10 minutes. That was not good news. Usually you don’t have to wait more than 2-3 minutes for the next train. But this was a Sunday morning! It escaped me. Less commuters means less trains running. The second miscalculation materialized on the metro train ride. It took much longer than what I anticipated and we arrived at Chamartin with about 5 or 8 minutes to spare. From the underground it was a mad dash up a set of stairs and then up escalators.  M, somewhere between a jog and a very fast walk, was doing her best to match my brisk walk.  Passing a shop on the top level I asked a man dressed in what looked like a train service uniform, the way to the Renfe platforms. “That way” he said and pointed to another walkway to our left. Above his head against the wall an electronic information board showed that the 10:15 train to Segovia departs from platform 3. We ran down another escalator, found platform 3’s entrance gate and then had to go down another set of stairs to get to the platform and the train. There was no time to check coach numbers so we just entered the train through the doors nearest to us. A few milliseconds later the train's doors closed and it pulled out of the station. Wow! In the nick of time!

Windows inside Segovia's Alcazar

Once I got my breath back and looked around I noticed that this train inside did not look like an AVE train. There was no seat numbers and the seats… oh Shit! We were on the wrong train. How could this have happened? I was convinced the information board said platform 3 for Segovia. Walking down the aisle to find us some seats I asked a group of late teens if this train was going to Segovia. I got confirmation that it was. It turned out that we were on a Cercanias rail service train, a slow regional train that stops at all stations and not on the fast speed AVE rail train. When I looked at the electronic board I never looked at the train number, only at the destination and time. There was no time. There must have been more than one train leaving at the same time to the same destination. What a coincidence? My mistake, but as I sat there I also realized we would have missed the AVE train seeing that we barely made this train before its departure and that the platforms for the AVE trains were further down the station. (I learned that upon our return to Chamartin that evening.)

I got up and looked at a route map just behind our seats and looked for Segovia, but there was no Segovia on the map. I figured out from the map that we were on the C-8 train line and this line only went as far as Cercedilla. I asked a woman in the booth across from us whether the train goes to Segovia and she said yes it does. But Segovia is not on the map, I said. She said that we had to change to another train at the end of the line to go to Segovia. Great!

Segovia's Plaza Mayor anchored by its late-Gothic cathedral

To make a long story short, we did change trains at Cercedilla and eventually arrived in Segovia about 2 hours later than planned and at a different train station on the side of town we didn’t wanted to be. To make matters worse, as we walked to the solitary taxi at the station it pulled out with passengers and we had to settle for an inner-city bus to Plaza Mayor, the city’s main square. Luckily the bus station was near the train station and the bus came within a few minutes. Not the best of starts to our day, but our spirits were still high.  There was no way to make up the lost time, and after a quick walk around the cathedral, the last Gothic cathedral to be built in the Spanish style in Spain, we skipped the inside and walked up hill towards Segovia’s Alcazar and into a cold and stiff breeze coming of the snowcapped mountains on the city’s doorstep.  
 Segovia's Alcazar with King John's tower under maintenance. 
The Alcazar or castle is situated on top of a rocky outcrop high above the confluence of two rivers and was one of the inspirations for Disney’s Cinderella Castle. And following the lay of the land, a triangular outcrop sticking out into the confluence, the castle’s shape is unique, like that of a ship’s bow. It originally was a wooden Roman fort and then a Moorish fort before the current stone structure was built in the late 12th Century. Since then it has been a royal palace, a prison, an artillery college, a military academy and now a museum.  The castle has a long history and it played an important role in the history of Spain, especially the Kingdom of Castile. It was in this castle that Spain’s most historic queen, Isabella I of Castile grabbed the thrown from her sister Joanna. It was in Segovia that she married Fernando II of Aragon and together these two completed the Reconquista, taking Spain back from the Muslims, which laid the foundation for a unified Spain, and they also ordered their Muslim and Jewish subjects to convert to Catholicism or leave the country during the Spanish Inquisition. This was the same Isabella that funded Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage to “discover” the New World.
The Alcazar is a very interesting museum. Inside it reminded me quite a bit of the Château de Blois in France, but with less furniture. The Alcazar was not Versailles, nor the royal palace in Madrid. No over-the-top gilded fixtures, virtually no paintings, no gilded mirrors, none of the usual extravagance you get in 18th Century castles and palaces. This was far more basic, more brute stone and good artisanship. This was pre-Renaissance and pre-Baroque styles. This was Mujédar and later additions were Gothic. A pleasant surprise though was the beautiful ornate ceilings and the fresco paintings. The suits of armor and pieces of artillery scattered throughout the rooms imparted a real sense history to the castle.
After our visit to the Alcazar we wandered along the backstreets of Segovia, sticking to the sunny side of the town, sometimes inside the ramparts, sometimes outside, slowly making our way in the direction of the aqueduct.
At the tiny Plazuela del Socorro we had to choose. Go left and stay within the city ramparts or go right and exit the city.

We went right and exited the city through the impressive Puerta de San Andreas.
At one stage we found a tranquil spot with a bench beneath trees that still needed to sprout blooms for spring, on the edge of a cliff with views over the river and mountains in the distance. We lingered for a while, nearby water trickled from a fountain and then ran down a tiny moat on the side of the road. We were the only people there. It was rather amazing to have this quiet spot totally to ourselves.        
Segovia's Skyline
Continuing on we found a modern passage through the city walls that led us to Calle Juan Bravo and the Plaza de Medina del Campo with the statue of Juan Bravo (I guess the original Johnny Bravo) and the Romanesque church of St. Martin with its soaring belfry and arched and columned portico.
Shortly afterwards we had our worse eating experience in Spain. To get out of the narrow streets where the cold breezes chilled us and also to rest our tired feet, we came upon a windless sunny spot, a small el fresco restaurant between two buildings,  the Bodega del Barbero. After a long wait for service, the food was absolutely terrible. M’s fish was half baked, the French fries oily and cold and the bread felt as if it was only recently removed from a fridge. My ‘breastfed’ lamb chops was so fatty I left half uneaten. When we complained the waitress was apologetic in words but her gesture indicated she couldn’t care less.
Come to think of it, none of the food we ate in Spain was really memorable, some meals were better than others. The better meals were in Barcelona and on our last night in Madrid at La Diavoletta, but mostly they were just acceptable. So unlike our trips through France or Italy. I can still recall our dinner in the Auberge Nicolas Flamel in Paris, or the gourmet food of Le Cheval Rouge in Chisseaux or even further back to an excellent dinner at La Cicala, that lovely agriturismo where we stayed for 3 days high above the Bay of Poets in La Spezia, Italy.

In this picture one can get a good idea of how tall the aqueduct is. No mortar/cement was used. It is kept together by the sheer weight of the stones.   
From our awful lunch experience it was a short walk to the jewel of Segovia, the best preserved Roman structure in Spain, the aqueduct. Seeing it for the first time I was quite taken aback. I never realized it was so huge. Very impressive! We lingered in the area for quite some time. I climbed the many steps to the top for panoramic views while M wandered around the square down below before we caught a bus from near the aqueduct to the AVE train station. This time I got it right and we sped back to Madrid at high speed.
The stairs to the top of the aqueduct
At Chamartin station we did not take the metro back to Atocha station, but a Cercanias train, an impromptu decision, an added adventure. This is the train we should have taken that morning! With only 4 stops between the two major stations we arrived at Atocha 12 minutes later.  
Romanesque bell towers seen through the top arches of the aqueduct
Notwithstanding the morning’s dilemma of the wrong train and late arrival and the terrible lunch, our Sunday in Segovia turned out to be one of my best days in Spain. I have countless good memories of meandering through the charming stone labyrinth of Segovia or our walk all along the ramparts, the visit to the Alcazar, the vistas of snowcapped mountains and of being overawed by the imposing aqueduct.
Far below the Segovia Alcazar, the Church of the True Cross, the Iglesia Vera Cruz, the round/12-sided shrine patterned after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, was built by the Knights Templars before 1208. They stood guard here over a small piece of wood that they claimed was a fragment of Jesus’s cross. The relic now resides in a church in a nearby village.
Shortly after we arrived on Plaza Mayor we notice they are preparing for another Semana Santa procession outside the cathedral.
Inside the Alcazar


Sunday, May 8, 2016

Postcards from Toledo

Behind the high altar of the Sacristy hangs El Greco's famous The Disrobing of Christ. He lived in Toledo from 1577 to his death in 1614 and we walked past his house at one stage during the day, now a museum. The pictures really doesn't do the real painting justice. Up close it is a stunning work of art. The red robe looked so real I felt I could touch it.   
Behind the main altar the exquisite El Transparente. Personally I felt this enormous piece of artwork was the best in the cathedral.
El Transparente. Floor to ceiling with a huge hole in the wall at the top (see below). It was created between 1729 and 1732 by Narcico Tome and his four sons, all artists and architects. According to Michener's Iberia, that I mentioned in the beginning of this post, it was commissioned by the bishopric to allow for more light to enter the cathedral. The dark object in the top left is a red cardinal's hat suspended from the ceiling, one of several.These hats belonged to the cardinals buried in the tombs directly below. The tradition is that cardinals can be buried anywhere in the cathedral and their red caps are hung above until they rot away, which can take more than 100 years!
A painted ceiling above the El Transparente.
 Toledo Cathedral Altar and very ornate gate
Entrance to the Choir
Some of the chapels
The Portal of Lions
 The Cathedral from a distance with the flying buttresses in clear view. Together with the Alcazar it dominates the Toledo skyline.
Street scenes

 Santa Cruz Museum
Toledo's Puerta del Sol, the Sun Gate
Near the Alcazar's entrance
La Taberna Del Pescador's menu for lunch
Toledo's AVE train station in a modern Moorish style