Old Town of Segovia and Its Aqueduct: A Millennial Beauty

Name: Old Town of Segovia and Its Aqueduct (Spain)

Declared International Heritage Site in: 1985

Location: It is found in the center of Spain, 85 kilometers north of Madrid

The Alcázar of Segovia, one of the most splendid castles in Europe

An immense Roman aqueduct from the 1st century serves as an emblem of pride, a tourist attraction, and even a heraldic shield for a city, however, deeply medieval whose rich monumental heritage reminds us that it was an important stronghold when the border between Christians and Muslims passed through the peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama and later played an important role in the internal wars of the Castile of Isabella the Catholic and Charles I. 

Geography has always been the central feature of Segovia's history. The city opens to the south by the wide ford of the river Clamores, which forced to give disproportionate height to the aqueduct; to the north, it closes in a sharp crag carved by the confluence of the Clamores and the Eresma, an ideal place to settle an easily defensible Alcazar in troubled times. The circumvallation of the city is thus not only a succession of spectacular panoramic views but also a journey through more than 1000 years of history parallel to that of the Iberian lands in the center of which it is located. 

The Roman Aqueduct in Segovia built circa 50 AD

Water for Segovia 

They are, possibly, the most ostensible symbols of Roman civilization but their very aerial nature makes them one of the scarcest. Few of the many aqueducts that in imperial times made life in their cities more comfortable have survived to the present day; even fewer have survived in a perfect state of use.

In old Hispania, only Tarragona, Mérida, and Segovia conserve more than vestiges of their Roman aqueducts, but only the one in Segovia has not stopped flowing water since the time of its construction, which apparently coincides with the first times of the empire. In the absence of more concrete data, the comparison with the Roman aqueduct of Aqua Claudia, technically very similar and dated between the years 38 and 52, as well as the recent excavations carried out in its surroundings, have allowed us to venture a construction date close to the year 50 AD during the reign of Emperor Claudius. 

A front view of the Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

Roman engineers had reached such technical perfection by this time that they rarely stopped in the face of any difficulty. The water supply to Segovia from the Acebeda stream, at the foot of the Puerto de la Fuenfría, involved an 18-kilometer long canalization that would have to cross the wide valley of the Clamores River in its final stretch, on which the rocky spur that served as a settlement for the city was built. The solution was superb: two superimposed arcades supported by 128 pillars and reaching almost 30 m (around 90 ft) in height, extending from side to side over the hollow that today occupies the Plaza del Azoguejo, with a total length of 813 m (2,000 ft). Not even 1 g of mortar was used to make this immense mass of stone, over which water flows through a channel that was originally made of wood and was 30 × 30 cm in size. 

After long centuries of oblivion, a restoration carried out in 1484 on the initiative of the Catholic Monarchs allowed the water to flow through it again, this time through a stone channel that was in turn replaced between 1929 and 1930 by another made of cement.

Also dating from the Renaissance restoration are the images of the Virgin Mary and Saint Sebastian located in niches originally intended for mythological statues. Today, however, the aqueduct's survival is far from assured, threatened not by wars or abandonment, but by pollution that alters the solid stone on which it was built and by traffic whose vibrations endanger the delicate balance of its impeccably assembled arches. 

A castle at the foot of the Sierra 

The magnitude of the aqueduct, an evidently costly work, and other data such as the privilege of minting coins that we know the city had during this period, reveal that Segovia was an important city in Roman Hispania.

Between this first moment of splendor and the following one, however, there were 11 dark centuries: the same ones that go from Roman to Romantic art; from the government of Claudius to that of Alfonso VI of Castile; centuries of Visigothic and Arab domination through which Segovia passed without special relief until the conquest of Toledo in 1085 forced to protect its rearguard by fortifying and repopulating the lands located on the northern slope of the mountain range. 

From this necessity would arise, among other monuments, the walls of Avila and the imposing Segovian Alcazar perched on the impregnable spur that closes the city to the northwest. In that place there was an Arab Alcazar of which the Castilian kings kept only the name, replacing it with a sturdy fortress of which there is already news in documents from 1122 and 1155. The oldest surviving remains are two Romanesque mullioned windows with Mudejar paintings dating from the 13th century during the reign of Alfonso X "the Wise." 

Ceiling Inside The Alcázar of Segovia (Throne Room)

Later, when the frontier moved south and defensive needs diminished, the castle became a sumptuous palace that was a favorite residence of the monarchs of the House of Trastámara. John II and his son Henry IV renovated the old and sober Romanesque building in the 15th century, providing it with luxurious rooms covered with Mudejar coffered ceilings and a graceful keep decorated with sgraffito, a technique that would become characteristic of Segovian architecture.

Isabella the Catholic was also a regular resident of the Alcázar, who left it to be crowned in the nearby church of San Miguel. The House of Austria left its mark on the peaked slate roofs and the Herrerian courtyard, an initiative of Philip II; a drastic restoration, after the no less drastic fire of 1862, finished giving the heterogeneous complex its current profile, perhaps excessively romantic but always powerful and evocative. 

Porticoes and crenellations

The set of fortifications that protected medieval Segovia was completed with the walls, of which large sections and three gates remain. Next to the Alcazar, a first cathedral was built, almost completely destroyed during the War of the Comunidades. Charles I ordered it to be rebuilt on its present site, preserving only the cloister, which was moved stone by stone. Work began in 1525 and continued until the 18th century, although always respecting the original project of Juan Gil de Hontañón, who directed the works until his death, being succeeded by his son Rodrigo. Finely carved pinnacles, flying buttresses and balustrades lighten the heaviness of the stone; three high naves covered by complicated ribbed vaults give the interior the characteristic slenderness of the flamboyant Gothic, which has in the Segovian cathedral its last splendor. 

Airview of The Alcázar

Around these three monumental landmarks, the rest of the old town is developed. The wall equally defended the labyrinth of narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter, the solid stone houses of the Canonjías neighborhood, inhabited by the clergy of the cathedral, and the emblazoned palaces of the nobility, such as the Casa de Los Picos. Sometimes, however, the enemy was within the walls themselves: the struggles between different noble factions gave rise to fortress houses between the 14th and 15th centuries, such as the Lozoya Tower or the Arias Dávila Tower. 

Church of San Millán (Segovia)

In this tour through the architecture and social classes of medieval Segovia, there is of course an abundant catalog of churches. Almost all of them were built shortly after the conquest, in the Segovian Romanesque style, a variant characterized by the presence of exterior porticoes. Notable examples are the Church of San Millán, located outside the walls; the Church of San Esteban, crowned by a slender tower of five bodies, or the Church of San Justo, which preserves valuable Romanesque paintings. A case apart is the Church of La Veracruz, also Romanesque but with a curious twelve-sided polygonal plan, inspired by churches in northern Italy, which reveals its Templar origin. 

Church of Veracruz, with the Alcázar in the background

At sunset and preferably when the snow still covers the peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the most beautiful view of the city is obtained from it, unfolding from the rock of the Alcázar to the guessed valley of the aqueduct: 1000 years of golden stone by the setting sun in which almost always anonymous hands wrote the most complete catalog of art born in the lands of Castile.

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