It is easy for the mind to fuse together a string of visits to places with similar-sounding names and similar-appearing attractions. Take Seville, Segovia, and Salamanca, which we just visited in a whirlwind tour of central Spain. They are primarily known for their cathedrals, castles, and city walls. (It’s true that we also visited cities that don’t start with S and saw attractions that don’t start with C, but forgive me for taking a little editorial license…) The point is that, after a while, all of these historically important cities and their Roman, Medieval, Gothic, and Renaissance architectural wonders begin to blur into one sweeping, impressionistic image. But even with all the similarities, there are still unique elements to find.
Cathedrals—It’s a vast understatement to say that there are a lot of cathedrals in Spain. Segovia alone has dozens of ornate churches (not to mention nearly a dozen monasteries and convents), including the last Gothic-style cathedral to be built in Spain. Nearby Avila boasts the first Gothic-style cathedral to be built in Spain, and Seville has the largest Gothic cathedral (and third-largest cathedral of any architectural style)—in the world. Salamanca’s cathedral is actually two cathedrals joined together and built across more than 200 years, so it spans both Gothic and Baroque styles. There seems to have been a competitive spirit, not just a holy one, in the building of each city’s grand cathedral. Segovia claimed the tallest cathedral tower in Spain when it was built (of wood) in the 1500s, until it burned down after a lightning strike (a consequence of the sin of pride perhaps?) and another city claimed that honor.
While pride was certainly an unspoken motivation in building these temples, devotion and exaltation were the public reasons for their grandeur. Each cathedral has similar features: magnificent, gold-encrusted altars; soaring vaulted ceilings with a central dome; intricately carved, dark-wood choir benches; colorful stained-glass windows; and an outer ring of smaller chapels (Seville’s massive version has 80 of these surrounding the main chapel), all decorated with rapturous Biblical paintings, sculptures, and consecrated tombs. But guided tours will also point out the unique features of each structure, whether the artwork in Salamanca, the organ in Segovia, or the final resting place of Christopher Columbus in Seville.
And each carries its own origin story (which often revolves around power). In Seville, the massive cathedral was built on the site of a Moorish mosque after the reconquista by Catholics drove the Moors southward in the 1500s. In Segovia, the Catholic cathedral was built on top of a hill after clearing out the Jewish neighborhood that had occupied the preferred site, moving the Jews to a new, more restricted barrio on the downward slope. All that was before the Jews were forced to leave altogether after the national expulsion order from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492, but that’s a topic for another day.
Castles—On a happier note, rumor has it that Walt Disney used the Alcázar in Segovia as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s movie castle (or maybe Cinderella’s… or maybe the Disneyland or Disney World castle… I’ve seen each of these suggested in travel articles and the truth lies frozen with ol’ Walt I suspect…) Anyway, from certain angles, the similarity is unmistakable. All the classic features are there—a moat at the entry gate, peaked cylindrical towers, high walls, fluttering flags. The reality is less romantic. Perched on the edge of a cliff at one end of the old town, the castle was first and foremost a fortress for protecting various monarchs and leaders. Built on top of early Roman fortifications in the 12th and 13th centuries—and added onto through the 18th century, the Alcázar, it is said, was never taken by force. Suits of armor built for men and boys line the halls, paintings and tapestries depicting battlefield heroics (or atrocities, depending on your perspective) adorn the inner walls, and the Royal College of Artillery (and now museum) shows how the science of various ages has been applied to the purpose of ever more efficient killing, whether for defense or conquest.
Seville, not to be outdone, has its own media-friendly Alcázar—this one used as the Water Gardens of Dorne in Game of Thrones. It looks less like a fairy tale castle and more like a warm-climate palace, retaining more Moorish architectural influences, like spade-shaped arches, colorful painted tiles, and a system of troughs for running water. Isabella and Ferdinand made it their residence in the late 1400s, and nearby is supposedly the location where Columbus successfully convinced them to finance his voyage west to India. Also here is the actual room where Magellen planned the first European circumnavigation of the globe, with help from Seville’s Master Navigator at the time, Amerigo Vespucci, and a Spaniard named Sebastián Elcano, who captained the only ship (of five that started the journey) to return after Magellan died en route. Thus, Spanish museums are proud to point out, Elcano is actually the one who should be remembered for completing the first circumnavigation.
I love learning stories like that in the places where they took place so long ago—where my foggy notions of history become more three-dimensional. That said, it was surprising, in this age of rethinking historical narratives that were written by the “victors,” to see such unabashed whitewashing in the plaques and tours at these castles and museums. After seeing Ecuador’s sincere efforts to tell the histories of the Incas and their predecessors, I guess I had expected at least some attempt at presenting the perspectives of those who were conquered, enslaved, or persecuted. Certainly Spain is not alone in this, but it felt jarring to see, for example, images of Caribbean natives appearing grateful for the arrival of their Christian superiors, or to read about how Jews “chose to leave” after the expulsion order. (Once again, a topic for another day!)
City walls—For the most part, we in the U.S. have no experience with ancient walls to protect a city (and I’ll stay mum about modern-day walls…). Most of ours were wooden and are long gone, whereas in Europe, city walls were constructed of stone and many still stand after 1,000 or even 2,000 years. In Spain, where isolated city-states needed protection from a succession of invaders across the centuries—and where the invaders who overcame the walls inevitably built them higher and stronger—these stone barriers were critical to survival. They were also clear demarcations of hierarchy—those with power lived within the walls; those without, well, just knock on the drawbridge if you need something.
Ávila, near Segovia outside of Madrid, has the best-maintained medieval wall in Spain. Averaging 10 feet thick and 40 feet high, along 1.5 miles around the town, the city wall was built in the 11th century and even now tourists can walk atop more than half its length. It also merges all of my categories, because the cathedral was actually built into the wall and, together with the wall’s 88 towers, they serve as the city’s castle and fortification. Our audio guide told the story of heroic women whose menfolk had left the city for some reason, saving the city by dressing in battle garb like men and banging steel pots to sound like weapons, thus scaring off an army of attackers. I’m not sure if that’s fact or fiction, but I do believe the guide’s description of the unhygienic and dangerous neighborhoods outside the walls, where laborers lived and had to build their own (much more humble) churches while hoping that the wealthy property owners inside the walls would allow them refuge if needed.
Segovia, too, has extensive city walls that served both defensive and hierarchical purposes. Today, as in most Spanish cities with a wall, it separates the “old town,”with its labyrinthine cobbled streets, historic landmarks, and tiny tourist shops, from the “new town,” with its nondescript modern buildings, busy boulevards, and chain stores. Begun in Roman times—with some Latin inscriptions still visible and the massive Roman aqueduct serving as the defining feature of entering the old town area—Segovia’s wall rises above cliffs and snakes around natural curves in the stone. The builders used natural features as part of their system of defense, rather than obliterating nature in order to build something in its place.
Culture—Yes, there’s a fourth C on our list of C*Views. Lest y’all think that we have only seen places related to either war or religion (and in truth there have been plenty of both), there has also been time for entertainment. Seville in particular is known for flamenco dancing, so we got a recommendation for an authentic flamenco experience. And while there was more English spoken in the audience than Spanish, the dancing was proud, strong, and heartfelt. We could see and feel how they tell stories of deep emotion through the dance and make complex rhythms from shoes, hand claps, body taps, finger snaps, and castanets. We could hear and see the musical and stylistic influences of North Africa, of Eastern Europe, of Jewish and Muslim and Christian heritages, all blended into what is now quintessentially Spanish.
And, as predicted in our post about Fiestas, we did find some Carnaval fun in Segovia. While perhaps not as libidinous as the coastal towns, Segovia did have a vibrant, energetic, family-friendly parade with colorful, creative costumes, drumming and dancing, and feasting on traditional fava bean stew. Unfortunately we missed the Burial of the Sardine, whether canceled by rain or because we didn’t stay up late enough, we’re not sure. But the spirit of celebration will stay with us.
A final note: For those of you who have been following the epic saga of our visas, you will be glad to know that as of Monday, the journey is complete! In surprisingly pain-free and even anti-climatic fashion, we made our appointments without a problem and picked up our TIEs (foreigner identification cards) at the National Police office in Tarragona. Nearly 10 months after starting the process, we are officially, legally able to stay in Spain for 8 more months if we choose to do so. It’s tempting to make an analogy to Magellan’s voyage, but in truth, no one has contracted scurvy yet (though Covid is another story) and we hope to return alive, with all of our ships intact.
3 thoughts on “S*Towns and C*Views”
So awesome to experience the history firsthand. This post reminds me of Follett’s Pillars of the Earth even though the country is different.
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What a delightful post…and so informative. There’s a novel set in Spain in your future and I shall be honored to be an early reader.
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Wonder-filled descriptions of cathedrals and fortifications. Thank you.
this led to my recall of the Alhambra which Burt and I visited 8 years ago. In one room in the palace, Queen Isabella signed orders for Columbus’ journey of explorations and for the Inquisition. Even after these hundreds of years, it was chilling and significant.
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