The Dead City Of Segovia
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Here is the real type of a "dead city" still serenely sleeping, in a dream of which the spell has been broken neither by the desecrating hand of the tourist crowd, nor by the inrush of commercial activity, nor by any native anxiety for self-exploitation. How deeply Sego-via sleeps the bats well know, and, as evening falls, they almost dare to enter one's window in the heart of the city. Toledo, Granada, Avila have been awakened from their charmed sleep; they are learning the lessons of modern life, and at the least they are beginning to know how to utilize the tourist, so that the stranger can no longer wander at peace in their streets dreaming of the past. Segovia is still only a goal for travelers who are few and for the most part fit. Segovia bears a general resemblance to Toledo, which is, indeed, the supreme type of the Spanish city; but it is still more loftily placed, it is more exactly girdled by waters—tho its two clamorous streams in no degree approach the majesty of the Tagus—and it is surrounded by a still fresher expanse of verdure. It is a natural fortress accidentally placed in an unusually delightful site.
This character of Segovia as in a very complete degree a natural fortress, made its reputation at the beginning of Spanish history, and indeed, earlier, for its name is said to be of primitive Iberian origin. The Romans exprest their sense of the importance of Segovia by planting here forever the solidest of their monuments, the mighty aqueduct, which brings the pure, cold waters of the Fuenfria from the Guadarrama Mountains ten miles away. The Moors held Segovia for an unknown period, and the palace-fortress, or Alcazar, which they doubtless erected on what is the inevitable site for such a structure, became, in a remodeled and rebuilt form, the home of Alfonso the Wise, who here uttered the famous saying that he could have suggested improvements in the universe had the Creator consulted him, whereupon, according to the monkish chronicler a terrific thunderstorm burst over the Alcazar and warned the audacious monarch of his wickedness.
The destruction which Alfonso's repentance arrested seems, however, only to have been temporarily delayed, for half a century ago the incomparable beauty and antiquity of the interior of the Alcazar was totally destroyed by fire, and work—the finest production of fifteenth-century artists and craftsmen—which is re-corded to have left on the minds of all who saw it "an ideal memory of magic splendor," vanished from earth forever, leaving nothing behind but a few inscriptions, a few arabesque friezes. To outward view, however, even to-day, when it is merely a receptacle of military archives, the Alcazar stands as superbly as ever, one of the remaining examples of a medieval fortress.
As long as strong places were necessary Segovia was prosperous, but when at length Spain became united, Segovia's part in its life was played. It remains to-day a city that is mainly Roman, Romanesque, and medieval. There is nothing in it of importance later than the sixteenth century, and the only great contribution which that century made was the cathedral. That, certainly, was no minor addition, for the dome of the cathedral crowns Segovia at its highest and most central point, and is for its own architectural sake, moreover, of great interest. It represents the finest ultimate development of a peculiarly Spanish movement in architecture.
When we wander today through the streets of Segovia we feel ourselves back in a Romanesque city. It is still full of parish churches, not one of them said to be later than the thirteenth century, and the slow shrinkage of the population, compensated by no such modern industrial expansion as we find in Granada and Toledo—for the presence of a barracks and some associated military avocations alone seem to give Segovia any simulacrum of life-has left nearly all these churches more or less untouched, some still in use, some locked up and abandoned, one or two used as museums or for other secular purposes, and a considerable number in a more or less advanced state of ruin and decay.
The most important of them, indeed, San Esteban, is undergoing a sort of restoration; its mighty, square, four-storied tower—"the queen of Spanish Byzantine towers"—has been taken down because it threatened to fall, and at present only a high mass of scaffolding marks what was once a chief landmark of the city. That is the one stirring of life among the forsaken churches of Segovia. It is the silent desolation of these old churches which more vividly than anything else, in a land that is still so pious as Spain, makes us realize that we are in a dead city. Often in ruins, some of them are still locked, and in one or two rare cases a guardian faintly jingles the keys as he sees the stranger approach, but otherwise remains impassive; for the most part not a solitary person is to be seen near these old churches.
In one's final impression of Segovia there stands out not alone, or perhaps even chiefly, the lofty city itself, in its pride that has grown silent and its splendor that is now tattered. One thinks, at least, as much of the delightful setting in which this rough medieval jewel is placed, as it hangs suspended by the links of its aqueduct from the Guadarrama Mountains. Here and there, indeed, from within the city itself, we catch fascinating glimpses of the country below and around; there is a splendid outlook from the great Esplanade—the site of the early vanished Byzantine cathedral—which separates the Alcazar from the city; and the Paseo, scooped out on the southern side of the height —whither the military band on Sunday evenings attracts the women of beauty and fashion in Segovia, mostly, it would seem, the wives and daughters of the officers quartered here—gives us another vision of the environing hills. They are not rugged or forbidding in aspect, these softly undulating hills, and they shelter, not far off, the palace gardens of La Granja, one of the chief summer resorts of Spanish kings, yet they are high enough to be covered with snow even in early summer. That superb white mantle which cloaks the loftier undulations to the southeast, and seems so strangely near in this clear air, gives a deliciously keen edge to the hot sun; and we feel here the presence, for once in harmonious conjunction, of those two purities of ice and flame which penetrate and subdue all this land of Castile, and are also the very essence of its soul.
Once more we descend from Segovia, this time by the ancient gate of the south, and cross the swift little Clamores to the green slopes with their clumps of trees beyond. This is the only side from which one may obtain a fairly complete view of Segovia. To the right one sees the long stretch of the ancient aqueduct with the snow-covered hills beyond it; then the walls of the city supported by their towers and clinging to the rock, half-concealed by the intervening trees; within, churches innumerable; to the extreme left on its sheer height the Alcazar; and crowning all the beautiful soft golden brown mass of the cathedral, concentrating in finest tincture that Spanish tone of color which is the note of all Segovia, and in some degree, indeed, of all Castile.