Our intrepid business traveler finds herself climbing the hills of Segovia, Spain—and braves a near-death experience involving a piglet, a dinner plate, and an aggressive waiter.
A visit to Spain rarely disappoints. The people are passionate, the architecture is sublime, and the Mediterranean weather near-perfect. Spanish customs speak for themselves; where else on earth is an afternoon nap encouraged and dinner not even contemplated before 10 p.m.? My recent travels to Segovia, a jewel box of a city just north of Madrid, were a compelling reminder that it is a destination not to be missed. With history dating back to the first century, it entices you from the first glance with its infamous Aqueduct, one of the best-preserved monuments from the Romans on the Iberian Peninsula.
Segovia is filled with treasures from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and you’ll be surprised how little has changed in 700 years (not that GWS speaks from first-hand experience.) The Arabian architecture—called esgrafiado—is the 14th century’s interpretation of graffiti and adorns many building facades in the old town. The architecture comes with stories, and the Castillian people are quick to educate visitors on their fascinating history from Celtic and Roman times to the significance of Juan Bravo to, of course, religion. In nearly every square—and there are many—you will find a Romanesco church. By the 15th century there were 47 within the city walls. Now there are 21, but each of them a sight to see.
Getting to Segovia is easy from Madrid. It’s about 90 minutes by car and 35 by train. Cars aren’t necessary as it’s a walking town, but ladies, please, consider your footwear. Hills and ancient brick make a rather compelling argument for flats.
Segovia is not an outpost for The Four Seasons or the Ritz. It is a modest place and your expectations should be tempered accordingly. You come here for history and to be within striking distance of a good city wander. Hotel San Antonio el Real is a find. Situated in a restored convent dating back to the 15th century, it has 51 simple and modern rooms. With typical mudejar architecture, this is a treat for visitors, especially given that it was closed to all as a World Heritage Site until the 1930s. Rooms cost roughly 100 euros, depending on the style. The only downfall is that you’re a good 15 minute walk to the heart of the old town.
Palacio San Facundo (referred to simply as San Facundo by locals) is in the old part of the city and a stone’s throw from the Plaza Mayor (the main square). As is typical in Segovia, this palace dates back to the 16th century and guests are treated to a winning blend of old and new. A perk I found appealing is the breakfast served in the central atrium underneath a dramatic glass dome. Somehow this makes the coffee taste regal. Wifi and underground parking are included. Rooms from 100 euros, but check for deals; they offer quite a few specials.
Veggies beware—Spain is the ham capital of the world. Little porkers adorn all the main restaurants and Segovia is known for its "milk-fed pork," a nice bit of branding for suckling pig. Jose Maria restaurant came highly recommended and began well. The front bit has a boisterous bar and there is a main dining room and lovely private quarters downstairs. Delicious Iberian hams and cured meats arrive with great fanfare. The cheeses are drizzled with delicious local olive oil and include a sweet fig chutney chaser. The wine is heavenly. I was lulled into a relaxed state. Then it happened: a handsome little piglet was wheeled through the restaurant with trotters hanging gently over its dish. He looked so peaceful. Then the waiter grabbed a plate and smashed it through the body cavity of the pig. I nearly died. Apparently Jose Maria is famous for this tradition and both locals and visitors alike come for this great pork spectacle. I don't have the stomach for this much tradition. You be the judge; just be sure to enjoy the first courses. Reasonably priced from about 25 euros per person, depending on alcohol.
For traditional Castillian food, head to Meson de Candido (again, commonly referred to simply as Candido for the namesake owners.) Considered one of the best restaurants in town, Candido offers what I’d consider the Forrest Gump menu for pork: acorn-fed ham, fried pork sausage in oil, beans with ear and pig’s feet, medallions of boar… you get the picture. For tamer options you’re fine; try the asparagus or chicken fricassee. Grab a glass of something and just indulge. Ask about the family history and you’ll be served a hearty tale.
Segovia is best known for its trilogy of monuments: the Aqueduct, the Cathedral, and the Fortress. All can be seen in a day, provided you’re prepared to walk. Rarely do I recommend tours, but in this instance you should know what you’re looking at. The history is endearing and forlorn: disputes, a coronation of the queen, essential bankruptcy, and a spat between the Celts and Romans. Soak it all in. The hotels can offer a local guide to accompany you down hidden paths and to discover the many majestic monuments in their full splendor.
On your exploration be on the lookout for a jail that is now a library, the infamous statue of Juan Bravo, and of course the last gothic cathedral built in Spain. Your walk will take you through Calle de Juan Bravo (the royal street.) Pop in to Marin Pasteleria for a small indulgence (ironically across from the former jail) or for a more mature option there’s "el estanco de juan bravo" for a good cigar. GWS was particularly taken with "la casa de los picos" with diamond-shaped studs on the outside. I’m told it was the first house to be attacked during one of the city’s epic battles. Now it’s a school for the arts. I guess that’s progress.
If time allows, try the Estaban Vincente Museo de arte contemporario (Museum of Contemporary Art). Housed in the former palace of Henry IV, it boasts an impressive collection of Spanish art. They have an exhibit called ‘dibujos’ through September and it’s a bargin at 3 euros for entry.
Beware the pickpockets in the heart of town. Thievery is big business here and if you’re not careful your valuables will disappear. Be conscious of it; they’re not scary, they’re just sly.
Hotel los Lunajes is a disaster; it looks amazing but avoid staying here at all costs unless you’re interested in your neighbor’s shower patterns.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.