1 May 2021

Segovia's "El Puente" - Spain

Only a short train journey to the northwest of Spain’s capital city, Madrid, is the ancient town of Segovia. Perfectly situated for a day’s outing from the capital, or an overnight trip if you have the time, Segovia is well worth a visit. The town is relatively small and very picturesque, boasting some wonderful architecture and is set in the beautiful surroundings of the plains of old Castille. Segovia was first settled at least as far back as the Iberian Celtic Iron Age, but it is perhaps best known nowadays for its Roman aqueduct. One of the most remarkable pieces of Roman architecture still extant – and, perhaps more amazingly, still in use – today. I visited Segovia back in May 2010, when I was in staying in Madrid, working on an exhibition at the Arte Canal Exhibition Center, near Plaza Castilla, which appropriately enough is housed inside a converted nineteenth-century reservoir, the interior of which still contains the elegant brick arches that used to hold up the roof.

The Roman aqueduct, or ‘El Puente’ – ‘the bridge’, as it is known locally in Segovia, is certainly an impressive feat of architecture – built in the late first or early second century AD, possibly around the time of the Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117), it covers a distance of almost 700 metres, and changes direction several times in its course. An initial single course of 75 arches transfers to a second course of 44 double arches, reaching a maximum elevation of 29 metres above the valley floor. It’s a remarkably elegant structure, built of granite blocks quarried from the nearby Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, which have been fitted together without the aid of mortar. The aqueduct structure itself is the terminus of an equally remarkable piece of hydraulic engineering. Unlike a lot of Roman municipal watercourses, which favoured water drawn from the cleaner sources of natural springs, the aqueduct at Segovia is fed by the River Aceveda, from the headwaters of the River Frio, in the pine and oak forested slopes of the mountains. This meant that along its course the aqueduct incorporated a system of basins which were used to filter out silt, sand and organic debris which might otherwise contaminate or block the water-flow. 

In total, from its source to its terminus in the city’s Alcazar, the system traverses some 15 kms – all propelled by the natural gradients of the landscape and gravity, and, effectively maintained as a working system from its construction to the present day, it is indeed a remarkable feat of human ingenuity and practical engineering. Overlooking this particular continuity and its amazing longevity, I have a 1920s guidebook which somewhat fancifully, and rather disparagingly, claims that: “the ignorant populace [of old Segovia] wondering how or why those huge arches spanning the valley had ever been erected, and unable to find a satisfactory answer, promptly attributed its construction to Satan, and called it the ‘Bridge of the Devil’ – a name by which it is popularly known to this day.” – El Puente is certainly a remarkable survival from pagan times to the present, but given that it served a communally beneficial function I’m sure the locals thought it a case of ‘better the devil you know’ than letting superstition spite themselves by cutting off their own water supply.

Segovia, 1562 - by Anton van den Wyngaerde

Isabella I
The old town of Segovia also contains some notable buildings from later historical eras, all bearing the marks of the town’s uses and abuses right up to the recent Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Located on the old pilgrim route of the Camino de Santiago from Madrid, Segovia was notably the place where Isabella I was proclaimed Queen of Castile and Leon in 1474 in the Church of San Miguel de Segovia. Her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon five years earlier effectively unified Spain under the twin dynasties, although she is perhaps best remembered for the fact that the ‘Reconquista’, expelling the last of the Moorish rulers from Spain, was completed during her and Ferdinand’s joint reign; however, this too is possibly eclipsed by her and her husband having famously supported the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. She is undoubtedly an important figure in the history of Spain. Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand, are both buried next to Granada’s Cathedral in the Capilla Real (see here).

The Alcazar, Segovia - David Roberts, 1838
The Alcazar, or Fortress, of Segovia is one of the most impressive castles in Spain. Looking rather like the iconic cartoon castle of a Disney Princess, with its conical roofed towers and its formidable central bastion, it stands on a rocky prominence jutting out over the landscape below, commanding some wonderful scenic views. Its foundations go back as far as the Roman era, but the present structure, which largely dates from the medieval period although having been much adapted over time, has served as a Royal Palace, a military stronghold and college. It retains its military association today as the Museum of the Royal College of Artillery. Many of its rooms are splendidly decorated and it houses all manner of historical weapons, ordinance, suits of armour, and standards. It is a fascinating place to wander around, but an interesting unflagged modern-day military aside from all the medieval armoury dotted about the place can be found on the battlements of the roof, where many of the stones have been inscribed with graffiti by soldiers who fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s – looking over the names scratched into the stonework you will find many of foreign origin, from the International Brigades, including fighters from Britain, who had signed up to fight for the anti-fascist cause. 

Republican Fighters on the Extremadura Front, September 1936

From 31 May to 6 June 1937 the ‘Segovia Offensive’ was fought here in an attempt to hold back the nationalist forces from their advance towards Bilbao, but the offensive ultimately failed due to the nationalists’ air superiority. This battle is perhaps most notably memorialised in Ernest Hemingway’s semi-fictional account of it in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) – which takes its title from a meditation upon the nature of death written by the Old English poet, John Donne; the sentiment of which at the time rang with an apposite sense of truth given all the anxious uncertainties posed by an existentially threatened future and its call for a greater sense of unity in a time of genuine adversity. Looking at those long forgotten names scratched upon the battlements of the Alcazar, it is a passage which we’d perhaps do well to remember, especially now that the devil of the extreme far-right is once again knocking at Europe’s door:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

San Martin Church, Segovia

Segovia Cathedral

Church of San Miguel de Segovia


The Alcazar, Segovia

Spanish Civil War era graffiti on the roof of the Alcazar

Segovia, Spain