One of the benefits of studying abroad in Madrid at the same time as the students doing American University’s Iberian Experience programs is that the ICADE students have the opportunity to attend the trips around Spain and Portugal that the others go on as part of their program. We do have to pay for the longer trips since they are not included in our tuition fee, but all the day trips are free for us and it’s definitely worth it to explore the country we will call home for the next few months and experience life outside of the capital city of Madrid. Last Saturday we went to Toledo and yesterday we explored Segovia.
After our long week of orientation, we were pretty eager to head south for our first trip of the semester. Toledo is a beautiful medieval town about an hour south of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha. Our tour guides for this trip were Paco, the deputy director of the program, and Patricia, an art history teacher. The passion shown by Paco, Patricia, and all of the professors and staff we have met so far on our trip are definitely some of the main reasons we are enjoying our time here so much. They know so much about art, history, culture, and religion of Spain, and they express the information with such a desire for us to truly understand and appreciate it that it is hard not to fall in love with the country.
Besides it being such a well-preserved example of a medieval town with beautiful architecture and art, Toledo is also well-known as an example of long-term peaceful coexistence between three cultures: the Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Almost everywhere we went there were examples of mudéjar, which is Christian or Jewish buildings, art, or churches strongly influenced by the Moorish artists who produced them, creating a very unique blend of the different cultures. Our first stop, the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, is something you wouldn’t normally see: a mosque dedicated to Jesus Christ. While it was built as a place for Muslim worship, it was converted into a Christian church and was actually built by the visigoths even before then. Paco and Patricia showed us how the walls of the buildings and styles of the architecture changed over time. It was really fascinating and helped us see how similar all the different religions really are.
After leaving the mosque, we saw the huge Catholic Cathedral in the center of the city that dominates Toledo’s medieval skyline and also visited the Jewish Synagogue of El Tránsito. The fact that all of these holy sites of different religions have been allowed here for so long is really fascinating, and represents just another example of how much Spain’s culture has been shaped by the influences of many different cultures from the Romans and visigoths to the Muslims and Jews. While we would not have guessed it, Spain seems to be just as much of a melting pot as the United States. Our final two stops were two Catholic landmarks: the Burial of the Count of Orgaz painting by El Greco housed in Santo Tomé and the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes. The monastery was actually dedicated to the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel of Castilla and Fernando of Aragon, whose unification of their two kingdoms was one of the first steps to the unified Spain that we know today. One of the interesting things we learned about was the supposed motto of their monarchy, the poetic tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando, which basically means that they were joint rulers during their time and both maintained control of the kingdom, despite the strong patriarchal system that was the norm back then. We actually saw this same inscription when we visited Segovia yesterday! After finishing up in the monastery, though, we left to make the trip back to Madrid.
Segovia, the city we visited yesterday, was just as interesting as Toledo was, though they are definitely very different. Though Toledo was south, Segovia is actually located north of Madrid, this time in the autonomous region of Castilla y León. Because of the high altitude at the foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range, it was very chilly in the city, with temperatures around freezing compared to the 10°C/50 °F in Madrid. We actually saw some snow on the ground as we were driving to Segovia, something that Madrid almost never sees despite only being around 90 kilometers away.
The most important and well-known aspect of Segovia is probably the large Roman aqueduct that dates back almost 2,000 years and is almost completely intact despite only being made out of unmortared granite. Segovia is located pretty far from a major water source, so the aqueduct was their main supply of water. It was amazing to see the huge aqueduct in the middle of the city and I was very impressed that it has stayed so well-preserved over the years. It’s so cool to imagine how ancient engineers were able to create a structure requiring so much precision in height in a manner that has lasted until this day with nothing holding the stones together other than gravity and the strategic placement of the keystone. If they had made one mistake with the stone placement or changing the grade of the pillars that supported the aqueduct above, the whole thing would not have worked properly and it would have been worthless.
The other highlight of this trip was our visit to Segovia’s alcázar, the home of a few kings of Spain. It is also, as I just learned from the Wikipedia article, part of the inspiration for Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom, though it definitely reminds me more of the Hogwarts Castle at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The castle represented yet another example of the mudéjar style that we saw in Toledo, with ornate three-dimensional ceilings filled with tiny details carved into the wood. The word alcázar itself comes from Moorish origin, as you can tell by the prefix “al-“. While there, Paco pointed out a Moorish style arch that had been uncovered when restoring the wall of the castle. It’s really interesting to see how the architecture and artistic styles changed over time and especially how we can still see the results of that today. We climbed the 153 winding and tight steps to the top of the castle and were greeted by very windy conditions and a great view of the city.
We also saw the San Martin Square, the Plaza Mayor of the city, and the Cathedral, before heading off to see the gardens at the Royal Palace of La Granja, which looks a lot like the French Palace of Versailles that it was modeled after. While touring the Cathedral, we saw a chapel dedicated to San Antón, which was very cool because yesterday was actually San Antón Day. While walking around the city the day before we had seen lines of people waiting to buy panecillos de San Antón, little bagel-like pastries made for his holiday, and had to ask people what they were for. It was very ironic that one of the chapels we saw the next day was dedicated to him and we visited it on the day named after him.
The only thing missing from our trip to Segovia was tasting a cochinillo, or suckling pig. Segovia is apparently well-known for their cochinillos and we were told they were the best around. We couldn’t find a good place that could accommodate all of us though, and all the ones we found were a little pricey at around €20 for an individual serving. At least we know have something saved for our next visit!