Fairy tales and Roman Engineering

The Splendor of Rome in Spain

“I’m never less at leisure than when at leisure, or less alone when alone.” Scipio Afracanus (236 B.C. – 183 B.C.)

I can certainly feel the sentiment in the Scipio Afracanus’s word’s, as can everyone who is unfortunate to be on a whirlwind vacation with me.   Like the great Roman general Scipio Afracanus who conquered Carthage in the Third (and final) Punic War, I intended to conquer as much of Spain as I could with my camera (and parents and girlfriend in tow).  With Military precision I planned our trek across this wonderful land.  While doing my due diligence for this trip, I came to know about Segovia, Spain.

Segovia is located about 60 miles Northwest of Madrid, it is on the plains of Castile and León.  The town of 56,000 people nearly sneaks up on you as you travel up highway AP-61.

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A view of Segovia from the highway

Then, all of sudden, you see it.  And when you do, the impression it gives you is just plan shock and awe.

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Standing at 93.5 feet tall, the grandiose aqueduct dominates the old city in Segovia.  It is estimated that the aqueduct was built between 112 AD and 116 AD during the reign of Emperor Trajan (53 AD – 117 AD).  This was a grand time in the Roman Empire, and this work shows a glimpse of the greatness of Roman Engineering nearly 2,000 years ago.  What is even more impressive, is when under close inspection, I could see almost no mortar in the structure.

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The massive stone blocks are held together by friction and the magic of mathematics.  Engineering helped Rome conquer the known world, and this aqueduct is laid out according to the principles of Vitruvius (80 B.C. – 15 B.C) who was a Roman Architect and Engineer.  Not much is known about Vitruvius except that he is the author of De Architectura which was dedicated to his patron Emperor Augustus Caesar (63 B.C. – 15 A.D.) which is the only surviving treatise on Architecture and Engineering from antiquity.

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Jenell, Sandy, and Glenn under the Aqueduct.

The aqueduct was kept functional and provided water to the city until the 19th century.

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View of the city from the top of the aqueduct

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Later Christian additions to the aqueduct

The center of the city is a hub of activity.  The city plays host to hundreds of thousands of tourist every year who come to see its ancient wonder.  And with the tourist, come the section of Spanish society the provide them services and in turn have a livelihood in which to feed their own families.  My experience with the local population was exceedingly good.  Overall, they were very friendly and eager to help whenever we needed directions or a recommendation.  Along with Spanish people and culture, their lives a minority population of gypsies or “los gitanos” as they are known in Spain.  They exact amount of gypsies that live in Spain is not known, but it is estimated to be around 1 million people.

The gypsies are a people who are originally from the Indian subcontinent of an area known as Hindustan and immigrated to the Spanish region as early as 600 A.D. We met one of these crafty gitanas in Segovia selling homemade scarfs in the shadows of the aqueduct.  My mother and girlfriend stopped to look at the scarfs and the Romani knew she had a nibble on her bait.

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Mother haggling with a Gypsy 

All across Europe, the gypsies are known for their ability to negotiate.  And they are also known for being a bit on the shady side.  In Spain, gypsy women represent 1.4% of the population, yet they occupy 25% of the prison cells.  I wonder if this woman was born in the wagon of a traveling show, but I think it would be quite a desperate man who would come a lay his money down.  This woman was aggressive.  Her opening price was 20 euro for the homemade shawl.  The women thought this was too much and walked away.  The gypsy woman followed them down the street offering a much better price of 13 euro, or a 35% discount.  If you are able to negotiate any asking price down 35%, you are a fine negotiator indeed.

Not only was this helpful women willing to bring the merchandise to the buyer, but she also felt at liberty to reach into Jenell’s wallet and help herself to a 20.  Her fingers were much more nimble than would appear at first glance.  The woman must have been confused, because she did not want to give change for the 20 euro she just snatched.  But, luckily for the girls, my large galoot of a Dad demanded change and the gypsy woman acquiesced.  The Romani wrapped the shawls tightly into a plastic bag, and we concluded are exchange under the shadow of the venerable arches.  As you can see from the above photo, my Mother is haggling over a delicate shawl that is handmade.  The girls did not notice until a couple of days later, when we were 500 miles away, that the shiesty woman was playing an old sleight of hand trickery.  When the bags they purchased were opened, there was a manufactured shawl that could be found at every shop in Spain for 6 euro – you can see it here in the photo below.

A 6 euro shawl purchased for 20 euro – good job Mom and Jenell


The Alcazar of Segovia

“Happiness is like those palaces in fairy tales whose gates are guarded by dragons: we must fight in order to conquer it.” Alexandre Dumas (1802 – 1870) French Writer

If an American who has never visited Europe is asked to describe what a castle is, their description would inevitably sound a lot like the Alcázar de Segovia.  It is large and imposing.  It is perched on the side of cliff, overlooking the valley daring those who are in it’s presence to defy it’s will.  And it’s also looks like a princess should be living inside of it’s secure walls.

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Like so many other fortifications in Europe, this one was also built on top of an old Roman fort.  The Muslims who came later built a wooden fort over the Roman foundations, that castle was later razed and the structure that can be seen today was built by Kingdom of Castile starting under the reign of King Alfonso VIII (1155-1214).  The structure took it’s shape over the centuries, with the last major improvement by King Juan II of Castile (1405 – 1454).

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Tower of John II of Castile

As you walk around the ramparts, you can get a keen understanding on how imposing this structure would be in a pre-gunpowder era.  While walking around the ramparts, I tried to imagine myself as a general from the Middle Ages who was tasked with sacking this castle by force, and it seemed to me that this would be a nearly impossible task.

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Dad and I on the ramparts


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Jenell the Fierce is defending the walls, all can sleep well tonight.
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Taking by force looks impossible
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Dad enjoying the dominating view of Segovia and the valley
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Jenell is enjoying the big deck.

Even though this structures were supremely important in military matters, what captures the imagination is that this was also the homes of rich and famous of their era.  People live here, they made their homes, raised their families.  This is what fascinates so many, is that medieval society was so intertwined – war, politics, and religion were one.  There are many glimpses of the elegance of the nobility made into the structure – were as today, all military structures are one hundred percent utilitarian.

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gardens inside the castle walls

This particular castle played a very important role in Spanish history.   King Henry IV (1425 – 1474) or King Enrique IV if you prefer, who was nicknamed “the Impotent” (I love medieval monikers because they tell you exactly what the people thought of that person) only had one daughter who many did not believe was he actually fathered.  529 years after King Henry IV, researchers in Spain diagnosed him with Chronic Renal Lithasis (kidney stones) which was the cause of his impotency and his early death.

King Henry was not a particularly effected monarch, and internal strife grew as thoughts over the succession became central in Spanish politics.  Henry had two younger half-siblings Infante (Spanish prince) Alfonso and Infanta (Spanish princess) Isabella.  Henry preferred his own daughter Infanta Joanna to inherit the throne, but the nobles wanted Alfonso.  So a civil war ensued.  Intensity in the war grew until the second Battle of Olmedo occurred in 1467.  Neither side gained dominance, so a compromise was drawn.  Infante Alfonso was named successor to King Henry IV.

All was well until Infante Alfonso died at the age of 14.  Many believed it to be the poison, but plague was the probable cause.  Another civil war ensued.  Infanta Isabella preferred a settlement to war, and King Henry IV who could not find a way to rout the rebels acquiesced and  she was named heir to the Kingdom.  Isabella spent her youth at Segovia and the castle was her base of strength.  On December 11, 1474, King Henry IV was finally done in by his kidney stones at age 49, and the young princess was named Queen Isabella I of Castile and León.  Just as the future Queen Elizabeth I of England would leave an indelible mark on her county and the world, so would Queen Isabella I “the Catholic” leave her mark on Spain and the entire world.  Isabella married King Ferdinand V of Aragon, making them co-monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.  Their union and offspring would be the basis of uniting the many desperate kingdoms of the peninsula into one Kingdom of Spain that we know today.  She would complete the Reconquista which lasted from 722 A.D. until the final conquest of Granada occurred in 1492 and with it the final power base of Muslims in the peninsula.  In that same year, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue discovering the Americas which led to the basis of the Spanish empire and a remaking of all of Europe that has lasted to this day.  Queen Isabella “The Catholic” cause for canonization started upon her death, and the rapid moving Catholic Church approved her cause in 1974 and she was given the title “Servant of God” which is the 1st of 4 steps in the cause of canonization – servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally Saint.

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Stained glass of King Alfonso VIII and his daughter

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King Henry III and his family

The interior of the castle is quite beautiful and very well preserved.  One item that I found particularly striking was the amount of detail that went into ceilings.  They are beautiful, intricate, and very unique.


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Royal bedroom 
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A lascivious looking monk overlooking the royal bedchambers

The centers of governmental power were located in the castle.  There is the throne room and a “Parliament style room”.

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Large room for holding court, intricate statues of previous monarchs are carved around the room
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Throne Room “Tanto Monta” is the motto of Isabella and Ferdinand meaning – they amount to the same.

The royal chapel with a painting of Moorish heads laying about.


Photos around town

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