Thursday, July 1, 2010

The authentic Segovia Castle

The tourist guides are wrong, because what you see is what it really looked like centuries ago.

Modern Segovia Castle. Photo by Katheline Vernati-Finn.


"Although there has been a fortress on this site since the Middle Ages, the present castle is mostly a fanciful reconstruction following a fire in 1862." That's what the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide to Spain says. Most tourist guides say the same thing. They're wrong.

The present-day alcázar (a castle or palace used as a royal residence) is as authentic as it gets. Here's the real story, which I've learned from Spanish history books and repeated, attentive visits:

The Romans, in addition to building Segovia's magnificent aqueduct, apparently had a fortress at the west end of Segovia, but nothing really remains of that. The site is on the rocky outcrop over two rivers that stands like the stony prow of a ship. The defensive advantages of the spot are obvious. The Moors probably had something there, too.

The first mention of the alcázar comes in 1122, after the reconquest of Segovia by King Alfonso VI, and it appears to have involved a wooden stockade. During the reign of Alfonso VIII (1155-1214), some of the oldest stone parts of the castle were built, such as the Old Castle Hall, along with the western tower and its Arms Hall.

King Alfonso X (1252-1284) rebuilt part of the castle when it collapsed; castle maintenance is always an issue, as any chatelain will tell you. In 1412, Queen Catherine of Lancaster had more rooms constructed on the north side, including the Galley Chamber. Additions and alterations continued during the 1400s, notably the construction of the impressive gothic Tower of Juan II on the east side, built over an existing tower.

This was the castle where Isabel I was staying when she was declared Queen in 1474.

King Felipe II (1556-1598) married his fourth wife, Anna of Austria, in the Chapel. He ordered the last of the major renovations, including the Renaissance-style Arms Courtyard and slate-shingled spires just like those of Central European castles — lovely, but so unlike typical Spanish castles that modern tourist guidebook writers can't make sense of them.

Felipe II, of course, moved the royal court permanently to Madrid. The castle eventually found use a prison, hosting various notable inmates. In 1762 it became the Royal Artillery School. Then a three-day fire started on March 6, 1862, in the Queen's Chamber, next to the Cord Room, and destroyed many roofs and damaged the structure.

The Artillery School, which has a museum in the castle, describes the fire in an exhibit. A couple of students set the fire, hoping to get out of exams. They were executed. But the pre-conflagration photos show a building almost identical to the tourist attraction we now know and love.

Architect Antonio Bermejo y Arteaga directed a reconstruction from 1882 to 1896. Felipe II's fancy plaster-work, including the king-by-king frieze in the Hall of the Monarchs, was reproduced. Some original elements were saved or rebuilt. Others, such as the gilt mudejar ceiling in the Throne Room, were taken from medieval buildings and houses in the area and match the originals.

How authentic is it? Quite authentic. It's really what it looked like 400 years ago. Like any old building, it's had its maintenance problems and disasters over the centuries, but it's remained a working building. The conveniences of plumbing, glass windows, and electric lights have been added, along with historically harmonious works of art and antiques to delight visitors.

And that's as good as it gets. Enjoy.

The official website:

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