A Roman aqueduct and a cream-colored cathedral

By Geri Dreiling

March 2011

Roman aqueduct at Segovia

As I sat at an outdoor café table near an imposing first century Roman aqueduct enjoying fat, fleshy Manzanilla olives and a bottle of sparkling water, I blurted out for the umpteenth time: “This is like a movie!” My travel companions and guides – E and his parents – smiled politely, yet again, at what was becoming my rather unimaginative catchphrase for the visit.

We were in Segovia, a city about an hour northeast of Madrid. It was Sunday morning and the last day of my whirlwind tour. We’d set out by car for the city which is also the capital of a province by the same name — situated in the Castile and León region of Spain. As we made our way to the destination, a stream of questions and comments about everything I saw flowed out of me like a blathering five-year old.

A statue of a shepherd grabbed my attention. Yes, I was told, there are still shepherds in Spain and you can occasionally see them walking with a staff herding their four-legged flock. It isn’t as common as it once was but the ancient practice still exists. That tidbit of information then triggered a series of questions to E, a city dweller who knows everything about computer programming and nothing about clucking chickens, on current agricultural practices in Spain — queries that were mercifully interrupted when the aqueduct appeared.

Built to bring water from the mountains into the city, the aqueduct is a Roman engineering feat. Although the exact date of the aqueduct’s construction is unknown, it is believed to have been built in the first century. Approximately 25,000 granite blocks are held together by their own weight rather than concrete or mortar. One hundred and sixty six arches stretch more than half a mile and, in some spots, reach over 90 feet into the air. There are several recessed spots in the aqueduct. Most are empty but a few hold images of a saint or the Virgin Mary. According to Segovia’s official tourist website, they were probably once reserved for pagan gods.

And unlike many ancient artifacts, you can walk right up to this one. There are no velvet ropes or stern-faced museum security personnel in red blazers to hold you back. Passing through one of the arches to reach the other side is de rigueur.

Segovia aqueduct arches

Like a child, I could not stop myself from touching the aqueduct. And as I pressed my fingertips against the cold stones, I silently marveled at the aqueduct’s ability to survive centuries of change and upheaval – wars fought between Christians and Moors, the reign of kings, a civil war, the rule of a dictator and the transition to democracy. The aqueduct not only survived, it continued to serve, having been forced into retirement from its job of moving water only relatively recently.

It was after our stop at the aqueduct – a World Heritage site – that we took a short café break. Once refreshed, we set out for the Segovia Cathedral, officially named Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and San Frutos.

Cathedral of Segovia

The cathedral charges a general admission of three Euros unless you visit on Sunday between 9:30 am and 1:15 pm. Fortunately, that was exactly when we stopped in before moving on to our next destination, the village of Pedraza.

Construction on the cream-colored Gothic cathedral began in 1525. On the outside, spires reach towards heaven and a large dome caps the imposing structure. Inside, there are 18 different chapels decorated with breathtaking art, architecture and paintings from the likes of Ambrosius Benson, Juan de Juni, Gregorio Fernández and Pedro Berruguete.

This time, I was separated from human creativity by hundreds of years rather than a thousand. But once again, I marveled at the craftsmanship and artistry – put to work to serve the spirit rather than sate the flesh. As we toured, a Mass was in progress in one of the chapels, adding to the special reverence and wonderment of that Sunday morning.

The morning in Segovia had revolved first around water and then communion wine. I had traipsed on ground where humans had worked, and prayed, for more than a thousand years. It was a moment to pause and reflect on my own brief time on this earth. The aqueduct and cathedral were built long before I was born and will likely be around well after I am gone. But, I also reflected on the need to be present in the now, grateful for everything I have, rather than ruminating on hurts of the past or fearing the future.

And at that present moment, it was time for our traveling party to move on to the next adventure, the village of Pedraza. It would prove to be a most memorable afternoon.