Annie Bennett, The Daily Telegraph, September 04, 2013
I hope the stationers of Segovia have stocked up on notebooks. They need to be ready for the annual invasion of writers from all over the world who come to the Castilian city to take part in the Hay Festival at the end of September. The medieval lanes, ancient doorways and mysterious passages are fertile places for novelists as well as travel writers.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the crime writer Val McDermid, who will be talking to the journalist and Hispanist Giles Tremlett this year, scribbling at a café table in the Plaza Mayor, the porticoed square that is the natural meeting point at festival time. One of the main venues this year is the Teatro Juan Bravo, which dominates the north end of the square, so the café terraces will be busier than ever as writers and audiences while away the odd half hour between events.
Talks, exhibitions, concerts and performances are held in palaces, convents, churches, gardens, courtyards, museums and mansions throughout the city. Many of these are open only during festival time. I think Val McDermid might well find inspiration in the Santa Cruz La Real monastery, which has National Monument status and is used for a lot of Hay events. It was founded in the 13th century by Saint Dominic who, appropriately, believed that words were more powerful than weapons and is often depicted holding a book. In the late 15th century, Tomás de Torquemada, the Great Inquisitor, was the prior here and rebuilt the monastery with money from Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs.
The city’s elegant architectural landscape
The sprawling building alongside the Eresma river now houses the IE University, which has extensively restored the building. Juan José Prat Ferrer, director of its language centre, told me that in the 19th and 20th centuries it became an orphanage and a refuge for unmarried women, who went there to give birth. “The women usually left the child at the orphanage and carried on with their lives. People of 60 and 70 turn up now and again and say they were born here,” he said.
Last year, Giles Tremlett interviewed Philippa Gregory (author of The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen) in San Juan de los Caballeros church, parts of which date from the sixth century. Someone in the audience asked if she would ever consider writing about a Spanish queen, maybe Isabella, who was crowned Queen of Castile in Segovia. “I learnt a lot about her when I was writing The Constant Princess, as it is about her daughter, Catherine of Aragon, but it is one of her other daughters, Juana La Loca – Joanna the Mad - who really fascinates me,” she said. “I would love to write about her because I think labelling women as mad is a way they have been kept out of power throughout history.”
Another of last year’s speakers was Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the London Olympics cauldron. He, too, was exhilarated by Segovia’s monuments. “I believe a city should be inspired by its infrastructure, which shapes its true identity, rather than following this trend for extravagant buildings,” he said. “In Segovia, you have this amazing structure that was built for piping water. The aqueduct is a phenomenal thing, and it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.”
The Romans built the aqueduct 2,000 years ago using granite slabs from the Guadarrama mountains, with nothing to bind them together. It carried the city’s water supply until half a century ago and has World Heritage status – as does the entire medieval heart of Segovia.
Soak up the atmosphere on the lively Plaza Mayor
I met the festival’s director, Sheila Cremaschi, at a pavement café in the Plaza Mayor. “I see the festival as a sprawling democratic forum,” she told me, as we sipped from our glasses of velvety Ribera del Duero red wine. “We’re not just a literary festival any more either; it’s all about ideas. Architecture plays a major role this year, as the festival is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Spain’s trade links with China. We’ve got an exhibition featuring 100 contemporary Chinese architectural projects at Santa Cruz La Real, and Wang Shu, who won the Pritzker Prize last year, will be talking to the award’s executive director, Martha Thorne.”
We were joined by my friend Ann Bateson, who presents a radio programme in English at the Circulo de Bellas Artes cultural centre in Madrid. At the festival, she joins writers and actors to read and recite poems and stories at the Romeral de San Marcos, an exotic garden hidden away down a path by the Eresma river. Set on a steep slope on the side of a gorge, it was created by Leandro Silva, who also restored the Botanic Garden in Madrid. Hardly anyone visits the garden for the rest of the year, but during this event dozens of people stroll along the narrow paths in the shade of quince, plum and pear trees, catching an occasional gimpse of the Alcázar, the fairytale castle on the edge of the ridge on the other side of the river.
It is thanks to Ann that Segovia has a Hay Festival. In the late 1980s, she was working at the British Council, bringing artists, writers and performers to Spain. “I brought this one-man show over [to Madrid], a young lad who recited the poetry of Wilfred Owen,” she said. “He was also performing in Segovia, so I packed him off on the boneshaker bus. It took about three hours along mountain roads back then – a bit of a difference from the half-hour journey on the high-speed train now.”
The young man was Peter Florence - who would go on to found the Hay Festival in Wales – and his visit to this town of golden stone made a lasting impression on him. Years later, when he was asked where he would choose to stage Hay in Spain, his answer was immediate. “The town has everything,” he says. “It’s the perfect size, with such elegant architecture. I love the way people promenade around, taking possession of the streets. And Spain’s first printing press was here, which is, of course, highly symbolic to us, particularly as publishing is changing so rapidly. We are still going to consume stories, whether on e-readers or in beautifully bound books with the best vellum paper.”
The Roman-built aqueduct
He stresses that Hay is “not a lecture series; it’s a party. A cross between a country wedding and an international conference.” I know where I’ll be spending most of my time this year: at a strategic table in the Plaza Mayor. I’ll be thinking of what Mariano José de Larra, the great satirist, wrote in his article El Café in 1832: “I sat down… pulled my cape up to my eyes, turned down the brim of my hat, and was all set to take in whatever foolishness emerged from the bustling crowd.”
The festival runs from Thursday, September 26 until Sunday, September 29. The following are some of the highlights:
The crime writer Val McDermid in conversation with the writer and journalist Giles Tremlett.
The Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa is interviewed by the writer JJ Armas Marcelo about his new novel, The Discreet Hero.
The bestselling novelists Rosa Montero and Naviel Preciado discuss their latests books with Ana Gavín.
José Manuel Caballero Bonald, winner of the prestigious Cervantes Prize in 2012, talks about his work with the poet Luis García Montero.
Antonio Muñoz Molina, who was awarded this year’s Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras award, will discuss the translation of music with Josep Pons, musical director of
the Liceo opera house in Barcelona.
The Pritzker Prize-winning architect Wang Shu discusses new architecture in China with Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize.
Madrid is the nearest airport (54 miles, 87 km away). British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) flies there from Heathrow and London City; Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com ) from Gatwick; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Edinburgh and Liverpool; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) from Manchester, Stansted and Dublin.
It is 30 minutes by train ( renfe.com ) to Segovia from Madrid. Avant trains are half the price of Alvias (€12.50 single rather than €24.10) for pretty much the same service. A bus runs from Segovia Guiomar station to the aqueduct (€1) and a taxi costs about €10. La Sepúlvedana ( lasepulvedana.es ) runs a frequent bus service from Madrid to Segovia, which takes just over an hour and costs €8.09 one way.
Kirker Holidays (020 8793 1899; kirkerholidays.com ) offers three nights’ b&b at the central, stylish, four-star Palacio San Facundo, which dates from the 16th century, from £768 per person, including return flight to Madrid and car hire. Train travel to Segovia and private transfers can also be arranged.
Condes de Castilla
Parts of this recently converted palace date from the 13th century. It’s right in the centre of town by San Martín church and handy for shops, restaurants and sights. The contemporary rooms are set around a covered courtyard where breakfast is served (0034 921 463529; hotelcondesdecastilla.com ; doubles from €80/£68 b&b).
Ask for a room overlooking the Plaza Mayor at this pleasant three-star hotel. Most sights and festival venues are within walking distance and there are lots of places to eat nearby. The hotel’s own restaurant, Casares, is pretty good, too, with a €12 three-course lunch (921 461300; hotelinfantaisabel.com ; doubles from €85/£73 b&b).
Parador de Segovia
A modern Parador hotel about two miles outside the city, with panoramic views of the skyline and an outdoor pool. Rooms are spacious and comfortable and there is a good restaurant (921 437362; parador.es ; doubles from €111/£95 b&b).
EATING AND DRINKING
Mesón de Cándido
Deservedly renowned throughout Spain and beyond for its roast suckling pig and lamb, as well as other regional specialities. Eating at Cándido is the quintessential Segovia experience (Plaza del Azoguejo 5; 921 425911; mesondecandido.es ).
Mesón José Maria
This is the favourite place to eat suckling pig or roast lamb for many locals. There is a lot more to choose from, however, and a lively bar with great tapas. (Cronista Lecia 11; 921 461111; rtejosemaria.com ).
Right on the Plaza Mayor, with plenty of terrace tables, and food that is a bit more sophisticated than at many of Segovia’s restaurants. Try the hake stuffed with crab if you don’t fancy the excellent steaks or roast meats (Plaza Mayor 15; 921 460930; restaurantelaconcepcion.com ).
Just off the Plaza Mayor, this is a good spot for a set lunch (€11) or tapas at the bar. Specialities included braised bulls’ tail and monkfish with ajoarriero sauce – garlic, peppers and tomatoes (Valdeláguila 3; 921 463914; restaurantelatasquina.com).
The Segovia Card (€3) entitles you to free admission at the museum dedicated to the poet Antonio Machado museum and discounts at some other sights and on guided tours.
Audio guides are available in English, with several routes to follow around the town. These and the tourist card are available from the tourist office in Plaza del Azoguejo, by the aqueduct, and other visitor-information points.
To use the municipal bicycle scheme, which costs €3 a day, you need to register at the tourist office with your passport.
The RetroVista Segovia app enables you to follow a route around Segovia and see photographs of monuments as they were at the start of the 20th century ( retrovistapp.com ; €1.79 from the App Store or €1.50 from the tourist office).
Books4Spain.com has a huge selection of books about Spain in English.