Segovia: The Alcazar

Why did you visit?

The Alcazar is one of Segovia’s three “top sites”. The tradition is to do a one day dash up from Madrid to see the aqueduct, the cathedral, and the alcazar. The alcazar opens fairly early, so I went first thing in the morning, hoping to beat the tourist who are coming up from Madrid. Worked like a charm. The alcazar was quiet and very few tourists when I arrived. By the time I finished my visit, the entrance was very crowded.

The alcazar is billed as being famous for inspiring the Disney Castle, so I didn’t have high expectations for my visit. I was expecting to gawk and go. But they have a self-guided (audio optional) tour through many of the castle rooms – and the rooms are quite lavishly finished. Good tile work, exquisite wood detailing, etc. Well worth the time and price to take the tour. Don’t just show up and take the famous exterior photo of the west facade.

I was stunned that so much money had been spent on the interior rooms of the castle. This was primarily a military fort. The military was stationed here and doing research. And there were basic rooms that were storing cannons, cross bows, and amour used for actual military engagements. And there was more to the castle than was included in the tour.

You can optionally pay extra to climb to the high roof of the eastern end of the building, which I did. The stairs are very steep, solid stone, tightly winding spiral stairs. Two way visitor traffic. There are a few points where one can get off the stairs to take a rest break or let somebody pass. Otherwise, you literally have to squeeze past each other. Being tall & skinny will benefit you here. I’m short and skinny – so coming down was super tough on my thighs. Yes, climbing up was actually the easy part.

What did you learn?

The people who lived in the alcazar must have frozen to death when the cold winter winds blew. This thing is built up high on a piece of land jutting out above everything around it. The castle has large windows that have glass in them today, but it was modern glass, so I expect those were just large openings back in history. There were some small windows that appeared to have original (or historically correct) glass. So cold winter winds would have ripped right through the castle. Even with the modern glass, there were points along the tour where one could feel cold drafts.

What was most impressive?

The suits of armor. Complete suits. These were quite fancy and in good condition, so I assume they were for “dress up” occasions not actually military battles. But you could get nose to nose with the armor and really learn how the pieces were fitted together and worn on a human body. (The armor was being worn by “sock puppets”.) Armor must have been hot, heavy, and uncomfortable.

What was most interesting?

The military museum (Museo de Historia del Real Colegio de Artilleria).  I noticed the museum entrance after completing the tour of the alcazar. The museum was included with the alcazar ticket. I looked at the door and thought “ugh”. Then I thought, “at least try it”. So I entered. It turned out to be an interesting museum.

It had exhibits included models that had been made to test out new ideas. For example, some of the models tested compressing air. Compressing air, chills the air, and removes moisture from it. We now use this technology for refrigerators and air conditioners. So here was an idea that was originally hoped would be useful in killing or destroying people and fortifications more efficiently (I assume the intended goal of compressing air was to increase the speed of a projectile), that has been put to a peaceful use that improves our lives today.

Other models explored coiled tubes for cooling liquids.  Some models for studying hydraulics.  There were microscopes. And small scale models for steam power. A lot of the exhibits were tools for measuring and weighing things.  Calipers of all sizes.  They appeared to be interested in improving accuracy.  And other equipment for doing chemistry experiments.

The museum also included old drawings and floor plans of the alcazar as well as similar and nearby alcazars. This was helpful in understanding the history. This building was modified and rebuilt multiple times. And it is hard to understand what it might have been like 300 years ago. Being an architect, I like to mentally assemble a floor plan of the place when I visit. I always love to see floor plans and old photos or drawings of a place.

What was most unexpected?

Don Quixote books published in 1770 were on exhibit in the military museum – tucked in with military-related books. Don Quixote books make sense for this region of Spain, but not for serious military study! I read a “condensed” version of Don Quixote when I was in high school. (English translation, of course.) My teacher was opposed to it, but I persisted and read it anyway. I wrote a paper on it – don’t remember what I wrote about though.  I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t use it to plot a military campaign. Wondering if it would be worth a re-read now that I am older.

What else?

The tile. The rooms had tile with geometric designs like at the Nasrid Palace.  They also had some hand-painted tile depicting plants and flowers.  I’m a sucker for tile. I’m always surprised at seeing tile. I think, “oh this is like the Alhambra” or wherever else, but I really admire it anyway. I sporadically read about tile design techniques and wish I had taken more serious art courses when I was younger.

Was climbing to the roof worth it?

Yes, the views are stunning. There is nothing else up there of real interest. You get to peek at a little more of the castle on the way up the stairs, but those rooms were empty and not decorated.