23 Jul 2017 19:20 IST

The Spanish disquisition

This town in Spain owes part of its fame to roasted suckling pigs

Much as I wanted to, I did not enter Segovia like the seasoned solo traveller, appearing foot first from the train, bounding onto the platform, taking a deep, long breath, an imaginary fist bump and telling myself, “Let’s do this!” Instead, I scampered out of the train, my heart thumping, shivering. It was a cold January morning, yes, the temperature hovering between a positive and a negative reading, but that wasn’t why I was so flustered.

I’d boarded the train from Valladolid, some 50 minutes away. The man next to me played on his phone, while I abandoned myself to the perfectly bucolic vista outside. I first felt the pressure of the man’s leg on mine when the map in the train was showing 10 minutes to Segovia. I moved my foot, immediately apologetic, as women are wont to be. Within a minute, his leg was pressing down again. I squiggled, moved around, made it obvious that I knew what he was trying to do, and settled in a different position, where leg contact was anatomically near-impossible. So then he pulled his jacket down from the tray table on to his lap and, and even as I watched from beneath my hooded eye, like the itsy-bitsy spider that went up the spout, he crawled his fingers all the way to my thigh. At this I shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?”, and he mumbled “sorry” and the train came to a halt. First the man jumped out and then I. The platform emptied in minutes and, worried that the guy might be waiting around, eyes darting to the sides and feeling his crawling fingers everywhere, I ran out in the rain and into a taxi, fashionable entry be damned.

Later, when I mentioned this incident to my friend, Susanna, she was horrified and apologetic. But kept wondering how it could have happened — she didn’t know anyone who’d had a similar experience anywhere in Spain. Reassured that my powers as a freak magnet were valid internationally, I decided to just throw myself into the city and attract all its ugliness. Alas, that was not to be. Segovia was breathtakingly beautiful.

Quaint town

What do you see when you think of a quaint little European town? Narrow lanes, cobblestoned paths, an ancient church, a sculpture of a lion or a naked boy somehow fashioned into a fountain. Throw in a castle and it’d be the perfect little place you have wandered in your imagination. Eerily, Segovia not only contains all of this, it contains most of them perfectly down to the last detail. The castle, for example, the Alcázar, which marks one end of the tourist quarter, is the one from which Walt Disney apparently took his inspiration while housing Cinderella. Built onto a rock promontory and shaped like the bow of a ship in a way that if you walk on the street in front of it, I am told, it could seem like the castle is sailing towards you. It was mid-morning when I visited, and I’d only had coffee and therefore was unable to see this for myself. Still, even in the morning light the turrets topped with witches hats, the deep moat on all sides and the curled towers with high windows lent it a certain Rapunzel-esque fairy tale mystique.

Much of the interiors of the castle are not as old as the building itself, they were refitted after significant fire damage in the 1860s. Some rooms house a museum and others are beautifully fitted with period drapes and furniture. The Alcázar is high on a hill and the castle has about 156 steps. Catch your breath and then climb all the way to the top, for Segovia lies below in all its splendour — brown and green, ancient slate roofs and chimneys jostling for space with intricately carved crosses on churches. All of this medieval charm is bordered by La Mujer Muerta (the dead woman), a mountain range that, if you squint at in the right manner, looks like a woman lying on her back, with one knee propped up. Despite the icy wind whipping against me, I found myself growing warm, shocked that something so languidly beautiful could cast such a physical spell. Perhaps I should have looked back at the castle when I alighted from its roof, it would have started sailing even to my cold, sober eyes.

Long history

In truth though, I was the one sailing. Sailing downhill, I want to say, although the more honest word would be lurching, all the way to the other end of the town. Here lie the remains of an ancient aqueduct, now Unesco-certified as a World Heritage Site. Dated to AD 112, this Roman aqueduct is one of the oldest in history. Water from River Flo first accumulated in a tank and was then led through a channel to a tower, where it was naturally decanted and desilted. It then flowed, climbing up one degree at a time, till it crossed a rocky outcrop behind which the ancient city of Segovia was built. At its tallest, the aqueduct is nearly 29m high. Today the duct cuts through the main thoroughfare, its magnificent yellow pillars holding up single and double arches looping through parts of the city. The aqueduct in Segovia is built on the specification laid down by Vitruvius, the Roman author and civil engineer who wrote De architectura. It was his discussion on the perfect proportion of architecture and the human body that led Da Vinci to draw the Vitruvian man.

I wondered why the Romans chose to build this magnificent structure here. I waited around under the pillars to find an English-speaking guide to pose this question to. When I found one, he merely shrugged in response. “Let me tell you the legend of the aqueduct instead,” he began. Tired of walking up the steep city to fetch water every day, a “lazy girl” made a pact with the devil that she’d offer him her soul if water was carried to her home by the next morning. A thunderstorm raged all night. The girl woke up from her sleep to see thousands of demons building an aqueduct. Fearful now of losing her soul, she prayed for the devil to fail. The rooster crowed in the morning, and the aqueduct was built, all except for the last stone, which was yet to be placed. The girl triumphed. The devil lost. Any story in which a “lazy girl” emerges the winner always has pride of place in my life, and I quickly abandoned all questions about over-industrious Romans and hurried away. For it was lunchtime. And a baby pig awaited.

Tasty food

If there is one thing more advertised about Segovia than the Unesco certification of the aqueduct (and who among us is not aware of the power of that), it is the availability of the suckling pig. It has become something of a Segovian tradition to raise baby pigs for no more than 21 days, grow them to between 4.5 and 6.5 kg and roast them in a wood-fired oven. I was super-excited about seeing my baby pig on the plate, but first I had to deal with the maître d’. To start with, there was the full treatment of suspicion reserved for single diners. Predictably, I was shown a table deep in a corner surrounded by billeting drapes that had smelled roasted suckling pigs for many years. Then there was the surprise that I was, instead of grabbing a quick bite for sustenance, going to eat the elaborate cochinillo de Segoviaall by myself.

However, when my pig was brought in, the head waiter in full regalia — a medal around his neck and a pristine white jacket — didn’t spare me any ceremony. The tiny pig, caramel and steaming, lay on its belly, snout and hoofs intact. To demonstrate how tender it is, in the Segovian tradition, the waiter cut it into four pieces using the edge of a plate. Not a knife. Not even a spoon.

It is easy to see why this cochinillo was special. The meat is so tender, the crackling so crisp and the mélange of fat and smoke in your mouth so smooth, that it is a veritable explosion of all kinds of senses. Despite the fact that the little pig looked like a pig with even its ear tag intact, it tasted so good that it was impossible to feel sorry for the relative shortness of its life. Served with simple sides of salad and potatoes, the pig was, rightly, the star of the dish. I sat there for a good hour-and-a-half, drinking my wine, savouring my lunch, and feeling like a bit of a pig myself. It wasn’t tourist season and I certainly felt a bit weird, tucking into an enormous meal alone. When I left the restaurant, I was glad I had made the effort of making my acquaintance with the cochinillo and yet grateful that it was over.

Later in the evening though, after a long afternoon of delivering a lecture and walking the streets, watching the powdery snow fall on slate roofs, I was back at the door of the same restaurant. I told myself not to, but despite every brain cell advising against it my feet were their own free agents. Which is how I stood face-to-face with the startled maître d’ again. He led me to the same table. I ordered the same dish. And when it arrived, I lifted the plate to my nose and took a long, deep breath. “Hello, piggy,” I said, “so we meet again.” With that I accomplished a perfect cycle of my life in Segovia. For when it ended, and there is no other way to say this, I was the freak.

Travel log

Getting there

Fly to Madrid. Segovia is an hour by train. About 90 minutes by road.

Stay

Try and stay inside the tourist quarter, somewhere between the aqueduct and the castle. Most places are accessible on foot. Segovia is also a lovely day trip from Madrid.

Tip

Find out which restaurant has won the award for the best cochinillo for the year. Book a table as early as you can.

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