Valley of the Fallen, La Granja, and Segovia

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April 5th 2009
Published: May 10th 2009
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Day 13 (Sunday, April 5th, 2009)

Initially, our plan for the day was to leave Toledo and head north towards Segovia, first stopping at La Granja Palace. However, the night before we decided to also add in a visit to the Valley of the Fallen, as it was within close driving distance to both Segovia and La Granja.

Our first stop of the three was the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), which is a monument located in the city of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. The immense monument was built per the direction of dictator Francisco Franco as a memorial for the victims of Spain's Civil War, which occurred from 1936-1939. The building is comprised of a basilica (largest in the world), an underground crypt (houses the remains of 40,000 victims) and a 500 foot-tall granite cross, which marks the top of the monument. Construction of the building began in 1940 and was carried out by 20,000 prison workers, many of which had been convicted of political crimes against the Nationalists (Franco's regime). These men dug 220,000 tons of granite out of the hill underneath the cross in order to form an underground basilica. They then used the stones to erect a giant cross. Selecting those imprisoned men (many of which belonged to the Republican regime) for the work was considered highly controversial, for obvious reasons. Many Republicans claimed that being forced to participate in the building of the memorial was punishment for defending their political ideas against the Nationalists.

We were able to see the huge structure from miles and miles away as we approached it on the road. After parking the car, we headed up several flights of stairs in order to reach the entrance to the memorial. Interestingly enough, I had read that the stairs were grouped into sets of ten, which was meant to symbolize the Ten Commandments. However, Rick Steves made a great point when he brought up the ironic commandment of "Thou shall not kill". Regardless, the monument was extremely impressive and dramatic, architecturally speaking. As we walked into the interior of the basilica, the temperature immediately dropped at least 10 or 15 degrees and our eyes had to quickly adjust to the lack of light. The basilica was 300 feet long, and was filled with utter silence, the only exception being the occasional haunting sounds from the resident boys choir as mass was occurring during our visit. As a result, we were unable to see the front of the basilica, including the alter and tombs. We didn't spend too long inside the basilica as we felt strangely out of place; there was definitely a certain chill in the air that didn't feel quite right to either one of us. I'm sure that was a result of the massive amount of tragedy that occurred during the horrible events of the Spanish Civil War.

From Valley of the Fallen, we headed to San Ildefonso, where we visited its palace. The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso is a "small" baroque palace that was built by King Philip V, who happened to be the grandson of King Louis XIV of France. Philip was homesick for France and Versailles, so the palace and its gardens in San Ildefonso bear a striking resemblance (albeit, much smaller) to the more famous one near Paris. After entering the palace, we found out that guided tours were offered, but only in Spanish, so we walked through the rooms ourselves. The interior of the palace was ho-hum and nothing too spectacular, although of course, it was beautiful. Aside from having to navigate around the many huge tour groups, another annoying aspect we encountered was the psychotic security guards, which were located in every single room. Although it was quite obvious that neither Mike nor I were touching any of the furniture and other accessories, we were starred at as though we might run off with one of the crystal vases. At times, it was downright uncomfortable to be in the same room with the guards as they were literally breathing down our backs. I'm not sure why there were so many guards and why it was deemed necessary to follow us as though we were thieves, but it definitely didn't make for an enjoyable experience. Towards the end of the tour, we walked quickly through the rooms without stopping as we couldn't wait to get outside and escape the security guards. Thankfully, the gardens were much more interesting and pleasant to walk through than the interior. As it was only early spring, there weren't many flowers in bloom, but I was still impressed with the many fanciful fountains and decorative statues.

After leaving La Granja Palace, we drove just slightly north to Segovia. I was happy to see that the city was much smaller than Toledo and Cordoba had been, so I was hopeful that the drive to our hotel would be easier than our horrid experience in Cordoba. Sure enough, we did encounter some slight confusion as the city was undergoing a lot of construction, but we found it quickly enough. We had chosen to stay at
Hostal Don Jamie, due to its positive reviews from Rick Steves and Trip Advisor, and also because it was located just outside of the city walls. The room was decent and as our room was located on the third floor, we had a great view of the charming street in front of the hotel. Just as the reviews had indicated, it was literally just a few minutes walk from the famous aqueduct. At a cost of only 63 per night, I thought this place was a great find!

As I was very excited to see Segovia, we quickly left our hotel room and headed for the aqueduct. Segovia was once a military base for the Roman army, and as a result, needed a lot of water to supply the inhabitants of the city. A nine-mile long aqueduct was eventually built to channel water from the Rio Frio (cold river) into the city. Of those original nine miles, only 2,500 feet are currently exposed for all to see at the entrance to the city walls. I was shocked to see that the imposing walls of the aqueduct were 100 feet high! I was also amazed by the dozens and dozens of photogenic arches (166 total covering two levels). While I had seen many forms of Roman architecture in Italy, I had never before seen anything quite like this. The architecture and lines in the structure of the aqueduct provided an incredible backdrop to the streets in Segovia. It was very impressive to think of the work that went into forming the 20,000 granite blocks (without mortar, I might add) into a massive structure that contained rounded arches. Even more impressive though, is the fact that the aqueduct is 2,000 years old and is still standing in awesome condition!

As I viewed the city streets from the aqueduct and began walking through Segovia, I instantly fell in love with the town. It was filled with charming architecture in excellent condition, buzzing restaurants and cafes filled with people, and an energetic vibe that was captivating. I loved the warm toned colors of the attractive buildings and the narrow winding streets; everything was so different, yet meshed together so perfectly. I was immediately thankful that we had decided to come to this special little town.

After admiring the aqueduct, we walked through the streets, passing through Plaza Mayor before finally reaching the Cathedral, which loomed majestically over the plaza. It was built in the late Gothic style between 1522 and 1577 and was Spain's last major Gothic building. In order to save a few Euros, Mike opted not to go inside the church (the fact that he also wasn't at all interested in visiting was probably the bigger reason). As with the cathedral in Toledo, visitors were not allowed to take photos inside, but I managed to sneak a few in. While the main chapel was nothing too exciting, the cloisters were another story. I was able to walk into the small courtyard of the cloisters and get some great shots of the architecture, which made me quite happy.

From the cathedral, we continued walking through Segovia, eventually reaching the Alcázar, which is a fortified palace. The building on the site originally began as an Arab fort but was conquered by King Alfonso VI at the end of the 11th century. The Alcázar was one of the favorite residences of the monarchs during the Middle Ages. The conical spires and the slate roof were not added until the 16th century; however, these tiles were partially destroyed by a massive fire in 1862 but later restored as we see it now today. We paid 6 Euros each to enter the building, which also included admittance up to the tower in addition to the rooms of the palace. We decided to head up to the tower first in order to beat a massive tour group that was shortly behind us. We had to climb lots of stairs (152) to the tower, but the hard work was all worth it as the views of Segovia from the top were incredible. In addition to seeing the sun and bright blue skies, we also could see a backdrop of a nearby mountain range against the city skyline, which was gorgeous. After admiring the views from the top, we headed down in order to tour the rooms within the palace. There were several fascinating rooms, including some with Moorish decor and elaborately decorated ceilings. Overall, I was much more impressed with both the interior and exterior of the Alcázar than I had originally thought we would be.

During our walk through the city, we found an awesome bakery called Limon y Menta, which was located just off of Plaza Mayor. We stopped by not once, but twice to buy cookies since they were so delicious!

After touring the city, we walked back to the hotel for a few hours to relax. We left again around 20:00 in hopes to eat dinner at a restaurant called Restaurante Casa Chapete, which was located across the street from our hotel. Since Segovia is famous for its roast suckling pig, we figured we had to try it! Roast suckling pig is a young pig that has only fed on its mother's milk. The poor baby is slaughtered between the ages of two to six weeks and then roasted for several hours before serving. We had read that the flesh of the baby pig is pale and tender, which causes the skin to become very crispy after it's been roasted. All of this sounded good to us, the obvious exception being that it was a baby, and not a full grown pig that had been able to somewhat enjoy it's life. All of this seemed to bother me much more than it did Mike, so he had to persuade me quite a bit in order to agree to eat the pig.

Along with the restaurant I mentioned above, there was also another one that served roast suckling pig on our street. Unfortunately, both places were closed; we waited and waited, and by 20:45, neither had opened and obviously weren’t going to be opening. We later realized that one of the places was listed in the Rick Steves book (we had missed it) and stated it was only open for lunch; maybe the same was true for the other place, but we'll never know.

Even after the frustrations, Mike was still determined to try roast suckling pig. We ended up going to a touristy, but well-known place for roast suckling pig called Restaurante Duche. The price of the roast suckling pig at the restaurant was really expensive at 20 Euros per person. I wasn’t very happy as the other restaurants near our hotel advertised prices that were less than 30 Euros for two. We arrived at the restaurant at 21:00, and although I was expecting to see a huge crowd of people, there was not a single soul in that place! We were quite surprised, but I guess it was an obvious sign of the lovely economy and lack of tourists. After placing our order, we waited about 20 minutes until our roast suckling pig arrived. Even though I knew we were going to be eating a baby pig, I was absolutely horrified at the sight of the pig being wheeled out to us. With the exception of chopping off his nose, the rest of the body was left intact so there was no hiding the fact of what we were about to eat. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that the poor little soul would taste good; otherwise, this experience would have been for nothing except for another lost life. Unfortunately, the pig was just okay; certainly not what we had expected it to taste like based on the tremendous amount of positive accolades it had received. We were not as impressed as we had hoped to be and
Roast suckling pig at Restaurante Duque Roast suckling pig at Restaurante Duque Roast suckling pig at Restaurante Duque

I felt terrible for eating this!
were not exactly sure what the big deal was about the pork. We both felt that the Hawaiian style of kalua pork was a thousand times tastier, and not to mention, much cheaper! Dinner came to 50 Euro total with tip, so about $67.50 total. In the end, my guilty conscience of eating a baby pig was intensified by the fact that the taste was not worth its life. I'll never make the same mistake again.

After dinner, we walked through Segovia towards our hotel and attempted to buy churros at a chocolate place. Unfortunately, we arrived just as it was just closing so we were unsuccessful with our quest. We didn’t seem to have good luck that day on the food front. However, food issues aside, we had had a wonderful day in charming Segovia. It's the type of city I could see myself returning to time after time again and recommend it without any hesitation to all who visit this part of Spain.

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