Memory is a curious thing. When remembering a trip to an exotic locale, the thing that you’re meant to remember is the impressive landmark or fabulous view. But often it’s the little thing, the thing that perhaps no-one else noticed, that comes straight to mind. For someone like myself with an interest in archaeology, surprisingly the thing that I remember about Segovia isn’t the giant Roman aqueduct.
It’s the soup.
I’d been travelling fairly hard and was also fairly poor. I’d been living largely on bread and cheese for some time when I arrived in Segovia because it was cheap and portable. But after arriving in the morning I decided to treat myself. I checked into my pensione and began wandering aimlessly around the old town.
You can always tell Spanish old towns from those elsewhere in Europe because they’re so clearly built for the weather. It’s all stone and brick, much as in France or Germany, but instead of offering shelter from rain and snow, the heavy blocks of masonry offer a cooling respite from the heat. Winding alleyways of medieval confusion allow cool breezes to waft in from somewhere just out of view. Open plazas and grand promenades are to be avoided – the sensible traveller takes refuge in artificial canyons which allow no direct sunlight.
In one such alleyway I found a little restaurant which seemed to be built into the side of an old palace. Feeling hungry and reckless I decided to enter in order to sample the white bean soup for which Segovia is supposedly known. Sitting down for a meal was was a splurge for an improvident student like myself, but YOLO.
It was a revelation. White beans were the main ingredient which suited my parsimonious style of travelling, but the pork stock it was cooked in was beyond description. Thick and salty, herbaceous and stinking of pork crackling, it was heaven. It truly tasted like someone had taken some pigs, rendered them down in a giant vat, then ladled some of the resulting slurry into my bowl and added some beans for decoration. To my frugal tastebuds it was an explosion of flavour which even now, nearly twenty years later, I look back on with pleasure.
I’ve sometimes wondered about the dominance of pork as the meat of choice in Iberian cooking. Granted, pigs are useful animals and can be fed on anything, but I’m surprised that there isn’t more lamb or goat on the menu. Perhaps, and this is just speculation, it’s a reaction to the phases of Spanish history which involved the mistreatment of Muslim and Jewish populations? Is eating loads of pork a way of thumbing one’s nose at one’s religious enemies?
Newly revived and pondering such things I left the restaurant and wandered down the hill to have a look at the Roman aqueduct. On the way I passed the giant Segovia Cathedral. Even though it’s made of a pleasingly pale sandstone, the style of medieval Spanish architectural decoration always gives me the creeps. I must have some kind of association with the Spanish Inquisition, because whenever I see it all I can think of is repression and torture. Perhaps I was a victim in a past life.
The aqueduct is impressive and typically Roman. Modern Spain was a Roman colony for hundreds of years, and the Romans left their mark everywhere, not least in the language. Their architectural technique could best be described as “effectiveness via brute force”, and the Segovia aqueduct is a prime example. It’s a monster of a thing, made entirely of blocks of granite which have been shaped to fit together without masonry. It was originally built to carry water to the town from a nearby river, and therefore has to span any dips in the landscape. The main surviving part bisects the town square in the same way that a broadsword bisects a barbarian.
By the time it was built, probably around 100 AD, the Romans had been in Iberia for a couple of hundred years. The place was well and truly romanised, but even so the aqueduct must have been a real statement of strength for the locals. Who else but the Romans could build something which looked so spindly from the distance but was actually monstrous up close, with effectively unlimited manpower, which was still standing two thousand years later? It even still provided water to Segovia until the mid 19th century.
Head spinning with the brutal effectiveness of Roman administration, I took myself back up the hill in the fading light. The Roman remains in Segovia overawed me slightly, and were a powerful contrast with the medieval warren of the old town. I can see how one evolved into the other due to changing political circumstances, but it wasn’t a neat transition. Spain can be a harsh place. Then and now.
This calls for soup.