This fall, I will have the privilege of teaching my second 300-level Geography course at the University of Tennessee, and my first focusing specifically on Europe. I am still in the teeth of designing the curriculum, but I have been enjoying combing through my Europe travel archives for possible lectures and lesson plans. I’ve already found at least four places of interest for separate case studies, one of which I’m excited to share here:
The Time I Got Very Lost in Segovia
In July 2015, I took a weekend trip to Madrid to see some friends in the middle of my fieldwork month in Paris. After spending time in northern France, it truly struck me just how off-center Spain (particularly Madrid) was from the socio-economic core of Europe (clustered between Paris, Frankfurt, and the Low Countries). Prior to this trip, Spain had always been my base of travel and tourism in Europe, so it never really hit me how relatively distant Spain was from the core of the continent. It wasn’t necessarily a positive or a negative attribute; it was just the first time it hit me.
On my second day there, I saw my hosts off to work and walked over to the nearby RENFE station. Apparently, Spain (or at least the Capital region) had upgraded its regional rail system a bit since I had last visited in 2009. The most profound difference was that, because I took a commuter bullet train up there, it dropped us off in a brand new, state of the art, station in the middle of nowhere. In 2009, my train stopped at the station on the south side of town, a lengthy walk from the Cathedral and Aqueduct but still walk-able. Because I was leaving Northern Madrid, I was taking an AVE train to the specialized AVE station, which had clearly been built within the previous few years. It stood in the middle of a giant pasture off of the highway, connected to downtown Segovia by incredibly inexpensive shuttle buses. I got in line to wait for the shuttle, eager to get there realizing that trying to walk would end with me recreating the opening scene from Paris, TX.
On the shuttle, I met a friendly newlywed couple from Massachusetts who complimented my Red Sox cap. I quickly admitted that I’d shifted my allegiance to the Nationals, but still loved being from New England and I’d had the hat forever. We broke into conversation about our experiences in Spain over the years. He explained that he was a Spanish teacher who periodically led high school trips there; his new wife had never been, so there was little doubt where they were going to spend their delayed honeymoon. When we got to the Aqueduct, we grabbed coffee and I told him that the reason I fell in love with travel, geography, and Spain at large was because I went on one of the high school group trips that he fought administrations and budget cuts to lead. Even though none of us had ever met before, it felt strangely full circle to be back in Segovia with a Spanish teacher from New England, talking about the importance of foreign language education. Tragically, I have forgotten both of their names. I probably wrote them down somewhere, but it’s been two years. I am pretty sure I gave him one of my cards, but I know how easily those get misplaced. On the outside chance that anyone who sees this knows these kind people, let me know.
After we said our goodbyes, I honed in on my mission for this visit. Ever since I first visited Segovia in 2000, a little cathedral outside the city walls had piqued my curiosity. My sense of perspective was a little off, so I assumed that it was a few kilometers (not an impossible walk) outside of the city walls, next to the Alcazar. Keep in mind here that I did not have an international data plan, so unless I could duck into or saddle up next to a cafe or business with free and open WiFi (a rarity in any tourism epicenter), I was travelling largely unmoored by technology. Strangely, it felt like 2000 all over again.
Here is the spoiler: the little cathedral, which was called La Iglesia de la Veracruz (simple enough) was actually not even one kilometer outside of the city’s northwestern entry point; it turned out to be, as I would find out later, sweaty and exhausted, about a five minute walk back into Segovia proper. It just seemed like a mysterious little outpost, a tiny monastery-looking thing residing in my memory on the outskirts of the city. In 2000, when we were touring the Alcazar and looking out over the vast, beautiful plains that surrounded the town, I was really into Sierra Role Playing Games like Quest for Glory IV and my all-time favorite, King’s Quest VI. La Iglesia de la Veracruz reminded me of those outposts your character would encounter after screens of vast nothingness. Somehow, you needed to get your character into that outpost, because somewhere in there was a key to your journey, or at least a weird but friendly loner who had a valuable piece of information for you.
If I had walked to the Alcazar, then I may have spotted the church from the city’s northern wall. However, I wandered along a road toward the city’s western expanse, stopping at the Bar Los Claveles for some tapas. Further down el Paseo Ezequiel Gonzalez, I saw an interesting set of signs, which included a fancy view of the city’s southern wall and a… Jewish cemetery?
I headed further out, not realizing how desolate the landscape got so quickly. Undeterred, I kept going, convinced that this would turn into a ring-road that would hook around the Alcazar right to this mysterious little church I’d been wondering about for almost two decades. What I found wasn’t just a Jewish cemetery – it was a Jewish necropolis.
As most of you know, the Spanish regents Ferdinand and Isabella cast all Jews and Muslims out of Spain in 1492 as part of their historically short-sighted decree to “unify” the Spanish peninsula under their Catholic God and a strange new law of the land that somehow had no use for a middle class. This meant that this cemetery predated 1492, which was interesting in itself. The fact that Judaism was essentially put in exile by a despotic order less than one kilometer from where this necropolis sat made it even more geographically and symbolically unbelievable.
I continued down the road, spotting a faded painting of Marty Feldman as Igor on a rock outcropping (see above). I’m glad that Mel Brooks’ influence is still as pervasive in Spain as it is in the States. Granted, it could have been American street artists who painted it, but I’m going to assume it was locals.
And then I kept walking. And walking. And walking. The city’s walls and all signs of tourism infrastructure (the shuttle bus routes) started to disappear. The cloud system I saw on the horizon wasn’t getting close enough to protect me from the sun’s searing heat. I wandered by what felt like a portion of Segovia’s hinterland; I stopped to take a photo of a shuttered plant of some kind. After what felt like another kilometer, I finally came to a right turn. I saw a restaurant that had a few cars parked in front of it, so I decided to stop in and see if anybody had any idea what I was looking for, and where I could find it. Bear in mind that I was covered in sweat and people rarely, if ever, just walked in there on foot from the walled city over three kilometers away. After looking at this area on Google Maps, I remember that this restaurant was called San Pedro Abanto, and it was part of an old Inn. I ordered a Coke and asked the young woman at the bar about this little church. She started asking me some specifics that I did not know the answer to, but fortunately, a group of elderly folks was leaving lunch and they overheard my question. One older woman told me the name of the church, and that I had to walk a few minutes back and take the road up the hill to my left. I thanked everyone profusely, too grateful that I had directions to realize how much more walking that entailed.
As I headed up the road for the next two-kilometer stretch, the clouds that I had spotted an hour earlier were now overhead. I took a few more pictures of the sky, which now looked stunning, draped over the scenic hillside. Then something occurred to me; I was probably about to get soaked. My fourth trip to Segovia had already been my most interesting but had been veering towards officially becoming my worst. By the time I reached the next stop, a little township called Zamarramala (HOW HAD I WALKED TO ANOTHER TOWN?), I had walked at least 5 kilometers due to a wrong turn and didn’t even have any disease research to sponsor. I wound up stopping in yet another restaurant, an empty bar built next to a yellow train car.
All I remember was seeing a placard having to do with Antonio Machado, the legendary Generation of ’98 poet. I went inside and had a similar conversation with the woman behind the bar, asking her if she could call me a cab if it started pouring. Fortunately, the rain held off and she told me I could get back to Segovia proper (and the little church) following the road headed Southeast. The clouds started to pass, so I set back out on foot.
After another kilometer back in the direction of the Alcazar, I reached the crest of a hill. There it was. La Iglesia de la Vera Cruz. It looked just as secluded, mysterious, yet oddly inviting as I had remembered it for all those years. I took a moment to be furious at myself, seeing how close it was to the North wall of the Alcazar – I had left the city on the wrong side. As it turns out, I could have also doubled back over a hill with another landmark cathedral and saved myself a solid hour and a half of walking. But what would the fun have been in that? I chose to look at the bright side and reflect upon the random spots outside the city I would likely have died never knowing existed had I not taken that stupidly wrong turn past the Jewish Cemetery. Writing this now makes me want to go back to San Pedro Abanto someday for a proper meal, in fact.
I walked past the church and into its nearly empty parking lot, save for one small car. I noticed there was an older man sitting in it. Strange, I thought. The church didn’t appear to be open, so I paced around it a few times. I felt somewhat dejected, going through all that I had to find this place and then finding it closed. I wasn’t shocked, though – I had no idea what it was called, and even if I had it would have involved a laundry list of complicated steps to contact them and ask if they were “open.” Did they even sell anything besides the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit? It didn’t seem to be much of a tourist destination, dwarfed by one of Spain’s biggest tourist magnets less than one kilometer down the road. As I rounded the opposite corner back toward the parking lot, I thought – at least I got to see it up clo-
The man was out of his car. He was standing on the ledge next to his parking space, looking out into the gigantic ravine with his hands in his pockets. Despite how many strangers I had engaged with in two languages that afternoon, I was getting a bad vibe from this man. He acted like there wasn’t a stranger there, wandering around and looking at the building inquisitively. I paced around and took a couple of photos, thinking that maybe I should leave. Without looking at me, the man turned, got down off the giant curb next to his car and walked toward the church door. He produced a key – a big lunk of a key.
‘Wait,’ I thought to myself, ‘Is this…’
He unlocked the massive door, slipped inside, and closed it behind him.
I stood there for a minute, rethinking my impending decision to walk back to the city wall. For all I remember, I could have boded my time by pacing around the church again. I had a lot of nerve I needed to conjure in order to go up and knock on that door. I was thousands of miles from home and I had nearly worn out my legs getting to this place, nearly collapsing from dehydration in the process. 17-year-old Tyler would have been furious if 32-year-old Tyler finally got to that little church on the outskirts and didn’t get inside. I walked up the steps, reached up, and knocked on the door twice. Three times.
After a pregnant moment, I heard something jostling the other side of the door. CLICK. The inset door opened; the quiet man saw me, said “espere” inaudibly, and shut the door immediately.
Uhhh. Huh. Had I just blown my chance? Or did I do something (read: existing) to annoy him and shut me out of the church? Either way, for the next 15 seconds, I was crushed. If I could have heard him better and he had enunciated, I would have realized he just told me to wait. As I turned around and stepped down from the stairs onto the parking lot, I heard the door creek open again. I turned and practically ran in the door. The quiet old man was sitting in a white booth, a box office on the left of the entryway, reading a newspaper and eating a sandwich. I wanted to minimize my interaction with this person, but I also wanted to avoid doing anything (read: breathing) to aggravate him even more. I saw a vague price guide, so I pulled out my wallet and a few Euro coins. “Eh, es gratuito” he said, waving his hand dismissively without even looking up from his paper.
At the risk of sounding sacrilegious: holy crap, I was inside that little church. After 15 years of wondering about it, I had finally made my way inside. I had to compose my thoughts for a second as I pulled my camera out, making sure that I had turned off the flash. The last thing I wanted, after clearly bothering the old man in the booth next to the door, was to give him an excuse to kick me out. I walked a circle around the pulpit, reading through some of the historical displays that surrounded it. I even took a selfie with a mannequin dressed as a nurse from the Guerra Civil. For those of you who are curious, there are a lot of better-quality shots from the interior of the church on Wikimedia commons here. I’m still trying to discover what those red flags with the white arrows pointing inward are supposed to represent. It didn’t feel quite like the Church saw a whole lot of revenue from tithes anymore; it felt like a living memorial geared toward curious foreign visitors like me. The quiet man in the box office hardly had any game-winning strategic advice for me, but he did save me a couple of Euro by waiving the admission fee, so maybe he was sent out of some early-90s RPG. Either way, it was worth that trek, though next time I’m taking the short cut.
I may need to lay clear my Spanglophilia on the first day of class, considering how its still the country where I’ve spent the most time outside the United States. Sonically, the course will probably include music from all over peninsula, including Asturian bagpipe jams, stereotypical Sevillano flamenco-style crooning, and even Malaguense power-pop from our friends in Airbag. One of my students contacted me from Basque country, where she is currently working on an archaeological field expedition. You can read her blog updates here.
Haha.. this is slightly terrifying. But I am glad you ended up okay and hey, it lead to a great story and some great photos!
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