Hercules and the Devil

I find my way to Segovia through several mirages.

At home, the weekend before I leave, from a vantage point high up on Carnedd Ugain in the Snowdon mountain range, we watch a harvest moon rise. It rises steady and clear and true. This moon, unlike the sun which has just set in pink and petroleum shades over the other side, doesn’t waste its ink. As we climb down the mountain in the deepening night, each of us walking in the little pool of light thrown by a headtorch, we are separate and lunar.

Amid the torchlight, you’re myopic, imprisoned in your own small pool, and can’t see the big night at all. But turn it off and slowly you’ll pick out a few bright stars, which speak of a scale that makes you microscopic. Without the torch, I can see how the moon sculpts the heavy black shapes of the mountains, dropping itself sparingly into the thick, dark water of Glaslyn below us, where its reflection seems to dissolve and make a creature entirely separate: a thing of writhing light, which isn’t so much a reflection, as something else entirely. True, and of itself.

I think to myself, that when I travel this year, I don’t want to go with my own torch on, my focus at my feet, but to be willing to sit in the obscurity of a different place, until my eyes readjust and I can see its scale, its depth, and what creatures lurk within it.

Like I said, I come to Segovia by way of a few mirages. The second, is google maps.

From my office in Bangor, I simulated being in Segovia on google, walking around its far away streets, using the street map feature and its little walking icon. As I turned up a particular alley, the google camera, in its frozen image, caught a woman’s form. She walks in her immortal present tense, toward home perhaps, laden with shopping. I wonder what she’s thinking about, briefly, amid the idyllic Segovian scenes, before I turn, reeling in that kind of cyber sickness that a virtual tour gives you, toward the city’s best-known sight, its hooping, spectacular Roman aqueduct.

It’s easy to see, even from my brief virtual tour, why, long after the fall of Rome, the less developed societies that took up residence among the unruined wonders of Segovia could only explain the technical wonder of the aqueduct through legends.

A true legend goes, that Segovia’s aqueduct was built by the devil. Another, that it was Hercules.

The devil built it, in exchange for a young girl’s soul. She thought it might be worth it, to give up her soul so that she wouldn’t have to traipse every day for hours to get water. Like some kind of modern utility company, the devil worked with his entourage of demons through the night, setting the aqueduct, stone by stone, on its huge feet, for her convenience. Apparently, you can still see the devil’s hoofmarks, kicking into the old stone.

He was banished, come daybreak, by God, who heard the girl’s prayers of regret and repentance, and decided that we could all have our cake and eat it: and might have both modern convenience and our souls.

I can’t help thinking, that in this respect at least, the God of that legend was wrong. On Friday people around the world will be on climate strike, and yet I fly to Spain. And I don’t expect some divine pardon. As I sit in departures in Manchester airport, I am frantically researching carbon off-setting, doing what that girl did, praying for some kind of redemption, after the event. As we circle Madrid, coming slowly into land on the real ground, I find myself wondering what kinds of legends might spring from the contaminated ruins left by our own infrastructure, and what stories they might tell to the future, of our own pacts with the devil.

I am straight off the plane, into a taxi, and more-or-less straight into my event, with Teresa Sanz, so I only just have time to greet the aqueduct, and the devil’s hoofmarks in its huge stones. Teresa tells me how those indentations were actually made by the pressure of some kind of Roman crane.

She also tells me how the kids here call the aqueduct by its nickname ‘El Aque’. To them, it’s not divine at all, but a friend perhaps, a trigger point on the map of their lives, like, say, Carnedd Ugain is on mine. A moon rises between the arches of ‘El Aque’ tonight, as Segovian teenagers gather around it to start their nights out, and by the light of that moon, and under these giant roman arches, I am arriving on the ground again, microscopic against the bigness.

At midnight, after my event, after a drink and a pincho in a proper bar de barrio, and after the welcome feast at an extraordinarily surreal mansion in the Casco Antiguo, I wander the maze of Segovia’s dusky medieval streets back to my hotel, reminding myself to turn my torchlight off, metaphorically speaking, so I can watch shadows play across the frescoed buildings.

And perhaps I will catch a whiff of Hercules’ body odour as he disappears down an alleyway just ahead, or hear the sound of the Devil’s hooves, still beating across the history of the Segovian night? Perhaps I’ll look up, mid-stride, meet the eyes of that woman I saw on google maps, and say ‘buenas noches’ to her, for once, as she makes her way home.

Alys Conran is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2019/20, travelling to each Hay Festival edition. Her novels, Dignity and Pigeon, are out now. Find out more about Hay Festival Segovia here.