‘Breathtaking’ is an awful cliché of bad travel writing. And yet here I am thinking about using it, because for sight after sight in Segovia it is a factual description. The majestic beauty of the cathedral is an act of worship; the incredible dimensions of the aqueduct a miracle of engineering. And then there is the Alcazar.
Walking through the old Jewish quarter and out onto the chemin de ronde of the wall-walk, Segovia’s medieval fortress appears as if from a dream. I find myself, not for the first time in this city, literally short of breath. Some of those occasions may well have been to do with the incompatibility between my level of fitness and the gradient of the steps and slopes that characterise this hilltop fortress town, but more often it is to do with the sheer unadulterated beauty of the place. From the roof terrace of the hotel, the vista stretches beyond the woods in the immediate valley below the city walls, and out across the yellow fields to the Guadarrama mountains in the distance.
What is it about such panorama that inspires awe and wonder? There is advantage in vantage, a blessing bestowed by the simple fact of being at a great height. As humans we have always sought to create babel-towers. In cities like this one, cathedrals might be architectural essays in seeking closer proximity to the divine, but more often than not they are accompanied by castles that express our desire to play God. In this duality of church and state, and the intermingling of spirituality and power lies the entire history of Spain.
At the Tourist Information Centre, housed in an ancient building at the foot of the aqueduct, there is a diorama of the city. The satisfaction of seeing the world in miniature lies in our desire for a sense of control. Kings love cartographers and city planners love a scale model; they make life so much less messy. From the window of an aeroplane, the world becomes – momentarily – comprehensible. Spreading maps and spinning globes, we indulge our secret lust to hold the whole world in our hands.
Dawn comes and the sun rises slowly, deep blue turning briefly to a rose-gold pink before settling into the soft sandstone lustre of morning. Doves and pigeons flit between the belltowers of Segovia’s many churches, and birdsong is a reminder of the relative absence of traffic in this UNESCO protected historic centre. On each quarter-hour, the cathedral bells chime their sonorous incantation. It is a medieval sound. Ephemeral and eternal merge.
Above the great dome, bright-coloured hot air balloons appear as if from a dream. Humans again, reaching for height to seek wisdom and peace. This is the Hay Festival mission, too; a journey toward wisdom. Let us go to some events.
Dylan Moore is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19, travelling to each Hay Festival edition, exploring issues of displacement and exile. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now.