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Sunday
Jan092005

3 Kings in Segovia

The frigid Spanish night air is filled with giants and angels. Tall, stilt-walking fire-breathers and jugglers spider in and out of medieval-costumed drummers and robed torchbearers. Angelically dressed children and turbaned pipers dance and weave as torches flare and drums thrum deeply. The crowd cheers wildly as three huge catafalques snake through the twisting medieval streets bearing the trio of costumed nativity Kings—Gaspar,  Melchior and Balthasar—showering trinkets and candies outward in the Procession de los Reyes on the eve of epiphany in Segovia.

The Christian feast day of epiphany, which celebrates the coming of the three Magi, is known as Dia de los Reyes Magos in Spain, and is equally important in the Spanish calendar as Christmas. Children ask the wise men for gifts, and leave their shoes on their doorstep the eve before January 6th to be filled in the night.   Hundreds of Segovianas costume themselves to mount this mighty procession, which winds from the Alcazar at the prow of the ship-shaped city to the Roman aqueduct below town. We came to Segovia to sample the regional version of Spain’s national snack addiction—tapas, and have inadvertently lucked into the right town and the right room and viewing platform on a most important eve.  

We view the procession from the narrow iron balustraded terrace of Room 206 in the Hotel Infanta Isabela overlooking the Plaza Major as it snakes past us for more than a half hour, and disappears into the twisting streets downhill on it’s way to the stunning 2000-year-old double-arched granite aqueduct that is the symbol of Segovia.  Thousands of Segovianas crowd the Plaza and line the streets. Afterward, those streets fill to brimming with happy and animated townfolk out en paseo the night of the final celebration of Christmas in Spain. As in most Latin countries, paseo is an evening ritual of strolling, meeting and chatting.  There are running, laughing children, families with strollers, couples arm in arm, and knots of friends and family bundled up warmly, standing and chatting in the icy, festive air. The carved church arcades, rusticated stone walls, palaces and towers with their unique Segovian esgrafiado—incised plaster—all glow golden in the amber street lights and torch light.  Bakeries are filled with the round sweet-breads known as Roscónes de Los Reyes, studded with a stained-glass of candied fruits.  Shop windows blaze with invitation to those last minute purchases for the major gift-giving of tomorrow’s feast-day.

Tapas (sometimes called by their Basque name pintxos) are a national institution in Spain—small savory bits and bites taken with drinks—sherry, a copa de vino—glass of wine, or a beer—before moving on to the exceptionally late lunches and dinners traditional in the delayed circadian rhythm of the Spanish day. The word tapa means cover, and one theory claims that the origin of tapas was a small plate set to cover a glass of wine to keep out vinegar flies.  An enterprising bar owner had the idea that small bits of food placed on those plates might increase drink sales (correctly, I think).

One of the objectives of this trip was to experiment with eliminating some main meals, and turn tapas into a little moveable feast, frequently constituting our lunch or dinner. Tonight we start a stone’s-throw from our hotel. The popular and well-established bar at Casa Juan on the opposite side of the Plaza Major, is packed with locals at 8 pm.  The Segovianas surrounding us are a lively, chattering crowd. We squeeze in and respond “Una Manzanilla y uno vino blanco” to the barmans cheerful “Que quieres bebir?”. Nearby patrons munch marinated anchovies, white beans with Serrano ham, and chipirones—tiny squid.  Mounded platters of fritters of shrimp appear and are passed around. These are soon augmented as a tiny plate of potatoes fried with ham, crispy garlic and parsley is set before us.  (Free tapas are not the rule in Spain—but the ritual in Segovia is that one tapa per drink is on the house—if you want more, or bigger portions, you pay). Two fat sizzling chorizo sausages, squeezing out their ends are placed next to our glasses and prove succulent. Three separate tiny bites to comprise the first course of our moveable feast. 

Down Calle Valdelaguila off the Plaza Major the low, stone-arched DiVino is bustling with well dressed, beautiful people—elegant ladies, families and handsome young couples with baby strollers crowd the entrance and bar area. Small children enjoy the tapeo right along with their parents—a boy of around six, dressed nattily in powder blue clutches a coke in one hand, and munches as happily on a crispy flash-fried smelt as if it were a candy bar.

This is a place serious about wine—we ask owner (and Nariz d’Oro 2002 winner) Lucio del Campo for suggestions, and he says without hesitation ”this Verdejo, called Nieva Pie Franco for white, and for red, the Vina Pedrosa Ribera del Duoro 2002-- excepcional!”  Complementary tapas come streaming out:  a small “cannelloni” of morcilla—blood sausage—perfumed with cinnamon and clove; glistening tiny orbs of mozzarella wrapped in Jabugo ham skewered with a skinned cherry tomato; a deep-fried pastry “cigar” filled with spicy chorizo. The owner of DiVino is a “golden nose” and the sommelier, Henar Puente Montes, was one of the two women among 17 contestants at the Spanish Concours of Sommeliers in 2004, and won! She steers us to a regional Blanco de Pacs 2003, a white blend including chardonnay, with a perfumed nose but dry, minerally finish—a perfect seafood wine.  Which is good, as next the kitchen sends out crunchy flash-fried boquerones—anchovies, and then a spoonful of chopped ceviche of baby octopus, olives, lemon peel and capers.  Exquisite, creative food; second course down.

La Tasquina, a block uphill is crammed with locals sipping wine and downing tapas.  Many women are in fur or sheepskin, or ashtrakan lamb (it’s quite cold out on January 5—possible snow tomorrow)—all having a jolly time. The amiable bartender recommends Rosado Palacio de la Vega 2004—a tasty rose of grenache and cabernet sauvignon from Navarra, and the 2003 “viñas viejo” Baltasar Gracian, which is a stunning, rich wine produced from old-vine garnacha—Spanish for grenache) grape. Tapas of roast potatoes with bacon shards and pimiento and tuna are laid before us. Spread out on the bar are dozens more traditional flavor combinations awaiting our pleasure. We next sample a pate of chicken liver on toasts, and bacalau—the traditional salt-cod and mashed potato mixture, as the boisterous impromptu holiday party swirls around us. A small glass of full, round, nutty Oloroso sherry, and we’ve managed to make a full meal out of a progressive tapas crawl, or tapeo, over a couple-hour period.

Dia de Los Reyes dawns cold and overcast with flagged streets slick from overnight rain. Cold as it had seemed, it obviously wasn’t cold enough to turn to the snow that had been predicted.  Shops, banks and offices are all closed this holy day.  The streets are empty, the town hunkered down as children open their Reyes presents.  The cathedral bells toll for mass at 11, and townspeople start to filter into the light drizzle.  The last great Gothic cathedral to be built in Europe, it soars over the Plaza Major in a cascade of buttresses and turrets, capped by the great dome. Though Gothic in style, it was actually built in the Renaissance, starting in 1525 under the reign of Charles I.  It seems quite spectacular in size and scope for a town the size of Segovia, and sparks recollection of the fact that the Court of Castille sat in Segovia for many years. 

From the Cathedral we head down to visit the Alcazar, (castle) and then wander the streets: past the wintry, leafless-treed Parque Frankes, with a sweeping view over the barren plains, the monasteries of El Parral & San Vicente and the Casa de la Moneda, the Royal Mint which produced Castille’s coinage from 1435 to 1730, and which carries the distinction of the world’s oldest still-standing industrial manufacturing plant; through the Plaza St Esteban with its Romanesque porticoed church and unusually tall bell tower, into the Plaza del Potro again to La Tasquina, now filled with a lively mid-holiday crowd.

A tapeo wouldn’t be complete without a sampling of Jamon Iberico, that most unique of cured hams in the world. Made from pigs of the Iberico breed, which are the last free-range pigs in Europe, and which feed largely on acorns in one of five different regions—Jabugo, Guijuela, Huelva, Los Pedroches and Extremadura; each region’s ham displays a subtly different flavor.  Hams made from hogs fed exclusively on acorns, which have the most intense flavor, are know as Bellota, and the finest of those are reservas aged for two years or more. That flavor is rich but subtle, unctuous, nutty, and utterly delicious. The barman at Tasquina wields a wicked, long scalpel-sharp knife with deft expertise, and paper-thin ribbons of dark red, marbled ham fall on a plate, which we savor along with a glass of Ribera crianza, a young, fruity red wine.  As we move into the pretty ochre dining room for lunch, we are earlier than all save one table.  The waiter brings glasses of Verdejo and Rioja, and we share a pan of verdures salteado con jamon—mixed vegetables sautéed with garlic, ham and parsley.  Muy sabroso—very tasty.  Revuletos con boletes—eggs lightly scrambled with cepes follow for one of us, and carillada de Iberico estofado—cheeks of the same wonderful Iberico pork, long braised in a red wine sauce to falling apart, for the other. Altogether a most delightful lunch.

Warmth, wine and tasty food combine to fortify us for a visit to the Parador, a couple of kilometers out the Valladolid road, for a spectacular panoramic view back to town, and finally to Segovia’s renowned aqueduct.  Built by the Romans in the 1st Century under Emperor Trajan to bring water from the 16km distant Rio Frio to their settlement, the soaring 115 foot-high, 2950 foot-long double-tier arched stone viaduct is closest to the Pont du Gard in southern France as an imposing feat of early Roman engineering, and an architectural delight.

The return walk up Calle Joan Bravo toward city center makes us a part of the flow of the beginning of evening paseo, and into the nightly tapas ritual once again.  The holiday season may be over for another year, and the stilt-men and fire-breathers put away until next Dia de Los Reyes, but tapas and vino will be celebrated year-round in Segovia, as in all Spain.

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