Sunday, October 16, 2011

Spain by train: Segovia, Valencia

Ever since Spain expanded its high-speed train network (AVE) — now the largest in Europe — travelling within this vivacious country has become perceptibly convenient. For a visitor with budgeted time, day-trips are far more doable and if planned prudently a Eurail pass ( makes the outing cost-effective too, happily leaving a few extra euros in the pocket.

On a brief trip to Madrid recently, train travel nudged me into packing in two additional destinations, allowing the experience of contrasting cultures and bringing into focus Spain’s absorbing historical canvas. 

Valencia, Spain’s orange country and the birthplace of paella, is on the Mediterranean coast to the east. The high-speed train from Madrid has shrunk the 391 km distance to a feasible 90 minutes; in comparison the 362-km Chennai-Bangalore route by Shatabdi Express takes 4.50 hr. The country’s third-largest city, it’s a tempting mix of favourable climate (Mediterranean, of course), diverse cuisine (paella, tapas, horchata, turron etc) and engaging culture (historic and futuristic). And of course, it’s the home of the Valencia Football Club, a top ranker in La Liga, Spain’s premier league. Off-late Valencia has emerged out of the shadow of the two biggies, Barcelona and Madrid, but has retained its leisurely character and not turned aggressively touristy.

The non-stop train journey has made it the closest seaside town for Madrid and it’s not uncommon to hear holidayers heading-off for “paella-by-the-beach lunch”. I would vouch for it as a must-do when in Spain, having savoured this experience on the popular Playa (beach) de Las Arenas, which had a picturesque waterfront, a string of heritage restaurants and a lively Sunday market where among other buys were freshly-pickled olives.    

As across classical Europe, Valencia’s Old Quarter exudes Gothic charisma, and my exploration begun from the popular Plaza de la Reina. This has a clutch of striking buildings, the most celebrated being Valencia Cathedral, which evidently has the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Its hybrid architecture stood in contrast to my next halt, the 15th century La Lonja del la Seda (silk exchange), a Unesco site for being the best preserved late-Gothic example and a seal of Valencia’s golden age as a leading trade centre. What imprisoned my senses here, though, was an overwhelmingly delicate fragrance, which I discovered were from orange blossoms at its small central garden. What blissful natural scent! Oranges piqued my interest once again at the buzzing Mercado Central, the century-plus food market opposite the street, that’s a splendid manifestation of Moorish influences like ceramic tiles and domed glass-roof. It typically offered a window to the city’s culture and as I browsed, observing locals stock-up on paella ingredients, pans, ham and more, I noticed the tag ‘naranja’ on piles of luscious oranges. Apparently the Spanish term for the fruit originated from the Dravidian root naarinja, as oranges were an import from India/China. 

Historic Valencia was offset by two cutting-edge architectural spots. The City of Arts and Sciences, was a complex designed on a spectacular scale. Offering museums, opera house, Imax theatre besides Europe’s biggest aquarium, it was conceived to stimulate the mind. However, Bioparc, a new generation zoo got my vote as the not-to be-missed experience. Its uniqueness was the remarkable recreation of assorted yet freewheeling wild habitats: savannah, rain forests, equatorial Africa etc, with respective species co-existing in harmony. So if it was hello to the giraffe and zebra at one instance, a while later I was observing gorillas and flamingos. Truly, an enthralling tribute to sustainability and conservation; and a rewarding wrap-up to my Valencia excursion.

My next day-trip was to pocket-sized Segovia. Quaint and delightfully frozen in time, this Unesco heritage town, in the shadows of the snow-capped Guadarrama mountains, was merely 30 minutes by train north of Madrid. A showpiece of the Castile and Leon autonomous province in Spain, centuries of miscellaneous history met around the corners presenting a fascinating museum-like cultural exposition.

The Segovia tour got an awe-start with the multi-arched AD 1 Aqueduct, the town’s symbol. Built with stone but no mortar, it was a characteristic feat of Roman engineering towering over the landscape. Beyond it the skyline dramatically changed.

Dominated by an assortment of quirky Gothic-Renaissance turrets, domes, spires, towers and a labyrinth of twisting alleys, my first impressions were of having almost stepped into fairyland. As I realised, this was an oft-heard reaction. And if modern myth is to be believed, El Alcazar, the erstwhile royal residence on a cliff, at the end of the tourist trail, did inspire the logo of a company that’s enchanted generations with the magic of make-belief world: Walt Disney.

Another multi-spire stunner was the AD 1525 Segovia Cathedral dedicated to patron saint San Frutos at Plaza Mayor. His sculpture holding a prayer book stands in a niche atop the doorway, and legend says the day he closes the book the world will end!

Every step in this dainty, atmospheric town had tremendous architectural power and the liberal sprinkling of outdoorsy cafes, tapas bars, boutiques, old-style restaurants as Michelin-star Jose Maria renowned for Segovia’s signature dish cochinillo, and colourful souvenir shops made my hours vanish quickly. Soon it was time to board the train back to Madrid…with a promise to return.
Published in Deccan Herald, Oct 2011 

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