Swap sandals and suncream for Sephardic history in Spain’s heartland
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TRAVELSPAIN

Swap sandals and suncream for Sephardic history in Spain’s heartland

The medieval towns of Segovia and Avila have much to offer

The cathedral in Segovia
The cathedral in Segovia

As Spain welcomes back Brits in their hundreds of thousands, I opted to forgo cocktails in the Costas and ventured instead to the country’s heartland, Castilla y Leon. Instead of stretching out on the sand to bask in the sun, I chose to visit the medieval cities of Segovia and Ávila, two of Spain’s most distinguished historic Jewish quarters.

While many Jewish visitors to Spain might visit synagogues in Toledo and Córdoba, you can take an hour-and-a-half train ride from Madrid and immerse yourself in two of the country’s most spellbinding and underrated Aljamas. These are the precincts where Jews worked, lived and ultimately were confined before their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Arriving in Segovia, you can’t miss the imposing Roman aqueduct, which is the picture-perfect image everyone who visits the city remembers long after they leave. However, I headed straight for the Jewish centre, where my guide, Maria, was waiting to offer me a visit of Segovia’s enchanting back streets.

In spring, poppies swayed in the warm breeze as I walked in the shadow of the city’s towering cathedral. The city’s Jews were forced to live in these environs after the Inquisition arrived, all but condemning Jews to convert to Christianity, or else leave.

Orange buildings in Segovia’s Jewish Quarter

Maria told me we were walking in the footsteps of rabbis and market traders. Some members of the community, notably Rabbi Seneor, reached positions of influence in the royal court. There were at least five synagogues here, thriving Talmudic schools, and a slaughterhouse and a hospital used exclusively by the Jewish community, but for the most part, the remnants are to be found in hidden away churches that expropriated the 14th- and 15th-century shuls.

To work up an appetite before lunch we walked to the top of the San Andrés Gate, from which you can marvel at the Jewish Quarter. Eight gates were built to shut in the Jewish inhabitants, but San Andrés is one of the few remaining. To the south of the city, you can just glimpse the archaeological excavations that led to the discovery of the old Jewish graveyard. The necropolis is sited on what is now a pretty pine tree forest. Maria mentioned, almost in passing, how the Jews of the city were separated from their cemetery when the Catholic Kings insisted that the Inquisition should become more repressive.

After all that walking, the heartiest of lunches awaited me at El Fogón Sefardí. Popular with Jewish visitors from far and wide, manager Alfonso greeted me and proceeded to give me a tour of the original dining hall with original 15th-century Mudéjar flourishes. A menorah has pride of place in the centre, and while Alfonso filled me in on the historic gossip – it’s thought a prominent Rabbi once lived here – my belly gurgled. I wasn’t left disappointed – or hungry.

The chefs add a few personal twists to Sephardic classics. My aubergine and lamb millefeuille was surprisingly fruity and just the right side of spicy, and my pastilla was stuffed with succulent chicken. Alfonso took me to see the adjoining hotel spa, but all I needed at that point was to flop onto one of the hotel’s luxury beds.

Like any good Jew, my stomach often dictates my travel itinerary, so it was with a three-course lunch that I kickstarted the next afternoon in the nearby city of Ávila. You can either stay at the characterful Hotel Spa La Casa Mudéjar the night before in Segovia or use Madrid as a convenient base.

Sitting down first to a dish of creamy courgette ravioli at the restaurant La Gloria Bendita, and then basking in its views of Ávila’s perfectly preserved 11th-century fortifications, I greedily feasted on a tender beefsteak to muster the energy for one more tour.

I only just made it, but Ávila’s Jewish quarter, where Kabbalists famously lived and wrote mystical texts, is no less spectacular than Segovia’s. We ended the visit by walking through the Puerta de la Malaventura, the Gate of Misfortune, through which it is said the city’s Jews had to walk to their uncertain future when the Inquisition forced them from the city where they’d lived for centuries.

The sweet relief was to see how much resource and attention Spain’s Sephardi authorities have invested in remembering and recreating their Jewish history, and how stunning the old Jewish quarters look today, nestled in rolling verdant green valleys.

Next year, the Costas, if only to please my partner!

 

Andrew ate at Restaurante El Fogón Sefardí in Hotel Spa La Casa Mudéjar in Segovia www.lacasamudejar.com

In Ávila he ate at Restaurante Gloria Bendita

The Didactic Centre of the Jewish Quarter in Segovia offers many tours of cultural interest

 

 

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