Protecting the Alcázar de Segovia

Article written while I studied abroad in Segovia, Spain, with a journalism program through the University of Oregon.

Two men with rifles slung over their shoulders flanked me as we walked through the empty courtyard of the Academia de Artillería, their boots kicking up dust as feet pounded into the pavement in unison. Soldiers dressed in green fatigues watched as we passed, all hidden away in the shadows in an effort to find respite from the relentless beating of the Spanish sun. Our group continued, casting a trio of shadows that climbed up the red brick buildings, clawing toward the white frames of the windows on the second floor. My escorts were young men, guns well oiled and gleaming in the light. As we turned toward our destination, a pair of tall oak doors bordered by cannons, I reached up to wipe the sweat beading at my brow.

Inside I was greeted by the cool embrace of air conditioning and was directed to wait in an office. The room was Spartan, with whitewashed walls, a wooden desk and three black leather chairs. The blinds were drawn, muting the afternoon. The only personal items were three oil paintings hanging above the desk, pastel strokes giving life to the Alcázar de Segovia.

I rose to my feet as the door was flung open and the major strode inside. Óscar Jiménez Sánchez wore a crisp tan uniform splashed with stars on his shoulders and the red and gold colors of Spain on his chest. He was squat, powerfully built with broad shoulders and a chiseled chin. His stern face was broken by a smile when he thrust out his arm for a bone-crushing handshake. He thumped into his chair, leaning back as he begin to speak of his passion — the work he does maintaining the castle of Segovia.

The Alcázar stands at the edge of the city, rising up atop a craggy outcrop of stone. Its walls are golden, topped by spires with blue roofs. On the highest point, the Tower of John II, flies a Spanish flag rippling in the breeze. It looks like something out of a fairytale, and the imagination runs wild with visions of knights, dragons and a princess. Originally serving as a fortress, the building has served as a royal palace, state prison, college and military academy. It has faced invasions, served as the seat of power for kings and held the wealth of the New World.

Sánchez is one of the people trusted with keeping the castle in pristine condition.

“To maintain the castle we have a plan,” he said. “We are repairing constantly.”

For two years he has served as the deputy manager of the Alcázar Trust Headquarters, a team that is in charge of refurbishing the castle. Each member specializes in different fields, working throughout the year to solve problems. This is done through visual tests and by following a 10-year plan that outlines the goals for what must be done to repair the castle. These goals are structured by order of importance, with the most focus dedicated to anything that threatens the safety of the half million visitors who arrive to see the site every year.

On the weekends during the summer a huge mass of tourists flood the narrow street that winds down towards the entrance to the castle, crushing each other up against the buildings lining the way to avoid the cars that squeeze through regularly. Smaller clusters duck around the slow moving masses that are the organized tour groups, signified by their matching shirts and umbrella waving leaders. As they round the bend and see the castle, many stop to take photos.

“I can’t believe I walk past this every day,” said Gabriela Bronstein, a student from the University of Oregon studying abroad in Segovia. “We don’t have castles like this in the United States.”

Once inside the size of the castle seems to swallow the numbers, keeping it from feeling too crowded. Ropes help with the flow, moving people in the same direction and blocking access to the preserved furniture of kings and queens.

“It just seems crazy that people actually lived here,” said Becca Rupnow, another student from Oregon spending her summer in Segovia.

For Sánchez the most important goal of his job is to ensure the safety of the visitors. In the past the organization has had issues with falling stones tumbling down on people, so whenever a potential safety hazard is found it jumps to the top of the priority list. As a last line of defense against falling debris, nets are hung above most of the busiest walkways.

“If a wall is going to fall but its not very ancient or important, then it can maybe wait,” Sánchez said of the repair schedule. “But our first goal is to prevent dangers to tourists.”

While the tourists bring with them the money that helps fund projects, they also cause harm of their own. Human damage is a real concern, and as such several systems are in place to reduce the risk. Outside the castle police officers often roll through on patrol, keeping an eye on the exterior and the gardens. Another guard mans the main entrance to the castle, limiting entrance only to those who have the appropriate ticket.

“We have private security who are controlling the area by TV cameras,” Sánchez said. “When someone sits down on the king’s throne, they say, ‘Please don’t touch, this is forbidden,’ over the loudspeakers.”

Yet even with the focus on security there seem to be plenty of concerns. Roaming groups of younger tourists set loose on the building often have little sense for what shouldn’t be done. Swords and pikes lining the walls make for tempting targets, and many younger visitors attempt to yank them from their hangers. Unlike other museums, inside the castle there are few guards actually patrolling the rooms. This allows people to get away with things that normally wouldn’t be allowed.

Even innocent actions by people who respect the history have unintended consequences.

“Sometimes we have to repair a chair because five hundred thousand people touch the same spot,” said Javier Sanz Rodríguez, secretary for the Alcázar Trust.

Sánchez claimed that graffiti wasn’t an issue at the castle, dissuaded by the security and peer pressure from other visitors. Yet the spiral staircase that leads to the fantastic view from the top of the main tower is covered in scrawled names. Some are written in black Sharpie, others in red paint and a few are carved into the stone. Its pervasive and impossible to miss, ruining the otherwise engulfing trek.

The Alcázar is impossible to miss perched atop its rocky crag at the edge of the city — even inspiring Walt Disney’s designs of the iconic Cinderella Castle. The walls are filled with myths and legends. I learned one such myth sitting in a small office across from Marian Rubio Herrero, the head coordinator for a study abroad program in Segovia. Herrero shatters any awkwardness amongst strangers, with an easy smile and way of drawing the most reluctant participants into hour-long discussions.

“In the 13th century,” she began, “the Alcázar was the most important place in Segovia, because if you owned it you controlled the city.”

At the time Muslims controlled the castle, drawing the ire of Christians who found themselves out of power. In a village near Segovia, the mayor and general of the Christian forces was frustrated because he couldn’t find a way to take the castle.

“One day the beautiful wife of the mayor told her friends, ‘Our men are unable to conquer the Alcázar — we should help them,’” Herrero said.

The women donned their best dresses and began to dance in front of the main gates, drawing out the Muslim men who had been without the touch of the fairer sex for ages as they withstood countless sieges far from their families. As they opened their gate and spilled out, the Christian army swooped in and took control. In retribution, the Muslims struck back.

“It was obvious who the leader of the women was,” Herrero said. “So the Moorish took this lady and they cut her breasts off — killing her.”

Legends like this give the castle character, and walking through the corridors one can feel the history reverberating across the stones. Most of the building is still the original, with the walls and foundation made of the old stones that were originally used. The only changes that have been made are the result of a major fire which swept through the castle in the 19th century, which forced a replacement of the ceiling and wooden interiors.

“They are the same age, but were taken from other places to replace what was lost,” Sánchez said. “When we lost the ceiling, we could go buy a new one from another site.”

This has created a system where historic sites in Spain are patched together from several different areas around the region. When the Alcázar needed the new roof, the organizers went to a village in the region and purchased roofs from old houses that were built in the same manner. They then transferred them to the castle to replace what had been lost.

One secret that has been a key to success in maintaining the original design of the castle is the employment of José Migeul Merino de Cáceres, an architect who specializes in historic buildings and has been one of the leaders of the restoration.

“He is the most important historic architect in Spain, and has been working with us since 1973,” Sánchez said. “He knows very well all the work done in the castle in the last century, so he is leading every project.”

Merino is brought in whenever a large renovation is undertaken, giving advice on how things should proceed with an eye towards keeping everything as authentic as possible. He also helps dictate the importance of the repairs, guiding the team’s focus.

These repairs often come via the inflictions of two forces of nature that have become the biggest adversaries to Sánchez and his team.

“The main reason the stones have begun to fall from the walls is due to the weather conditions,” Sánchez said.

Inclement weather has a terrible effect on the masonry, especially in the winter when snow and ice descends upon the city. The moisture gets between the stones, freezing and pushing them out of place. This can’t be prevented — forcing the team to react to the trouble spots after the damage has been done.

The other issue comes in the form of birds that populate the sheer, manmade cliffs — another problem with no easy solution. Dotting the walls with nests that damage the structural integrity are peregrine falcons, protected raptors that are renowned for their speed. In fact they are the fastest members of the animal kingdom. Like the ice, they get into gaps in the wall and peck away, loosening stones in order to build their homes.

“We have to live with them,” Sánchez said.

While the falcons cause damage, they cannot be removed due to their protected status. Instead they must be left to their own devices, a decision that is made easier because the falcons have helped reduce the population of pigeons that live in the castle. Peregrine falcons are predators, hunting other birds for food. This helps protect the castle from their more numerous cousins.

Everything that is done at the Alcázar is accomplished through large bids that are made by companies around Spain.

“For every big refurbishing of the castle we make an advertisement in which every company in Spain with high qualifications in special orders for artistic monuments can bid to obtain offers,” Sánchez said.

The company that is chosen then provides the expertise and manpower for the project that is being worked on. In return they gain the prestige of having restored a famous cultural site in their home country — something that brings with it endless amounts of goodwill. Currently the Alcázar Trust is looking to add a partner for a complete remodel of the Tower of John II. The project is expected to take a whole year, with a predicted budget of over one million euro.

The plan is to repair both the outside and inside of the tower, with a focus on making the stairs that lead to the top more assessable and safe for the visitors who make the hike. This endeavor is one of the biggest renovations in the history of the Alcázar, and the plan is to begin in October 2015. While the project is underway, no tourists will be able to go to the top of the tower.

“We will work hard to be open for next summer,” Rodríguez said, eyeing a 2016 reopening.

Meanwhile the tower remains open, and standing at the top provides the best view of Segovia. From one direction is a view of the compact city, with the Gothic architecture of the cathedral. Further back the arches of the Roman Aqueduct just manage to rise above the tiled rooftops. The other directions are filled with the rolling hills of Spain, golden fields of wheat spreading out to the bases of the distant mountains. Standing there and looking out, it’s easy to see why so many people have fallen in love with the Alcázar, tourists and locals alike.

As I sit in that bare office across from Sánchez, listening as he details everything that is done, it is easy to connect with his passion. The reward for protecting the castle is worth the effort.