The fairytale good-looks of the Alcazar de Segovia have made it Spain’s most famous castle.
It’s also rumoured that this little fortress was the inspiration behind Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.
The Alcazar is located in the stunning town of Segovia, which is an-hour-and-a-bit from Madrid – and so a popular daytrip from the capital.
I visited the Alcazar in Segovia in about 2005, when on a study exchange to Spain. I remember first catching sight of a photo of it in a the Lonely Planet, and then making a bee-line straight to the town to explore this amazing piece of architecture.
A Ship Shaped Fortress
Most castles and fortresses have been founded upon spots which offer a natural defensive advantage. The Alcazar of Segovia is particularly special in that it was built upon a large rock promontory, which is shaped rather like the bow of a ship.
Indeed, if you stroll along el Camino de la Cuesta de los Hoyos, the small, wooded road which runs in front of the castle, it almost appears as if the alcazar is sailing towards you – cutting through the arid plains of Spain, perhaps in search of the New World.
The castle’s rocky outcrop has been shaped, over time, by the waters of the Rio Eresma, which flows gently in front of the fortress.
Indeed, the confluence of the Rio Ciguinuela and the Rio Eresma, which meet in the centre of Segovia, made this an attractive spot to found a town, way back in Roman times.
The Romans transformed the land into a sizeable city, and endowed Segovia with its spectacular aqueduct – which is a tourist-masterpiece in itself.
Important Islamic Influences
Spain was forged in Early Modern times, during the tumultuous period when the Moors (Muslims from North Africa) were expelled from Southern Spain by the Iberian people from the Northern lands.
Islamic warriors built the first wooden fortress where the Alcazar stands today – using the spot to mark their influence over the surrounding lands.
However, because their early fortifications were made of wood, we’ve little evidence of these structures. IThe Spanish reconquista resulted in the capture of Segovia as early as 1085, meaning that the majority of castle architecture is Spanish in origin.
Despite this, Islamic building styles became increasingly fashionable in Early Modern Spain (ironically, after the Moors were expelled from the country), and most of the present buildings of the Alcazar de Segovia bear homage to Islamic ancestry.
This is clearly visible in some of the modern castle stucco-ceilings, and the elaborate reading-windows at the front of the fortress. Indeed, the word Alcazar actually stems from the arabic ‘Al’qasr’, meaning fortress.
Probably the first buildings of the Alcazar were laid in about the 1200s, but from the c13th onwards, Fernando III and subsequently Alfonso X built the majority of the rooms we see today.
The next burst of building activity took place in the mid 1500s, with the last major additions made in 1587.
The Segovia Alcazar was a place of real ceremonial importance back in Early Modern times: Isabella, the monarch who marked the Spanish golden age, was crowned in the Alcazar in 1474.
The Alcazar de Segovia is arranged around two main courtyards: the larger being el Patio de Armas, and the smaller one, el Patio del Reloj.
Presently, visitors are able to explore twelve of the castle rooms which open onto these two main courtyards; and each of the rooms is an intriguing mix of Gothic, Romanesque and Moorish influences.
The most notable of all rooms is the Hall of Kings, which can be found at the front of the castle – that’s the bow of the ship.
The hall filled with 52 intricate, raised portraits of various Spanish monarchs of Castile and Leone. These little statuettes form an elaborate, golden-plated frieze which encircles the upper part of the room – a pretty spectacular overview of Spanish history.
Note that the ornate, Islamic ceiling is a modern replica of an original destroyed by fire.
At the opposite end of the castle, you’ll encounter the impressive Tower of Juan II, foundations of which were laid in the 1300s.
This geometric edifice (rather like a upturned matchbox) is more than 80m in height. You’ll note that its arched windows have a distinctive, Arabic style – and, as an aside, the tower was used as a jail in Early Modern times. Learn more about Medieval prisons and dungeons.
Despite the tower’s lofty appearance today, it wasn’t always this height. If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll notice that the brickwork from about half-way up is a little different – during the 1550s, building-work to strengthen the defences of the Alcazar nearly doubled its height.
Nowadays, on climbing up the 156 crooked steps of the Tower of Juan II, you’ll be greeted with a beautiful view across the Spanish countryside.
During the hot summer months, the baked-yellow aridity is quite an amazing contrast to the green hills of Britain – and it’s a surprise to see just how rural Segovia’s surroundings are.
While you’re admiring the view, try squinting into the distance.
You may have to use your imagination a little, but you might be able to make out the silhouette of la mujer muerte (literally: the dead woman). The peaks and valleys of the Sierra de Guadarrama, which stretch across the horizon, apparently resemble the body of a woman, lying on her back with her knees slightly bent.
The Mighty Fire
In 1862, fire-ripped through the Alcazar, destroying the roofing, turrets and upper floors of almost every building in the castle. Curiously, however, this act of destruction would made the Alcazar internationally famous.
In the late 1860s, the Romantic movement was sweeping Western Europe. Although Romantic poets and authors described ruined castles and chateau with tremendous enthusiasm, they also tried to emulate ideas of grander, more chivalrous years gone by.
As a result, the architects restoring the Alcazar in Segovia chose to exaggerate all aspects of the castle – creating more fanciful turrets and larger, spiralling towers.
These changes were made for dramatic effect, rather than for historical authenticity. After all, this was a time when the crazed, fantasy castles of Germany – including Neuschwanstein – were being built. It was an age where modern-life (well, 1800’s life!) longed for the fairy-tales of yore.
Inspiration for Disney
In the 1960s, so the urban legend goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe, looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.
The lead architect for the project was Herb Ryman, a man fascinated with European architecture.
Apparently, the Alcazar of Segovia was one of their chief inspirations – but this is one of those things which has been said a thousand times, without an original source to be found.
Disney do admit that Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say if the Alcazar of Segovia was one of their sources.
I guess, regardless, the modern day castle does look good enough to be from a fairytale, anyway.
If you’ve enjoyed this, bear in mind that there are other Alcazars in Spain! The other two famous ones are the Alcazars of Cordoba and Seville. Read more about the other Alcazar castles here. . .