Visiting Castille, especially Segovia

The tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

The year I finished a manuscript for a book on John’s Dark Night, my wife and I decided to visit the places in Castile connected with the life of John of the Cross. On a previous occasion, after finishing my first book on John, The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross, we had visited many of the places frequented by John in the south of Spain, particularly in Andalusia. We were excited about our new trip; I had been to Castile on a previous occasion when I taught English one summer to a group of students in Logrono, and then took the opportunity to move south to Avila, Segovia, and some of the surrounding places. My wife and I decided to drive from Italy where we lived at the time, and we ended up driving about 3500 miles, over a period of eighteen days. We drove through varied and wonderful country in Spain—mountains, valleys, badlands, and Montana like areas, fertile farming areas, orchards. We had left Manresa and decided to stop at El Pilar in Zaragoza, a major marian shrine—what a wonderful place, as was the beautiful San Seo. We arrived in Segovia from Soria on April 22nd. We had stopped in Ciudad de Osma with its wonderful cathedral, public areas, and walking places. Then we moved on to Segovia with its magnificent buildings.

As we approached the city, the weather was beautiful and Segovia was at its best, exciting, wonderful, and truly magnificent. Our hotel was just outside the city, but we went in immediately, and like all visitors to Segovia were awestruck at its Roman aqueduct—a truly brilliant work of human creativity. Then we walked through the main streets, focusing on the places that existed in John’s time, trying to think how he felt surrounded by such beauty and wealth—the Cathedral, churches, plazas, and buildings of wealthy families and nobility.

The Cathedral of Segovia was destroyed in 1521 during the Comuneros War and the new one constructed under the inspiration of Charles V and dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and to St Frutos, the patron of Segovia. The work began in June 1525, seventeen years before John’s birth, and it was not completed until many years after his death. John would have seen the early progress of what became the last great Gothic Cathedral in Spain. From the Cathedral it is a short and easy walk to the great Alcazar of Segovia, dating back to the twelfth century.

This magnificent castle looks like something you would see in a children’s book, and in fact was one of several that Walt Disney visited as the basis for his castle in Disneyland. This was one of the favorite residences of the monarchs of Castile, and it was from this place that Isabella the Catholic left to be proclaimed Queen in the main square of Segovia in 1474. From the walls of this splendid palace and fortress we could look down on the river Eresma in the valley below and immediately see the Monastery of Discalced Carmelites where John had been prior. In the late afternoon we made our first visit to John’s former community and spent time in reflection at his tomb. It was a simple but wonderful space. We also saw the tomb of Dona Ana of Penalosa, one of John’s disciples and the person to whom he dedicated both the poem and commentary, the Living Flame of Love.

The next day we returned to Segovia, stopping first at the church of San Lorenzo, built in the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries and known to John. We then went on to the splendid fifteenth century monastery of Santa Maria del Parral and the community of Hieronymite monks. Not far from the monastery we entered the Church of the True Cross, originally constructed by the Templars in 1208, it is now under the patronage of the Knights of Malta. We passed the Carmelite Monastery and moved on to the sanctuary of Nuestra Senora de la Fuencisla, built in the sixteenth century on an original shrine of the thirteenth century, known to John, to honor the patron of the city and surrounding lands. We then returned to spend time at John’s tomb and reflect on some of the central reasons for our visit. After lunch in the old Jewish quarter we wandered around the city again visiting some of the churches that John must have known. Later that evening we returned to view John’s monastery from the city walls and then to go outside the monastery to look up at the illuminated Alcazar, truly picturesque and magnificent. You feel a different spirit in this city, reflective, artistic, and historical.