Hay Festival Segovia at San Juan de Los Caballeros – Philippa Gregory and Thomas Heatherwick

“If I could speak Spanish… I would really love to do a novel on the woman they call Juana La Loca, because I think madness is a way women are labelled and kept out of power.” The bestselling historical novelist Philippa Gregory was being interviewed by Giles Tremlett, the Guardian’s Spain correspondent, but was replying to a member of the packed audience in San Juan de los Caballeros church, who had asked her if she would ever consider writing about a Spanish queen, maybe Isabella I, who was crowned Queen of Castile in Segovia. “I wrote a book about Catherine of Aragon , The Constant Princess,  so learnt a lot about Isabella then, but Juana La Loca is the figure who really fascinates me.”

San Juan de los Caballeros is one of 18 venues in Segovia which are being used to host events during the Hay Festival. As well as churches, there are palaces, a library, a former prison, museums, mansions, courtyards and gardens. Being in Segovia during the festival, you really feel part of the town, as you get to see monuments that you might not have to chance to enter at other times of the year.  And instead of passively visiting these places, everyone is stimulated and engaged by the passion of the huge range of writers, intellectuals and creative people on the programme. If only more places would allow a bit of dynamic, contemporary energy to infuse their architectural heritage in this way…

San Juan de los Caballeros has Visigothic origins, although much of the present structure is Romanesque, with additions and modifications over the centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century it was being used to store wood, but was bought by the artist Daniel Zuloaga, who carried out some serious renovations to turn it into his home and studio. Now it is a museum devoted to his work and that of his family, several  of whom were also renowned painters and ceramicists.

In the evening, it was the turn of Thomas Heatherwick, the visionary designer and architect who devised the spectacular cauldron for the Olympics opening ceremony, to take to the stage . “We didn’t just want to come up with another bowl on a stick,” he explained to the audience, who were crammed not only into the nave of the church but also down the side aisles, leaning against pillars and perching on ledges. “We wanted to steer clear of anything that could be turned into a fountain and left to rot in a park somewhere for the next century. The cauldron had to be as ephemeral as the event itself.”

It may not have been physically permanent,but his delicate structure of copper petals is for many people the enduring image not just of the ceremony but of the entire games. Talking about the London bus he and his team have just designed – which he wants to avoid being “too blocky” – he said “I believe a city should be inspired by its infrastructure, which shapes its true identity, rather than following this trend for extravagant galleries. In Segovia, you have this amazing structure which was built for piping water. The Aqueduct is a phenomenal thing, and it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a genius like Thomas Heatherwick to be inspired by Segovia. Everyone here at the Hay Festival seems to have been touched by its magic. Or might that have more to do with the mezcal shots at the disco last night?

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