* Keep in mind that this article was written more than 4 years ago. Travel options may have changed.
By the numbers
China’s got a big wall; a Great one, you could say. Berlin used to have a pretty serious one as well. The walls of Ávila may not be quite as well known, but
their grandeur is impressive. Plus, the town’s striking monuments, friendly people and relaxed atmosphere will make this a favourite puente getaway.
The massive granite walls that encircle the city centre were built in 1090 and are punctuat- ed with 88 towers and nine gateway entrances. The city is essentially set on the top of a mountain, making it the highest provincial capital in Spain, and giving you breathtaking views of the countryside from atop the Romanesque walls. Although it’s located just 112km from Madrid, you’ll surely note the difference in temperature because of the altitude; there’s often a dusting of snow in January.
Ávila is a town of about 55,000, but like Toledo, very few people live in the medieval city centre. Within the centre’s labyrinth of cobbled streets, you’ll mostly find upscale shops, restaurants and loads of history. The majority of its residents live outside the city walls in modern flats.
Ávila’s most famous and beloved daughter is Saint Teresa (Teresa de Jesús), arguably the most “important” Spanish saint, if God ranks such things. Teresa was born in 1515 and became interested in the lives of the saints as a young girl. At the ten- der age of seven, she ran away from home with her brother Rodrigo seeking to be martyred with the Moors. She and her brother survived, but a monument called Los Cuatro Postes now marks the place outside the city walls where they prayed. It is simply four columns with a cross in their centre, and is one of the best places to view the city from outside the walls.
At the age of 19, Teresa became a Carmelite nun and fell gravely ill. While she was sick, she experienced periods of “spiritual ecstasy”, and attempted to use mystic thought techniques to attain higher levels of religious fervor. She believed that the visions she had enabled her to see the wretched nature of sin, and claimed to see Christ in the flesh during a period of two years. In the following years, many skeptics believed that she was possessed by the Devil or just plain crazy. She began to inflict self-torture in order to imitate Jesus’ suffering.
Teresa began her career as a writer in 1563 when she wrote a Constitution for the Carmelite order. She penned several other publications on mystic devotion to prayer and travelled all over Spain on the equivalent of a saintly book tour, championing more pious and conservative Catholic reforms. She founded more than 16 convents, and after her death, was the first woman named a Doctor of the Church. Saint Teresa is now the patron saint of the sick, of people ridiculed for their faith, of people who have lost their parents, and randomly, lace-makers. Get in touch with your inner mystic and kneel at the massive stat- ue of Teresa near the central gate of the walls.
Teresa wasn’t the only religious rebel of her day. Ávila is also the birthplace of 4th-century theologian Priscillian. He goes down in history as the first Christian executed for heresy, though official documents actually allege that he practised magic. He was ahead of his time, as he viewed women as equals of men. However, he preached doctrines which emphasised celibacy and renounced marriage.
Get thee to church
Not surprisingly, the Convent of Saint Teresa is a main attraction, but more Teresa artifacts can be found at the Convent of San José. Within this convent,
there’s a small museum devoted to her work, and a one-euro admission fee lets you browse her manuscripts and a few preserved personal effects. Legend has it that Franco used to keep Teresa’s mummified arm by his bed- side, but there are no body parts to be found here.
Based on architecture alone rather than mystic folklore, the most impressive of Ávila’s religious buildings is the 12th–century San Segundo cathedral, which is actually connected to the city walls and displays a mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance features.
There are plenty of other impressive holy sites outside the walls as well, such as the Gothic Santo Tomás monastery, where Don Juan, only son of Ferdinand and Isabel, is interred. The Basilica de San Vicente sits atop the very site where he and his sisters were martyred, and there’s a relief of their brutal death scenes around his tomb. The Romanesque-style church of San Andrés lies to the north.
The last stop on this tour of churches, Our Lady of Sonsoles, is one of the most interesting. Prime Minister Zapatero was married there in 1990. His wife, Sonsoles Espinosa Díaz, is an Ávila native. The church has a sprawling garden with benches, fountains and shade trees, and inside — a taxidermy crocodile. Apparently, an Ávila native discovered the beast when he made his first travels to America centuries ago, and brought him back for all to see. No word on whether he played ring bearer in Zapatero’s nuptials.
Ávila, of course, has holidays dedicated to these saints. Celebrate the día de Santa Teresa on 15 October and San Segundo on 2 May. The biggest party, however, falls in September, when the city gets back to its medieval roots. Residents dress in traditional medieval costumes and take to the streets for a weekend full of traditional food, music and games. You can even stock up on centuries-old homeopathic remedies at the herb stalls set up at an old-world market, as well as metal and leather handicrafts.
Wining and dining like an abulense
Ávila’s hearty cuisine is just what you’d expect from this some- times-frosty, mountain climate. Tuck into a steaming bowl of haricot beans (judías de Barco)before tackling a massive steak (chuletón). Cocido morañego, similar to the Madrid version of the stew, is also great on a winter day, and there are plenty of traditional roasted meats available such as lamb. Try El Mesón del Rastro restaurant in the plaza of the same name for a filling, menú del día.
Without question, the most omnipresent foodstuff in Ávila is the yema, often called yemas de Santa Teresa, in case you’d forgotten about her for a moment. The bright yellow orbs are just soft-yet-solidified egg yolks coated in sugar. It doesn’t sound too appetising, but these little desserts are affordable, tasty and very popular souvenirs. Pick up a box to try for yourself in — you guessed it — Plaza Santa Teresa.
For a fun night out in Ávila, head to Delicatessen (Avda. Portugal, 7, tel: 92 021 25 06). This funky nightclub/theatre offers short comedy shows and fable productions in the early evening, and decent dance music later on for the under-35 set. Oh, and everything is backwards and upside-down here; you enter to find living room furniture on the ceiling, and as you move farther back you begin to spot trees, pieces of cars and stoplights dangling overhead. After a full day of climbing, touring, dining and dancing, you may just achieve spiritual ecstasy yourself.
There’s a city-wide law that no building within the perimeter of the walls (except the church towers) may be taller than the walls themselves.
Natives called the main square, Plaza Santa Teresa, “El Grande”, and refer to the smaller Plaza del Mercado as “El Chico”.
Isabel la Católica, the most powerful woman in Spain’s history, was born in Ávila.
Ávila is one of the locations listed in the popular travel book 1000 Places to See Before You Die.
Travel time is approximately one hour and 20 minutes from the centre of Madrid.
By car: Follow the A-6/AP-6 toward A Coruña. Take exit 81 toward the AP-51/Ávila and continue on the AP-51 until you reach exit N403 (Ávila/Valladolid).
By bus: Larrea offers coaches daily from the Estación Sur. C/Méndez Alvaro, 83, tel: 91 530 48 00 (Metro: Méndez Alvaro). See www.estaciondeautobuses.com for schedules.
By train: Regional Express trains are fastest and most economical, and leave daily from both the Chamartín and Atocha stations. Renfe, tel: 902 240 202. See www.renfe.es for schedules and to purchase tickets.
WHERE TO STAY
Hostal Residencia Don Diego is a clean, central hostel with a friend- ly staff. C/Marqués de Canales y Chozas, 5, tel: 92 025 54 75.
Hospedería de Bracamonte is a former 16th-century noble house with a lovely, candle-lit restaurant. C/Bracamonte, 6, tel: 92 025 12 80. See www.hospederiadebracamonte.com for more information.
Hotel Parador (Raimundo de Borgoña) lets you live like a king for a day; it’s a former palace. C/Marqués de Canales y Chozas, 2, tel: 92 021 13 40. See www.parador.es for more information.
Ávila Tourist Office, Plaza de la Catedral, 4, tel: 92 021 13 87.