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Ávila: the spectacular city of saints and stones

Ávila owes its existence to two things: war and religion.

War because the interminable conflict between the Christians of the north and the Moors from the south resulted in the astonishing walls ringing the old city that we see today.

Religion, because Santa Teresa was from Ávila. To say she left her mark on the city is an understatement. More of her later…

But first, the walls, Ávila’s glory. They’re a UNESCO World Heritage site and simply unique, stretching for 2.5 kilometres in an unbroken circle around the medieval town.

Ávila’s magnificent city walls
Ávila city walls at night: stunningly floodlit

They’re so perfectly preserved, they look like the kind of battlements you’d see in a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. You half expect to encounter El Cid (or at least Charlton Heston as El Cid) cantering by on a white horse.

The bald statistics: the walls are 12 metres high, three metres wide and contain 87 watchtowers.

They give you all those figures on the audio guide as you walk the battlements. But they don’t really convey the scale, the stupendous labour that must have been involved in building something this massive, using nothing more than medieval tools and human sweat.

Ávila city walls with the cathedral in the background: the cathedral apse is itself part of the walls
Puerta del Alcazar, Ávila, one of the main gates to the walled city.

When work began, the wars between Moors and Christians had virtually depopulated the area around Ávila. It was 11th century bandit country.

The walled city was intended as a statement; that the Christians were back in charge, and they were there to stay. What we see today is pretty much how the walls looked when work was completed in the 14th century.

Alcazar, Ávila. The alcazar was the key strongpoint in fortified Spanish towns
Looking down from the Puerta del Alcazar to the Plaza de Santa Teresa, Ávila

Walking the walls

You can walk two-thirds of the way round, with great views across the town and out into the countryside beyond. Seeing them at night is a must; the walls are floodlit and look impossibly romantic.

Equally romantic are the extra titles Ávila acquired from a succession of Castilian kings; Ávila de los Caballeros (Ávila of the Knights), Ávila del Rey (of the King) and Ávila de los Leales (of the Loyalists). Game of Thrones, eat your heart out.

In those dangerous days, even the churches had to do duty as part of the defences; the apse of Ávila Cathedral is integrated into the city wall itself.

From the outside, the cathedral is grim and imposing. Inside though, it’s all light and air from the huge windows high up in the lofty nave.

The rather forbidding exterior of Ávila Cathedral
The huge windows in the nave make the whole interior light and airy, a real contrast to the rather grim exterior

Walk towards the altar, in the older Romanesque part of the church, and see how the stone is naturally stained red. It’s built with piedra sangrante (bloodstone) and the visual effect is startling. I’ve never seen a church quite like it.

The bloodstone used in the vaulting at the far end of the cathedral creates a unique effect
More of the bloodstone vaulting in the apse of the cathedral
A close-up of the naturally red-stained piedra sangrante – bloodstone – used in the cathedral construction. The effect on such a large scale is magical.

There’s a wide ambulatory walk that takes you round the back of the altar and into the apse that forms part of the city defences. Notice how thick the walls are around the windows; some medieval architect clearly wasn’t taking any chances.

The cathedral is by no means the only church in Ávila. In fact, wherever you go, you’re never very far from an altar. There are Basilicas, Ermitas, Santuarios, Conventos, Monasterios and common or garden Iglesias (churches). The town isn’t known as the city of stones and saints for nothing.

Explore Ávila – Santa Teresa

And the main reason for that is Santa Teresa, whom we came across briefly at the start of this post. She was a local girl, born in 1515, who became a nun, a mystic, founder of a religious order, and finally perhaps the most important female saint in the Catholic church.

The Convento de Santa Teresa was built over her birthplace

Teresa was obsessed with religion abnormally early in life. The story goes that aged just seven, she set off with her brother to convert the Moors to Christianity and suffer martyrdom if necessary.

Fortunately for her, an uncle spotted the pair as they were leaving the city and young Teresa and Rodrigo were brought back home. A monument at Los Cuatro Postes outside Ávila marks the spot where Teresa was intercepted. Running away to be a martyr is not something most kids did, even then.

Her influence on Ávila is everywhere, from the convent over her birthplace, to the Convento de San José – the first to be built for the more fundamentalist Discalced order she founded (Descalzos in Spanish, literally translates as shoeless). There’s also the big Fiesta de Santa Teresa held in Ávila every October.

Yemas de Santa Teresa

Even the local speciality, yemas, is named after her, though you suspect Teresa herself would have frowned on such luxuries. Las Yemas de Santa Teresa are made from egg yolks and sugar; they’re tooth-achingly sweet and famous all over Spain.

Yemas de Santa Teresa; just one of the things in Ávila named after the saint

The other specialities of Ávila by the way, are Chuletón de Ávila, a monster T-bone steak which you’ll find on menus everywhere in Spain, but especially here. And beans.

Chuletón de Ávila: these huge T-bone steaks are a local speciality. Tip: ask to share one.

Beans aren’t really the most glamorous dish on any menu, but Judías del Barco de Ávila are a typical winter stew, cooked with chorizo and morcilla (black pudding) and maybe pancetta and a pig’s ear. The kind of food to put warmth into your bones.

They need it round here. Winters are pretty cold hereabouts, partly because at over 1,100 metres Ávila is the highest provincial capital in Spain. January temperatures average a distinctly chilly 3 degrees Celsius. Not great weather for tourism, though the walls do apparently look amazing in the snow.

By way of a footnote, Santa Teresa isn’t the only religious figure with big Ávila connections. Torquemada, best known as the head of the Spanish Inquisition and all-round religious fanatic, died in Ávila in 1498 and was buried in the city. He didn’t get to spend eternity in peace though; his bones were dug up and burned in 1832. 

Check out these posts on the north of Spain

© Guy Pelham 

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