There was a little-talked about consequence of the Industrial Revolution in Spain. While it is widely known that it drew a large number of people to the cities and towns, few stop to think of the subsequent steps that had to be adopted. More people in town required housing, and thus a number of projects denominated ensanches or “widenings” were projected and carried out. Even though such a thing makes sense, here lies the problem – in order to enlarge the urban area, many Spanish cities and towns tore down their Roman and Medieval walls, leaving either bare traces or nothing at all.
Legend has it that the town of Ávila lacked the money to demolish the wall. In retrospect, that was a good thing, because today, the walls that surround Ávila, Murallas de Ávila are among the most impressive Europe, some say that even better preserved than Carcassonne (France).
Ávila is a couple of hours away by car, so we drove off on Saturday morning at around 8 am and were there just before 10 am. We entered the city through one of the city wall gates, Puerta del Carmen.
We parked (100% ditched the car) at the hotel and checked in – even if it was quite early, they told us that one of the rooms was already prepared and gave us the keys. Unfortunately, it was not, and since the blunder was a Covid-protcol blunder, they upgraded us as an apology. The hotel, Parador de Ávila, belongs to the Spanish network of Paradores, and it is located in a 16th century palace, Palacio de Piedras Albas. We booked late-check-out for the following day, which can be done “for free” booking lunch in the restaurant (which is obviously not free).
Our first stop was the tourist office, but not the one that is clearly signalled in the middle of the town – the one that is located outside the wall and you have to turn around and around to find. But we needed it to buy the 48-hour pass to the monuments. Then we stuck around to wait for the nearby church to open, which gave way to observing the wall for the first time.
The Muralla de Ávila has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1985. The structure is clearly defensive and it was built towards the end of the 11th century, quite probably as extension or reinforcement of a previous one, either Roman or Arab – though the Roman theory is the most credible as some pieces used in the original wall seem to come from a now-lost Roman cemetery, and there are documents about a Roman camp with similar shape. The wall has been restored in several occasions, and after surviving the ensanche risk, it was declared national monument and cleared of attached houses. Today most of the wall belongs to the Spanish government, and it is managed by the town hall, though there are some private parts, such as the ones that are part of the cathedral. The walls close off all the historical centre. They have a perimeter of 2,515 metres, with around 2,500 merlons, almost 90 turrets, and nine gates. Our second gate was Puerta de San Vicente.
The first monument we stopped by, as soon as it opened since we were already there, was the basilica church Basílica de San Vicente (officially Basílica de los Santos Hermanos Mártires, Vicente, Sabina y Cristeta, three Christian siblings who were martyred nearby). It is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in the whole country, built between the 12th and the 14th century. It is protected as part of the World Heritage Site declaration. One of its characteristics is the golden rock in which it is built – sandstone-looking granite.
The inside of the basilica is, in the typical way, a mix of more modern styles. The grave of the martyr siblings is Pre-gothic, and the large altarpiece is Baroque. In the crypt there are proto-Christian pieces and a Romanesque Virgin which we did not get to see and which is the patron of the town.
Afterwards we headed off to the cathedral Catedral de Cristo Salvador, which is considered the first gothic cathedral in Spain (something that other people say about Cuenca), with clear French influences. It was designed as a fortress church as its abse dubs as one of the turrets of the city wall.
In later years, a choir was added, along with a Baroque altarpiece. The walls are also sandstone-looking granite, but some elements inside are limestone and wood.
To the side of the cathedral stands the cloister, which holds the grave to the first modern president of Spain, Adolfo Suárez, and the entrance to the cathedral’s museum. It yields to views of the tower and… the storks that squat there.
We headed off towards the Museum of Ávila. First we stopped at the former church Iglesia de Santo Tomé, which today is a warehouse for the museum, but can be visited anyway. When I was young, I studied the statues / sculptures called verracos, built around the 5th century BCE by the Vettones, a Celtic pre-Roman civilisation that faded upon the arrival of the Romans. The verracos are crude statues that represent four-legged animals – bulls, boars or pigs. At the time, I had only heard about a number of them, and was somehow under the impression that there were two or three around. I was quite wrong, apparently they pop up from the snow like daisies or something. In the church-turned-warehouse there were like twenty, one outside, there was one at the hotel garden… so no, apparently they are quite common. Other artefacts in the building include some carriages, Roman sculptures and mosaic, Muslim funerary artefacts and roof boards…
Then we moved onto the museum itself, Museo de Ávila, with a beautiful patio and a number of archaeological and ethnological items which represent the history and folklore of the town.
It was almost time for lunch, so we headed off towards the restaurant where we had booked. Before, we made a small stop at an old palace Palacio del Rey Niño, built in the 12th century, today turned into the Post office and the public library, with a patio closed off by the Walls themselves.
Then we walked by the modern marketplace.
Which happened to be right in front of the restaurant, named La Lumbre. Aside from its walls, Ávila is famous for its cattle, a particular breed called Raza Avileña – Negra Ibérica, and of course the meat the animals produce, especially the matured and grilled meat from older oxen. After the animal has been sacrificed, the meat is matured in a traditional process called “dry maturation” for six weeks before it is grilled. We ordered the rib steak, chuletón to share, along with some grilled vegetables, a “tomato salad” that was a… one-tomato with dressing. And then there were desserts, aside from chocolate cake, we ordered yemas de Ávila – a typical confectionery made with egg yolks, lemon juice, cinnamon, and caster sugar. Lots of typical stuff, as you can see!
Our next stop was the main square, called “little market square”, Plaza del Mercado Chico, along with the town hall or Ayuntamiento. The square was rebuilt in the 19th century and is flanked by arcades. The town hall was built in 1862.
After a brief stop at the Parador for some rest, we headed off to find a convent / monastery on the other side of town. On the way we came across some ruins that I assume are the church Iglesia de San Jerónimo, as they sit in the square of the same name.
We reached the convent Convento de San José, a reconstruction of a previous monastery and church, the first founded by Santa Teresa de Jesús (Saint Teresa of Ávila), a Christian “doctor of the church” and mystic Carmelite nun, known for her ‘raptures’, her reforms, and her literature work. More on her later though. The convent and church were a little… underwhelming, even if is a World Heritage building.
Then we walked back towards the historical centre, and walked past the church Iglesia de San Pedro, a 13th-century building with a great rose window, but which was closed (reforms).
On the other side of the square, Plaza del Mercado Grande (Big Market Square) stands another of the wall gates, Puerta del Alcázar, and a monument to Saint Teresa Monumento a Santa Teresa: La Palomilla.
Next we separated and I went off to climb the walls Murallas de Ávila. Well, to walk on the parapet. Due to Covid, there is only one access, next to the Cathedral and its gate Puerta de la Catedral. The walkable area is around 1.4 km, including walking over some of the gates and up and down more than a few turrets. It allows for some amazing views of the town and its outskirts…
… but also of the wall itself, both the original walls and the add-ons from later eras (and a magpie).
When I reached the end of the walk, I went down and crossed the bridge gate Puerta del Puente, named that way because it overlooks the bridge over the Adaja river. I could not take a picture of it because the traffic police was checking cars at the roundabout in front of the gate. Thus, I headed off to the pedestrian bridge to cross over towards the tiny hermit popularly known as “the four posts”, Los Cuatro Postes, which yield to an impressive view of the town and its walls.
I walked back to see the walls from the base. Then I crossed the gate we had driven through in the morning, Puerta del Carmen, and I headed back to the hotel for a drink.
After a while we headed off for dinner and tried another of the typical dishes in Ávila, patatas revolconas – mashed potatoes with paprika and pork rashers, and waited for the sun to go down so the city lit up.
A walk around the town yielded to views of the Iglesia de San Vicente and Puerta de San Vicente, some of the inner streets leading to the town hall Ayuntamiento, the longer area of the Muralla and the Puerta del Carmen.
And then I had a very, very long shower and went to bed.
In the morning, breakfast was had – not a fan of the “we can’t have a buffet so we prepared this and this is what you get” plate, but whatever. I mentioned Santa Teresa before, let’s get into that a bit further. She was a 16th-century nun born near Ávila, canonized in the 17th century, and elevated to doctor of the church in the 20th century. She is conisdered one of the great mystics and religious women in the Roman Catholic church, author of a number of spiritual classics, and the reformer of the Carmelite nun order into the Discalced Carmelites. She founded convents all over Spain and was known for her mystics raptures which may have been messages from God or epileptic attacks. She is one of Ávila’s most important historical figures and wherever you go there are traces of her. In the place where her house stood now there is a convent, a church, a reliquary room and an interpretation museum, with really strange hours on Sundays. We could see the convent / church Convento de Santa Teresa de Jesús / Iglesia de la Santa and the reliquary room where no pictures were allowed Sala de Reliquias between services.
On the way, however, I found some interesting ruins – the gate to the former hospital Hospital de Santa Escolástica, and we walked past a bunch of palaces.
Then we moved onto a long walk to the 16th- century Gothic monastery Real Monasterio de Santo Tomás, which we could see due to lucky timing as there was a First Holy Communion Mass happening and the local little old ladies were not to keen on cultural visits of the church.
The monastery has a church, three cloisters and two adjacent museums. The church has an impressive Gothic altarpiece (by Pedro Berrugete, one of the key painters riding the wave between Gothic and Renaissance arts), and hosts the grave to the Catholic Monarch’s only male son.
The three cloisters: Claustro del Noviciado, Claustro del Silencio, and Claustro de los Reyes Católicos (Novitiate, Silence and Catholic Monarchs).
The Museum of Natural Sciences Museo de Ciencias Naturales, an occupational therapy project could… be better, and sets the expectation bar rather low for the next one.
However, the Museum of Eastern Arts Museo de Arte Oriental is pretty impressive. It contains pieces and artefacts that the Dominican missioners brought from China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
And in the end, that was it for the weekend. We walked back, decided to give the museum of Saint Teresa a miss, had a drink, had lunch and went back on our merry way – with a a view of the train tracks over the dam of the reservoir Embalse de Fuentes Claras.
Walked distance (Saturday): around 12.5 km
Walked distance (Sunday): around 6 km
Total distance driven (both days): around 340 km