Ávila

On The Road Travel Essays

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Ávila

At the time of writing, early 1999, Ávila does not appear in any passports catalogue tours but it is a common feature of customized itineraries, hence its inclusion here. It tends to be visited either as a day trip from Madrid, perhaps together with El Escorial, or as a sightseeing stop between Madrid and Salamanca.

Ávila is a fairly small town of 50,000 inhabitants, set high up on the plains against the dramatic, snow- capped background of the Sierra de Gredos. At 3,700 ft up, it is the highest provincial capital in Spain and consequently can be bitterly cold in winter. Apart from its astounding walls and the associations with St. Teresa, there is little to delay the visitor. It isn't a particularly lovely town. The modern development outside the walls is a sprawling, ugly mess. The local speciality is a particularly digusting sweet made of egg yolk and sugar, yemas de Ávila. They can rot your teeth within seconds.

Its perfect set of medieval walls has made Ávila a gift for film directors. It appears most famously as the backdrop to many of the scenes in the 1950s Hollywood epic El Cid, starring Charlton Heston.

A Little History  Ávila is a rarity in Spain: a city that flourished centuries ago, then abruptly declined, stayed small, and thus remains today an unspoiled, unmodernized relic of the past. This is seen in the walls (complete, the most perfect in Spain), cathedral, churches, streets, and hardy population. Ávila goes back to the origins of Spain. In fact, it was a prehistoric settlement, becoming a Roman town (named Avela). Its population was part of the tribe known as the Vaccaei. For 400 years, the town seesawed back and forth between the Moors and the Christians. It was permanently conquered by the Christians in 1088, led by King Alfonso VI. There was much civil strife and rebellion in the 16th century: one was led by the powerful Comuneros (communards) in 1520. Yet this century was also its time of greatness. There was strife because so many people wanted to get in on the prosperity! Its decline began when the Moriscos (Moors living under Christian rule but still practicing Islam) were expelled in 1609: they were skilled craftsmen, physicians, and merchants, — and took their skills with them. The decline continued until the 20th century. Only recently has the town expanded beyond its medieval walls! The result: a rare glimpse of a medieval city, still close to what it was actually like centuries ago. Ávila's university was an important landmark. It was founded in 1504, and drew famous scholars and preachers from all over Spain. It was destroyed under Napoleon and never rebuilt.

Before entering the town you should ask the driver to stop for a photo at the Cuatro Postes. This, as the name says, is simply a set of four posts, about a mile or so from the city walls, of uncertain provenance and date. It is said that here Sta. Teresa looked back for the last time at the town of her birth before setting off on her proselytizing tours of Spain. She wasn't fond of Ávila and never returned. The view on to the walls is impressive, even if it is marred by messy modern development in the foreground.

Sta. Teresa de Ávila  St. Theresa of Ávila was born here in 1515, dying in 1582. The room in which she was born is now a chapel. Her personality dominates the town of her birth. She was born and educated in Ávila, took her vows at the church of Encarnación, then began a reform of the Carmelite nuns — restoration of discipline and asceticism, at a time when Europe's monastic orders had grown lax and even luxurious. She went barefoot all the time, walking from village to village in the rugged mountains, over the terrain we see outside the bus window. She founded 32 different monasteries, convents, and other religious institutions. Yet her "inner life" always predominated: she wrote, prayed, and left behind her copious diary (preserved in the Library of El Escorial). The statue, St. Theresa in Ecstasy, shows her mouth gaping wide open, slumped down on her knees, eyes closed — the result of days and weeks of deliberate self-deprivation. Several relics of her still remain: her finger (!), rosary, and walking stick, and are kept in La Santa (Convent of St. Theresa). This spirit of brooding piety remains in the streets, squares, and churches of Ávila. Ávila is called: "the city of saints and stone."

The Walls  The Walls are very old, started by King Alfonso VI in 1090. His plan was to repopulate the city after the bloodshed of Christian-Moorish fighting. He brought people in from Asturias; many of them were master builders, and they made Ávila's walls the greatest military stronghold in medieval Spain. (You'll believe it when you see them.) The walls measure 1-1/2 miles in circumference. They have 88 towers, and 9 huge gates. We'll walk through one of them on the way to the cathedral. In addition to the cathedral, we'll see the Basilica of San Vincente, nearby, just outside the walls. It was built on the spot where an early Spanish Christian, St. Vincent, was martyred by the Romans in C4, along with his two sisters.

The Cathedral  Pass through the gate, Puerta del Paso, nearest the cathedral. The outside of the cathedral looks more like a fortress than a church. It's actually part of the city wall! It took centuries to build. The cathedral was started in the C12 (Romanesque period), and was completed in the C15 (Gothic). Hence, the building's style is referred to as transitional Gothic (transition from Romanesque to Gothic). The front facade is fairly elaborate, coming from the last period (15th century). The front doorway is even later: Baroque. In general, the basic structure of the building is squat and massive (Romanesque — earlier), but decorative features (facade, choir, reredos screen) are Gothic or later. The inside of the cathedral is massive and dim. There are no chairs — hence, it feels like a railroad station. The Choir in Spanish cathedrals is almost a building-within-a-building — usually enclosed in an elaborate wrought-iron grille. The Choir stalls here are carved with scenes from the lives of saints; and were done by the Dutchman, Cornelis. There are two alabaster altars in the centre. The Capilla Mayor is enclosed by a handsome grille, with paintings inside. Behind the High Altar is the large Renaissance tomb of Bishop Alonso de Madrigal, nicknamed "El Tostado" because his clock once caught fire as he was writing next to a stove. A climb up the spiral stairs, if it is open, will offer a splendid view of Castile.

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