Spain is positively bursting with historic, highly atmospheric walled towns. But there is perhaps no gem of this sort in all the peninsula greater than the UNESCO World Heritage city of Ávila, in Castile and León, a mere hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from Madrid.
With a population today of barely 60,000, this is a city of ancient provenance, founded in the Bronze Age as Obila by pre-Roman Celtic peoples, and came into its heyday during the Middle Ages, especially the 11th through 16th centuries, when its major landmarks were built.
Spain’s Winningest Walls
First and foremost, of course, are the massive Romanesque stone walls themselves, dating mostly from the 12th century. Measuring 12 metres (feet) high and an average of three m. (ft.) thick, they’re famously punctuated by 88 semicircular guard towers and nine gates, and especially when illuminated at night are absolutely breathtaking (in fact, they’re the world’s largest fully illuminated monument).
Ávila’s single most imposing other landmark is its cathedral (right), a fortresslike Romanesque/Gothic mix that’s considered Spain’s first Gothic cathedral; set into the city wall and constructed from the 12th through 14th century, it boasts a soaring, triple-nave interior whose majestic simplicity I have always found truly inspiring.
Amid the winding streets and lanes of the old city, many of its other major sights are also strikingly atmospheric religious buildings, most notably the granite Basilica de San Vicente, one of Spain’s best Romanesque churches; the 12th-century Church of San Pedro; and the late-15th-century Royal Monastery of Santo Tomás (one of whose patrons was the notorious Spanish Inquisition friar Torquemada and which features a trio of cloisters and work by the noted sculptor Gil de Siloé). Others outside the walls include the lovely Hermitage of San Segundo, built in the 12th century with refurbishments/embellishments in later centuries; and early 13th-century Santa María de la Cabeza, last of the Ávila Romanesque, as well as incorporating with Mudéjar influences (meaning Moorish design features by Muslim craftsmen who did not intially convert to Catholicism after the Christian reconquest).
Terri of the Cloth
There are plenty more where those came from, too – in fact, so numerous are the ecclesiastical buildings and saints associated with them that Ávila has been dubbed the “City of Stones and Saints“. But the saintly superstar of them all is of course the legendary Santa Teresa de Jesús (1515-1582), the Catholic nun who founded the order of Barefoot Carmelites and became world-famous for her mysticism and experiences of religious ecstasy (so much so that in the centuries following her death, the “ecstasy of St. Theresa” became the subject of painting, sculpture, literature, and music).
Here the “Teresian route“ includes the Church and Convent of Santa Teresa, built in the 17th century on the site of her birthplace, with a museum dedicated to the saint; the Church of San Juan Bautista, where she was baptised; the 16th-century Convent of Our Lady of Grace, where Teresa was sent to be educated and played a crucial role in leading her to become a nun; the Monastery of the Incarnation, where she lived for decades; and the Monastery of San José, the first convent she founded, in 1562; and even a recently built Mysticism Interpretation Centre. Every year, much of October is devoted to the processions, fairs, and concerts of the Fiestas de Santa Teresa, but 2015 is extra special, marking as it does the 500th anniversary of her birth. STJ500 is a yearlong series of exhibitions, performances, and events (with its peak on March 28th, her actual birth date), of interest not just to the faithful but European and religious history buffs, as well.
There is plenty of non-religious stuff to see and do, as well, such as distinguished palazzos like the Palacio de los Superunda, Palacio de los Verdugo, and Palacio de los Serrano; the 19th-century town hall; a lovely bridge over the Adaja River; and the Garden of Sefarad, commemorating the vigorous pre-1492 Jewish community of Ávila. Cool museums worth noting include the Vetton Interpretation Centre, about the pre-Roman inhabitants of the region, and the Provincial Museum of Ávila, covering archaeology, fine arts, and ethnology.
Spain bucket list all the way…
More information in English: AvilaTurismo.com.