Avila, Spain | In a land of stones and saints

A walled city’s cathedrals, shrines, streets and desserts, all invoke memories of its most famous daughter
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First Published: Sat, Mar 30 2013. 12 13 AM IST
A view of Ávila. Photo: Lakshmi Sharath
A view of Ávila. Photo: Lakshmi Sharath
An entire town enclosed by granite walls loomed below me. The walls rose 12m above the ground, almost looking like they were touching the dark evening sky. Nine gates, 88 towers and numerous semi-circular turrets spanned the brown-ochre wall’s 2.5km length.
I stood in front of a little shrine called Los Cuatro Postes or The Four Posts, looking down at the town of Ávila in Spain. I shivered in the cold, lost in admiration of a land that looked like it was right out of a fairy tale.
Ringed in by the Sierra de Gredos mountains, Ávila is perched on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the Adaja river in Spain. Often referred to as the land of saints and stones because of the Gothic and Romanesque churches dotting its landscape, Ávila is a Unesco World Heritage site that seems lost in a dreamy stupor of the past. The walls are a symbol of the town, visible from almost any part of Ávila.
The Chapel at St Teresa Convent. Photo: Lakshmi Sharath.
Ávila is famous for being the home of St Teresa of Jesus, the 16th century patron saint of the town who is best known for reforming the Carmelite order across Spain. My guide Blanca narrates an anecdote from St Teresa’s life that took place at The Four Posts.
During her childhood, St Teresa had visions of Christ, and was tormented by the Devil. When she was barely 7, she planned to run away with her brother and fight against the Moors. It is believed that her uncle stopped her at The Four Posts just as she was planning her escape and convinced her to stay back. The shrine at Four Posts commemorates this incident. St Teresa grew up to become a reformist and spread her faith, not just in Ávila but all over Spain, her work making her so well known that she was beatified in 1614.
From my initiation to the city at Four Posts, I moved on to explore the stones and the saints that give Ávila its sobriquet. I started with a journey up the walls, beginning at the Puerta Del Carmen, or the Gate of El Carmen, which takes its name from a Carmelite convent attached to the walls. Huddled below the walls were the town’s pink, white and red houses, looking like they were wrapped in the wall’s folds.
Ávila was a war zone during the Middle Ages, from the 7th-11th centuries. Frequent battles between the Islamic Moors and the Christian kingdoms led to the town being destroyed and abandoned. Ávila was eventually repopulated in the 11th century by Raymond of Burgundy, who ordered the construction of these walls to protect it from further attacks. Thereafter, the walls remained a formidable presence in the town, keeping invaders at bay.
The tomb of Prince Don Jaun at the Santo Tomas Royal Monastery. Photo: Lakshmi Sharath.
As I looked down from the walls at the sloping roofs of the palaces and cathedrals dotting the landscape, Blanca showed me some stone sculptures of bulls and boars carved on the surface of the walls. These date back to the first century AD and were added to the walls when they were built in the 11th century. I imagined how the town would have looked in an era when knights guarded fortresses and horses trotted in the distance.
I climbed down the walls, and walking on the town’s cobbled streets, stopped by at The Cathedral of Ávila, which was built between the 11th and 12th centuries in the Gothic style, around the time the city was fortified. The granite cathedral looked like a fortress with its apse shaped like one of the turrets that jut out of the city walls.
Less than a kilometre from the cathedral is the Santo Tomás Royal Monastery, built in the 15th century in the Gothic style. With three elegant cloisters built across two storeys, the monastery holds the tomb of Prince Don Juan, the son and heir of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, who were best known for sponsoring Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America. While the marble crypt remains intact, the tomb is empty because Don Juan’s remains were desecrated during one of the many wars that Ávila witnessed.
As I walked on, a colourful toy train chugged alongside me, bringing in a group of tourists through one of the many city gates. The train, taking tourists through the nine gates of Ávila, finally stopped in front of a 17th century convent that was once the home of St Teresa. The convent, built after her canonization, is closed to the public today, but tourists can visit the chapel located inside the nearby baroque church.
I walked in and saw St Teresa’s relics. Lying amid the rosary and other personal effects is a fragile finger with a ring. This is believed to be a finger from her right hand. I walked on and sat in the silence of the chapel inside the reconstructed version of a cell where she is believed to have prayed.
Nearby, the city square was vibrant and buzzing with tourists. Ávila’s proximity to Madrid and its World Heritage site status draws a lot of tourists. An Argentinian in a colourful costume played a guitar and entertained the crowds. A young choir group rendered an energetic performance of hymns. Nearby, a bit of India is tucked away in a small souvenir shop called The Taj Mahal.
It was almost dusk, and darkness descended on Ávila within minutes. As the walls and the monuments lit up, the city glowed with a spectacular display of lights. I walked by statues of saints along cobbled lanes. Bells greeted me at every corner. I shivered in the cold as the stars came out into the sky. I walked by small sculptures that are tucked away in the corners of the streets. St Teresa greeted me everywhere, in the names of squares and streets.
My last stop at Ávila was a sweet shop, where I bit into a traditional juicy dessert made of egg yolk named, not surprisingly, “Yemas de Santa Teresa”(or yolks of St Teresa).
As night and silence wrapped the ancient town, I took a walk on the road in front of me, which took me back to the walls towering above the town all around me.
Lakshmi Sharath is a media professional, travel writer and blogger based in Bangalore.
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First Published: Sat, Mar 30 2013. 12 13 AM IST
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