The train station was pretty much unremarkable, much less fancy than others we’ve seen. I tried to buy a map at the newsstand but a nebbish tourist beat me to it. She kept looking at the vendor and saying “English, English” to which he responded, “Yes, and German and French as well.” I asked if there was another and he told me no. A shop in a tourism town train station with only one map. Someone is failing at inventory control. I asked after the tourism office and he gave me directions.
The walk from the train station up to the old quarter was unremarkable, reminding me a lot of Jerez. Shabby neighborhoods, small stores, many of them shuttered. Ávila did not appear prosperous along the Paseo de Exposicíon. It was a mild climb, not like Segovia or Toledo but uphill nonetheless, reminding us that these old cities were always built at the top of the hill to give them whatever geographical advantage there was to be gained.
Ávila is a very ancient city, originally inhabited as a walled hill fort (oppidum) of the Celtic Vettones tribe. They called it “Obila” or “High Mountain.” A town known as Abula was mentioned by Ptolemy in his Geographia as one of the first towns in Hispania to be Christianized. Once Spain was colonized by Rome, the area became known as Abila and was primarily a second order trading town. After the fall of Rome it was held by the Visigoths and subsequently taken by the Moors (who called it Ābila) in the 8th century. From then until its reconquest by Raymond of Burgandy (son-in-law of King Alfonso VI) in 1088, it was constantly under attack by the northern Catholic kingdoms due to its unfortunate location right the edge of the Muslim territory. Raymond began a period of rebuilding and repopulation that ushered in an era of prosperity that lasted well into the 17th century when the town was reduced to only a few thousand inhabitants. It slept well into the 20th century when the railroad arrived along with a modest tourist industry.
The most striking thing about the town is the almost completely intact set of walls and towers that surrounds the old quarter. They were begun around the time of Raymond’s reconquest, primarily to keep the still dangerous Muslims at bay. Today they run continuously for 1.5 miles, containing 88 towers with an average height of 38 feet. There are nine gates and in a nod to the dangers of the past, the apse of the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral actually forms part of the eastern wall. Built on earlier Roman (or perhaps Celtiberian) foundations, the transition from the older gray stone blocks to an orangey sandstone is clear at about the 12 foot level. You see the walls as you come up from the town and honestly, they take your breath away. Massive turrets, tiny towers at the top, and the massive 60 foot tall Gate of San Vicente sits right there at the end of the street.
After a short detour to find a map at the tourism office we took a few quick photos down the extent of the southern side and went into town in search of the cathedral. The morning sun had not yet crested the walls and there was a stiff wind blowing right down the street into our faces. It was pretty chilly and I was glad of my jacket. A small square faced the cathedral and from that vantage you could see how the church form a big piece of the ramparts. I think this was the first time we’d seen a major cathedral merged into the defensive fortifications, reminding us that often the church was the last place of refuge in a city under siege.
Like all major cathedrals, this one is a very big pile of gray stones. Like much of the history of Ávila, its origins are murky. Unlike Segovia or Toledo or Sevilla, no authority seems to fully understand the flow of time here. There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer of who started building what, when. In any case, it was either begun in 1091 or sometime in the 12th century on the ruins of an older church, or maybe not. The greater portion of the building was constructed in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. According to the information in the church, it was officially completed in 1601. It merges both Romanesque and Gothic styles and is considered by many historians to be the first example of the latter in Spain.
The interior was quite beautiful in simple way as these churches generally are. A nice mix of the ornate and the simple, aside from the capillas which of course were at their garish best. The gilded 24 panel altarpiece depicting the life of Jesus was stunning, not as enormous as the one in the Sevilla but nearly as imposing. The beautifully carved dark wood choir was similar to those we’ve seen in the past, but the organ that framed it had a bit more flair. An interesting display on one side told the story of a 500 foot secret tunnel that leads from underneath one of the chapels to several points outside the city walls, another nod to the violent history of the place. The most interesting aspect of the inside however was the stone. The Gothic section, built later, was constructed of the traditional gray stone you see just about everywhere. The older Romanesque section, the one build into the city wall, was made of “blood limestone,” a pale gray-tan smeared with dark red patches. The effect was interesting - you couldn’t tell if it was paint or actually part of the stone and we spent some time at the base of a pillar doing some serious analysis of which it was. It made for a very striking contrast between the two sections, particularly in the roof; quite different than the normal mode of construction.
We took a stroll around the sacristy, an enclosed patio modeled on the orange tree gardens found in the former mosques. It was exceptional for one thing, a timeline of human history that started with the creation of Adam and Eve. Having been educated by the Jesuits, and given what Pope Francis has had to say lately, I was a bit surprised to see it on display. We left and went in search of lunch.
For a mid-spring morning at the height of tourist season, the place was surprisingly deserted. Both in terms of locals and visitors. In fact, I’d say that there were far more locals milling around doing their things than there were tourists. We walked down the hill, dipping in and out of a few restaurants but not really finding what we were looking for. We ended up at the Plaza de Mercado Chico (small market plaza) and found a few restaurants that were serving. The first thing we noticed were the prices – just like our experience in Segovia a few years ago, the costs for even the most simple tapas were greatly inflated. Perhaps 1.5 to 2 times the cost of the same plate in Madrid or Sevilla. Clearly aiming at tourist diners who are more or less trapped by a lack of options, the restaurants also offered a lot of package menus- 2 to 6 tapas offered for a fixed price. Faced with a $50 lunch we decided to go on after reading the placard of a restaurant called Zarzuna which didn’t seem to be on the plaza. A half a block further down the street we actually found it and decided it was time to stop dithering and start eating.
They offered an ala carte menu so we ordered our old standby ham croquettes and a plate of potatoes, cheese and bacon. The waiter brought us a small stoneware pot of red mashed potatoes and chunks of bacon that he said was the specialty of the house. Figuring it to be the dish we ordered, we dug in and it was quite tasty – hot mashed potatoes with a savory taste, almost the taste of yams. The croquettes showed up and they were equally as good. And then the potatoes we’d ordered appeared. It turned out that the red potato mash was a gift. Called patatas revolcanas, they are made from a puree of red pepper, paprika and bacon and are typical of the regions of Ávila and Salamanca. I was glad we had a chance to taste them.
Duly fed, we decided to walk back up to the square to a candy store we had seen on the way down. We were searching for Yemas, the traditional sweet of Ávila and attributed to Santa Teresa, the Catholic mystic who is widely associated with the city. The name comes from the Spanish word for egg yolk which is one of the four ingredients used to make them, the others being water, sugar and lemon zest. The first store we found was closed. As was the second. So much for Yemas. We continued down the hill looking now for the old synagogue mentioned on the tourist map. After going past the turn off and getting turned around a couple of times we found it to be nothing more than a distinctive doorway into a small apartment building. You could see from the various details of the building what it had once been, but given what was there, it hardly merited a spot on the map. But disappointments are often followed by successes and we found a little Yema store just around the corner. We had a nice visit with the proprietress who told us that there would be no walking today on the city walls as they were (naturally) closed on the day we’d chosen to visit. Ah well, we thanked her and went out to sample her wares. Well, Yemas are interesting, sort of like an unbaked flourless tort, semi-soft, very sweet and faintly orange flavored. I gobbled mine up, MLW took a bite and shoved the rest of hers into my mouth. We agreed that they’d be better with something to drink.
While there are a ton of little museums, convents and chapels in the town, we chose instead to walk around and enjoy the outdoors. After a while these lesser churches and palaces start to blend and so we often find ourselves fully sated when it comes to this period of history. We ducked in and out of a couple of gates to get pictures of the walls and spent the rest of the time taking photos in the narrow lanes. Standing in front of the entry to one of the convents, we found a large stone sculpture that more or less resembled a heavily weathered bull. As it turned out (when we found a similar pig later with a description) this was a Celtiberian Verraco, a zoomorphic animal sculpture thought to be variously an offering or perhaps a marker for grazing lands. Apparently these two had originally been located at the Celtic oppidum at Las Cogotas and had actually found themselves incorporated into the city walls during their construction.
We continued on, up again past the cathedral plaza and down the other side of the hill to take in a last view of the walls on the southern side. Crossing the Plaza Santa Teresa we headed back down the hill to the train.
Arriving, I noticed that there was a train leaving 20 minutes earlier than ours so I asked the agent if we could take it. He told me not to bother, mine was much faster and more comfortable, in other words not the long-haul subway we’d come up in. And he turned out to be right - the ride home was in a regular Renfe Media Distancia train, fast, comfortable and only featuring one stop. We arrived at Chamartin station on time and were faced with another opportunity to make a train decision.
There were two choices here, take the Metro or try and figure out the return path of the Cercanías train we’d gone out on. My brain was pretty much overloaded when it came to transportation so I suggested we just take the far easier to understand Metro. We got off our train, saw a Metro sign and went off in that direction, walking down a very long and dark brick hallway with stairs heading up and outside to track platforms along its entire length. At the end, we were faced with a phalanx of subway exit machines flooded with tourists. We were not alone, many of the train passengers had come the same way, including the grandma whose suitcase I had carried down the stairs from our train. A small group of us stood there dumbfounded until a Renfe agent suddenly appeared and using her pass, allowed us to exit through one of the turnstiles against the flow of people. We went around the corner and found a ticket machine where I thought I was buying Metro tickets to Plaza del Sol. Well, in a true continuation of our ongoing rail experience, I was actually buying Cercanías tickets and when I realized what I’d done I stepped back and tried to grasp the real impact of the mistake. And just at that moment, the Renfe agent who had let us escape the crush of exiting passengers asked me where we were heading and when I said “Sol” she pointed us back in the direction we’d come and said “Via 2 or Via 3, trains for Atocha.” Wonderful, more options.
When we’d come down the long corridor I guess I had not fully appreciated that it was access to all the local trains. Once through the turnstile I was at a loss to why I’d bought a ticket at all. We could have just exited our Ávila train, walked 10 yards and jumped right on to the appropriate Cercanías train. Oh well, it was only 3 euros. We climbed up to the platform and waited with about another thousand people, studying the signs and wondering which one of the Atocha trains we should take since there seemed to be about a hundred of them. The risk of course was that the one we chose would not stop at Sol, but the worst possible case seemed to be getting off at Atocha, which would be a problem we knew how to solve. Five minutes later one arrived and we squeezed in to an already crammed car for the ride home.
The best news of the evening appeared on the screen above the door – 3 stops, Ministerios, Sol and Atocha. As it turned out, this option was far better than the Metro by about 15 minutes and 20 stops. We’d finally had a bit of serendipitous train travel as opposed to just dumb luck.
Two thoughts on the day trip. First of all in my experience it’s far easier to travel by domestic air in China than it is to take a train in Spain. Unless it’s an AVE which is very simple. The local system is confusing, poorly marked and not well understood or explainable even by the people who run it. I mean, it can work if you’re persistent, have some Spanish and are fearless about missing your train. But overall it’s pretty daunting, at least for the first time.
Secondly, I’m not sorry we went to Ávila but aside from the truly spectacular walls, the town has little to offer. For the pain and expense of getting somewhere, Toledo or Segovia are far more agreeable and enjoyable not only for what they have to offer, but for the ease of travel as well. Better to consider Ávila as a secondary choice, a trip to be made after you’ve exhausted everything else within a day’s train ride of Madrid.