The past is ever-present in Spain's walled city of Avila
By Horst Heinz Grimm May 29, 2007, 11:21 GMT
Avila, Spain The fortified city of Avila is an impressive sight, a settlement whose historic centre has been embraced for more than 900 years by massive brown, granite walls and towers standing up to 12 metres tall.
Only 4,000 of Avila's 50,000 or so inhabitants dwell within this heritage zone, in stark contrast to the situation in medieval times: 'At the height of the city's power in the 16th century some 13,000 people were crowded behind the battlements on an area measuring 32 hectares in size,' said historian Serafin Tapia. They benefited from a prosperity derived almost entirely from the wool trade.
The present day does not seem to impinge very much on Avila. Life here is more relaxed than elsewhere in Spain although people seem to have a more studious air about them. Traffic problems are few since most of the alleyways in the old quarter are simply too narrow to accommodate cars.
'Let's begin our tour at the cathedral,' proposes our guide Esteban Herrara and goes on to explain that the altar of the Gothic edifice was built in the 12th century when it formed part of the city's fortifications.
A statue on the steps leading to the house of worship reminds visitors of the city's most famous former resident, Teresa of Avila, the patron saint of Spain.
She was born here in 1515 and founded the 'bare-footed' Carmelite order, spending 30 years as a nun in the La Encarnacion cloister which has become a key place of pilgrimage for her admirers. She was canonised 40 years after her death and remains a mystical figure to this day. In 1970 she became the first woman to be awarded the title of Doctor of the Church by the Holy See.
At precisely 1.30 p.m. Sister Antonia closes the gate to the cloister where the midday silence lasts a full two-and-a-half hours. Herrera points out that this siesta is strictly adhered to at virtually all the churches and museums hereabouts.
This provides guests with an excellent opportunity to visit one of the local restaurants and to try out such mouth-watering regional delicacies as trout with ham, beans and paprika-flavoured sausage or garlic cabbage.
The city's most celebrated dish is veal a dark Iberian meat of exceptional quality and which comes from one of Europe's oldest protected breeds. A meal can be rounded off with an equally famous sweet dish - the candied egg-yolks known hereabouts as Yemas de Santa Teresa.
Pasquale Ruffo, a student of history from Bologna who specialises in medieval architecture, needs little prompting before waxing lyrical about Avila's architectural jewels: 'You really must take in the Convent of Santo Thomas built in 1493 and you can't possibly leave out the Romanesque San Vicente basilica either.'
Ruffo is staying here for a few weeks in order to devote himself to the wide range of historic buildings which the city has to offer. The importance of Avila was recognised by UNESCO in 1985 when it elevated the city to the status of a world cultural heritage site.
At the Alcazar Gate visitors can clamber up the ancient walls, which measure up to three metres thick, and enjoy a magnificent view across the city and the surrounding mountainous terrain. Residents are proud of the city's most emblematic and spectacular monument which has survived in its entirety although visitors are only allowed onto it at this point.
Most tourists only spend a day in Avila, which lies some 120 kilometres north-west of Madrid and is easily reached by car from the capital. The journey takes less than 90 minutes in one of the rapid, air-conditioned Talgo trains which ply the route. Those wishing to stay longer in Avila have a variety of hotels to choose from although reservation in advance is recommended.
The city's Parador one of the Spanish chain of state-run hotels located in historical buildings can be found at a place dating back to the 16th century, namely at the Carmen Gate right next to the city walls. The hotel also has the reputation of being the best hostelry for miles around.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur