As you approach Avila by road, you can see it from miles away — a small, mirage-like vision of a walled city, a sort of Hogwarts set in a Spanish landscape.
The imposing Avila ‘walls’ — solid granite walls punctuated by 90 heavily fortified stone towers — encircle a sleepy-looking town composed of turrets, domed cathedrals and brick-red, sloping roofs.
It’s a land stuck in time, intentionally. Avila was declared a World Heritage site in 1985, and its sites of historical and cultural significance have been maintained in their pristine form.
Living in Avila is what I imagine living inside a snow globe must be like: quaint, perfect, and perfectly static. Though it’s situated a mere two hours by road from bustling Madrid, it couldn’t be more different. Whereas the view from my window in Madrid yielded a hyper-busy street with couples dancing tipsily in cafes till 3am, an hour’s meditation from the window of my hotel in Avila revealed an elderly American couple taking photos, and a solitary man walking a dog.
“The young people all leave Avila for Madrid eventually,” says one man, Silvio, 56, the owner of a sweet shop adjacent to the Cathedral.
“There’s no industry here, at all. And now with the way things are in Spain, it’s even worse.”
The young population is dwindling, and tourism is limited to mostly day-trippers from Madrid. However, Avila has with steely resolve attempted to reinvent itself, seen in the Exhibition and Congress Centre of Avila, where we were bundled to by tourism officials.
After the soft colours and edges of Avila’s interiors, this building, located outside the old city and designed by Spain’s best known architect Francisco Mangado, is a shock to the eyes. It is all sharp angles and modernity, and the interiors are spacious and airy.
Avila claims to be the city with the greatest number of Roman and Gothic churches (and other historical structures) per head in Spain.
A Spanish writer once described it as “the most 16th century city in all of Spain”, and he wasn’t far wrong. I can’t take a step without tripping over some history — literally. Cobbled courtyards and streets wobble haphazardly uphill and downhill. Churches and abandoned synagogues, as well as the occasional glimpses of Muslim influence in the wall decorations, make a somewhat modern-looking bar or shop an oddity.
After huffing up the 20th quaint street, I reward myself with a visit to one of Avila’s many sweet shops. Sold at seemingly every corner of the city, Avila’s emblematic sweet is the unassuming Yemas: egg yolk swirled with sugar and set into little balls.
These are packed in small white cases bearing the city’s patron saint’s image — Saint Teresa. 2015 will be the 500th anniversary of Saint Teresa’s birth. At the age of 21, she entered the religious world and set out to reform the Carmelite order, hoping to return the nuns to the ‘fervour and purity’ which characterised the order’s spiritual beginnings.
She is the patron saint of a multitude of things, ranging from Spain to headaches.
At the Teresian Museum, in the centre of the old city, I am looking at Saint Teresa’s ring finger, trying to keep a blank face so as to hide my morbid and decidedly unholy fascination.
Preserved since about 1582, General Franco was said to have kept the saint’s hands at his bedside during his reign.
Her shriveled finger seems a bit menacing, so I move on to less gruesome remembrances, such as her possessions, only to encount her collarbone moments later.
A more pleasant view is the Cathedral of Avila, which is built into the side of one of the city’s walls. The walls themselves have small slots built into them which were used for offerings of incense and perfume.
The entrance to the cathedral is decorated with the coat of arms of the two monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand.
Done in the Tuscan style, the interiors are simple, with cloisters of silence. It has a somewhat dark history — the cathedral was the headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition.
Avila’s charms wear thin at the end of the first day. Once the history has been marvelled over, the walls walked and the yemas eaten, it’s a book that’s reached its end. There are only so many times a shaken snow globe can fascinate, after all...
How to get there:
Drive the two hours from Madrid. Or, there is a frequent train service between Madrid and Avila, which takes an hour and a half.
When to go:
The government-run Parador Avila is set into the side of one of the city walls, and is the site of the former ‘Piedras Albas’ palace.
What to see:
The Basilica de San Vicente, supposedly built on the site where the three martyrs — San Vicente and his sisters — were slaughtered by the Romans in the early fourth century. Another site is the Convent of Saint Teresa, this one built in 1636 over the saint’s birthplace. The room she was born is now a chapel smothered in gold.