Avila’s attractions are enhanced by its spectacular location. The train journey northwest from Madrid illustrates its frontier nature, as you pass through the dramatic Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. At one point, you pass Philip II’s 16th century palace, El Escorial , mirage-like in this granite setting. At an altitude of over 3,000 feet, Avila was a fortress town during the medieval period when most of Spain to the south was under the control of the Moors.
Avila Medieval City Walls
Avila had a leading military role as far back as the Romans, and was on the frontline of battles between the Christians and the Moors for centuries. But it was King Alfonso VI who built the famous Medieval walls in the 11th century, as part of the Christian Reconquista. They are immense, 3m thick in places with nine gates and eighty eight towers, and are among the few surviving examples in Europe, let alone Spain, of ones that still completely encircle their town.
The best way to experience them is to walk along the base of their southern perimiter. Here they a overlook rocky terrain where bony cattle seek their meagre forage, with the mountains as a solemn distant backdop. It is an unbeatable frontier setting, and it easy to imagine El Cid and his charger riding out across the plain to confront the enemy.
Avila Cathedral and Mansions
The beautiful interior of Avila Cathedral belies its gaunt exterior. In fact, it was built at around the same time as the city walls, so its apse forms a bastion – a perfect Reconquista symbol of the Church Militant.
Avila was once known as the “city of nobles,” so many of them having made their name fighting wars, and there are many rather grim looking aristocratic palaces to be seen. Their tiny windows betray the fact that they would have doubled as fortresses.
Avila – City of Mystics
Avila’s altitude, the quality of its air and its sombre granite architecture, gives it a distinctly spiritual aura, despite its bloody history. Pilgrims have long been drawn here, and its extensive views naturally induce a mood of contemplation. It is associated with several saints. The Basilica of Saint Vincent, just outside the walls, is dedicated to the martyr who was stoned to death here during the Persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 306. It is a fine example of Romanesque architecture, and there are grisly sculptural depictions of the saint’s sufferings. The crypt is where Saint Teresa experienced one of her earliest visions.
Avila – Saint Teresa
St Teresa is Avila’s most celebrated historic figure and one of the 16th century’s most fascinating mystics. She was born in Avila in 1515, and lived most of her life here. The place is full of landmarks, one of the most effective of which is also the simplest. It is the monument known Los Cuatro Postes – four posts around a small cross- just above the River Adaja, marking the spot where, as a child, St Teresa was caught running away to seek martyrdom by fighting the Moors. The site is also worth visiting as it provides the best view across to the old town and its walls.
Near the southern portion of town walls, the Convent of Saint Teresa was built on the site of the mansion in which she was born, and has a museum devoted to her. The Convent of the Incarnation, down the hill to the north of the walls, is where she lived as a nun for almost thirty years of her life. It has many interesting personal mementos, and you can see the stairway where she is said to have had a vision of the Child Jesus.
Meanwhile, the Convent of Saint Joseph, in a side street near the Plaza de Santa Teresa to the south east of the cathedral, is significant as the place where, in 1562, she formed the breakway order of nuns that would eventually become known as the Discalced Carmelites.
Avila is approximately one hour thirty minutes by train from Madrid (Chamartin), making it ideal for a day trip.