Sheltered by the Sierra Gredos Mountains we find Avila, a World Heritage City. Behind the city walls of this Castile-Leon capital there is a valuable set of churches and Renaissance palaces that bear witness to the past wealth of the town as a textile centre. Being the birthplace of Saint Teresa of Jesus has left its mark across the city, both inside and outside the city walls, with a large number of religious buildings linked to the saint’s life. The European Commission has given Ávila the Access City Award 2010. The excellent roasts and famous Avila veal cutlet are just part of a rich local cuisine without forgetting the famous dessert of Saint Teresa – “yemas” (sugared egg yolks).
Ávila’s long history begins with the old Celtiberian settlement of the Vettones around the year 700 BC. When the Romans arrived in the 3rd century BC, the first wall was built and Ávila became an important defensive location. After several centuries of decadence, the city was repopulated and rebuilt in the 11th century. According to tradition, Raimundo de Borgoña, son-in-law of King Alfonso VI, was in charge of supervising the reconstruction of the walls on the ruins of the old Roman fortress. The city’s period of greatest splendour was in the 16th century, when wool manufacture launched its economy. During that time of prosperity, many civil and religious buildings were erected in the city, and are still standing today in the city’s historic centre.
The symbol of the city is the wall, one of the best preserved walled sites in Europe. Its perimeter is two kilometres and a half, with about 2,500 battlements, 100 towers, 6 doors and 3 secondary entrances. The Los Leales Gate, one of the main entrances to the old town, leads straight to the cathedral, which looks like a fortress and was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. Its apse, known as “cimorro”, is attached to the wall and is the largest defensive turret on the bastion.
While there are superimposed Gothic and Baroque elements on the façade, inside there are intricate reliefs in the retrochoir, and the tomb of El Tostado, made of alabaster. The Diocesan Museum holds different works of art, amongst which a monumental processional monstrance by Juan de Arfe stands out. Within the city walls, there are medieval corners, like the Plaza de los Dávila, with more than twelve Renaissance noble houses, including the mansion of Los Velada, the palace of Los Valderrábano and of Núñez Vela.
The most surprising construction in the area is Los Dávila Palace. It is a solid fortress made up of four houses and the oldest was built in the 13th century. The group of buildings stands out because of its battlements and its famous Renaissance window.
Nearby is Los Guzmanes Tower, erected in the 16th century, which currently holds the Regional Government. These are just a few of the more than one hundred stately houses that existed in Ávila from the 16th to the 18th century. This fact can be seen in the full name of the city – Ávila de los Caballeros (Ávila of the Knights). The Plaza del Mercado Chico, where the old Roman forum used to be situated, is the city centre. The façades of the Town Hall and of the Church of San Juan are facing the centre. The church was rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries. Throughout its history, Ávila was the birthplace of famous Spanish mystics such as Santa Teresa de Jesús and San Juan de la Cruz. This is why there are many churches and convents scattered round the city.
In the Plaza de la Santa there is a convent of the same name, built in 1636 on the birthplace of Santa Teresa de Jesús.. The building has a Baroque doorway and holds an important group of carved images by the sculptor Gregorio Fernández, as well as a chapel dedicated to the saint, which is profusely decorated. Inside there is a vegetable garden in which, according to tradition, the mystic played when she was a little girl.
Outside the walls of Ávila: Outside the walled area is the Monastery of La Encarnación, built in the 16th century, where Santa Teresa lived as a nun for more than 20 years. It is worth stopping at the places in which the writer used to stay, like her cell or the chapel of the Transverberation.
The Basilica of San Vicente, built in the 12th century next to the place in which three saints were martyred in times of Diocletian, is another important building. This temple is considered to be the most beautiful example of the Romanesque style in the city, although it also has other architectural elements that were added later on. The exterior of the building is dominated by three magnificent apses, the west doorway, also known as the Pórtico de la Gloria doorway of Ávila, and the south façade. Meanwhile, inside, the vaults stand out and visitors can see the tomb of the three martyrs, an important proto-Gothic funeral monument, attributed to the master architect Fruchel. The Romanesque Church of San Andrés is behind the basilica and inside it holds the most important elaborate capitels in the city.
The Church of San Pedro, built in the 12th-13th centuries, is also Romanesque and one of the oldest in the city. This construction is very sober and attracted the most relevant people in Ávila’s society for many centuries. A large Cistercian rose window on its doorway and the three apses are the most important elements outside. Inside the sober ornamentation contrasts with the interesting group of paintings and altarpieces it holds. Outside the walls, but very close to the Los Leales doorway, we can find the Los Deanes Palace. Originally, as its name suggests, this 16th-century monumental house was built to accommodate the consecutive deans (clergymen in charge of the administration of the cathedral chapter) that Ávila had over the years. The first thing that strikes visitors is the Renaissance façade, with a double row of columns, decorated with Plateresque coats of arms and crowned by Baroque pinnacles. These elements give the building an undeniably stately look. Inside there is a main building and several rooms set around a courtyard with two galleries that have Gothic arcades. These installations currently hold the Provincial Museum, which has interesting archaeology, ethnography and fine arts sections. The museum also has an annex building, the old Church of Santo Tomé el Viejo (12th century).
The Monastery of Santo Tomás used to be the traditional summer residence of the Spanish monarchs and was finished in 1493, using the Isabelline Gothic style during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs. The site is dominated by a monumental church with a single nave and cross vaults, as well as several side chapels. In the centre of the transept there is a beautiful tomb, of the Infante don Juan, son of the Monarchs, sculpted in marble by Domenico Fancelli. A magnificent altarpiece by Berruguete and an elevated choir also stand out. The convent area is organised round three cloister – Noviciado, Silencio and de los Reyes – which are very richly decorated. Meanwhile, the old royal quarters hold the Oriental Museum, which displays an interesting collection of works from the Far East. The visit to this thousand-year-old city can end at the Cuatro Postes viewpoint, which affords the most beautiful view of the medieval walled site.
Gastronomy: In any of the restaurants in the city you can discover the excellent gastronomy of the area. Some excellent dishes are roast suckling pig and lamb, as well as the famous Ávila T-bone steak. The veal and the El Barco de Ávila beans have their own Designation of Origin. The cakes in Ávila are famous mainly because of the yemas de Santa Teresa (made with egg yolks and sugar). There are many places to stay in the capital. The Ávila Parador Hotel is next to the walls, set in the old Piedras Albas Palace. There are important towns in the province of Ávila, such as Arévalo, a beautiful example of Mudejar style from Ávila, designated a Historic-Artistic Site; Madrigal de las Altas Torres, birthplace of Catholic Queen Isabella; Las Navas del Marqués, with Magalia Castle; El Barco de Ávila, with the Gothic church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción 14th century) and Castillo de Valdecorneja. Some of the archaeological findings that are worth seeing in the province are Castro de Cogotas, one of the most important sites in Spain, and Toros de Guisando, Celtic stone sculptures. And finally, the Sierra de Gredos Regional Reserve, a great alternative for nature lovers.