Sightseeing in Ávila
In touring around Ávila, the city’s famous Medieval Walls are rarely far from sight. The walls were likely constructed around the turn of the 12th century while the self-proclaimed “Emperor of all Spain,” King Alfonso VI, was busily reconsolidating the Castilian regions from the Moors. The walls, actually one continuous expanse, wrap around the city for a length of 2½ km (1½ miles), with a total of nine gates, 88 watchtowers and well over 2,000 turrets. Standing beneath them, it’s easy to understand why the Moors never made another attempt to reclaim the city. They are over 12 m (39 feet) high and originally would have had sentries walking the top perimeter day and night. Nowadays tourists can walk only along one portion near the Puerta del Alcázar. From this vantage point, the ancient city and the peaks of the Sierra de Gredos are picture-perfect. The entrance steps are next to the Cathedral, which is also part of the fortified wall. The Medieval Walls are open Tues.-Sun. 11 am-1:30 pm and 5-7:30 pm; closed afternoons during the winter.
La Plaza de la Catedral
The Romanesque church-fortress is the main attraction of the plaza. The Catedral was begun in the 12th century as a part of the city’s walls that were taking shape during the same period. Its apse, known to parishioners as the cimorro, is part and parcel of the defensive structure and the most ornate at that. The main façade is relatively modest in styling, save for the large Gothic window and the tower rising over it. The interior, on the other hand, is more elaborate than a fortress structure might portend; it conforms to the traditional shape of a Latin cross, lit by the sunlight cast through stained glass, with a fancily painted high altarpiece, carved choir stalls and nine chapels. The Capilla de Nuestra Señora de Gràcia includes an alabaster tomb that is well worth a look as it is delicately carved in the plateresque style (plata, in Spanish, means silver, a reference to the style’s similarity to silver filigree). It bears the remains of Ávila’s beloved bishop Don Alonso de Madrigal, whose nickname, El Tostado, was a loving nod to his swarthy skin tone. The Capilla del Cardenal houses the Museo Catedralico. Among the religious relics on display is a token painting by El Greco and a rather large silver processional monstrance.
On the corner across the street from the Catedral is the Palacio de Velada, a 16th-century residence that was once frequented by royalty, and, across from it, the Oficina de Turismo.
Plaza del Mercado Chico
From the Catedral, follow Calle de los Reyes de Católicos two blocks to reach the heart of the city center. The Plaza del Mercado Chico occupies the former space of a Roman forum, with the 19th-century Ayuntamiento (town hall) facing across the expanse to the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. The font where St. Teresa was baptized is on display inside. The story of St. Teresa continues at the Convento de Santa Teresa.
Around El Convento de Santa Teresa
Calle Dávila leads from the Plazuela de San Juan to the Plaza General Mola, over which the Torreón de los Guzmanes stands guard. Part of the offices of the Diputación Provincial (council of the province), the battlement tower was constructed during the 16th century. Facing away from the tower, Calle Cepedas trails off to the left in the direction of the Palacio de Dávila, one of Ávila’s most impressive privileged residences. The battlements indicate its dual purpose as a fortress. There are actually four houses within the complex, each with a unique design and the oldest dating to the 13th century (Plazuela de Pedro Dávila 7).
During the 16th century Ávila enjoyed its greatest period of splendor as a result of its strong role in the region’s wool industry. As many as a hundred of these elegant palace-fortresses then crowded the walled city, which at the time was referred to as Ávila de los Nobles. Years of neglect and construction have tarnished these once fanciful domains or altogether erased them. If it interests, there is another nice grouping of palaces with Renaissance embellishment and defensive ramparts located along the north wall, including the Palacio de Benavites, now a tourist parador, and along Calle Lopez Núñez the Palacio de los Águila and the Casa del Verdugo.
Returning to the Plaza General Mola, take Calle Soledad around to the entrance of the Convento de Santa Teresa in the Plaza de la Santa (for the claustrophobic, the Puerta de la Santa allows escape from the fortified city). The Baroque convent was founded in 1636 over the site of the Cepeda mansion where the future reformer of the Carmelite Order, St. Teresa, was born in 1515. The interior garden was once the saintly child’s playground while the elaborate Capilla de Santa Teresa was built in place of her bedroom; it is laden with gold and features a statue of the saint by Gregorio Fernández, a number of whose other works adorn the convent. Next door is the Sala de Reliquias, basically a trinket shop with a small exhibit of various strange commodities pertaining to the saint, the highlight of which is no doubt her ring finger.
Around the corner from the convent entrance, the Museo de Santa Teresa continues in the same vain, with portraits, copies of her writings, a recreation of her stark living quarters and odds and ends of the Carmelite Order.
Outside the Walls
The inner confines of Ávila’s walls could only hold so much. Make a trek outside of them to visit a few of the city’s other sights. El Convento de San José is located on Calle Duque de Alba, a five-minute walk outside the city walls. Pass through the Puerta del Alcázar to the right of the Cathedral and then the Plaza del Grande to reach this street. This convent was the first of what would be many convents founded throughout Spain by Santa Teresa. It was consecrated in 1562. The devout ascetic took a leading role in the convent’s construction and its two plain churches look it. A small museum is dedicated to her saintly ways.
El Monasterio de La Encarnación was established in the 16th century and would be Santa Teresa’s residence for 29 years. During her later years in the convent, she spent her time implementing the reform of the Carmelite Order alongside St. Juan de la Cruz. Her convent cell is on display and a museum houses other odds and ends pertaining to her life.
El Monasterio de Santo Tomás is said to have been constructed under the watchful eye of Torquemada, feared inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps the place was cursed from the get-go. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, commissioned the monastery with the intention of making it an official residence. Then the Catholic Monarch’s only son, Prince Juan, died at the tender age of 19 and foiled their plans. The Prince is interred in an elaborate tomb sculpted by Domenico Fancelli and set in the very center of the transept beneath the dome for all to see.
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