Sunday, March 13, 2011

Being There: Avila

The medieval walls at Avila, with non-medieval people walking around
Taking a break from SampleSunday on Twitter. Instead, I wanted to devote a few posts to my recent trip to Spain and Portugal. It was one of the best and most memorable vacations I've had in a long time.

I haven't been in Spain since November 2001 and I'd been planning to return. It won't be another 10 years before I'm back. To truly paraphrase Gertrude Stein, Barbados and America are my countries, but Spain is my hometown. Considering that I still speak bastardized Spanish (enough to get me around without looking like an "ugly American" - more on that later!), people are often surprised by my affinity for Spain, its people and culture. Dependent on if I win the lottery or wait for retirement in an odd 30 years, if you want to look me up in the future, I'll be at a white-washed, two-storey house on the Cuesta de las Tomasas, in a hillside neighborhood in Granada called the Albaicin, enjoying an amazing view of the Alhambra every morning.

If you've ever noticed the header of this blog, "The adventures of a struggling New York writer who'd rather be in medieval Spain," you've probably figured out how much a tour of Avila meant to me. First off: getting there. In the comfort of a coach bus, somewhat bleary-eyed, I set off early on the morning of Friday, February 18, leaving the hotel in the urban Madrid town of Torrejon, which has an almost industrial complex feel to it.  
Atocha Station, Madrid. Yes, those are palms.
I headed for Atocha Station in central Madrid. Atocha is not only a metropolitan hub for the local train lines operated by RENFE; you can link to other transportation services throughout Spain. At left, what the people of Madrid think a train station should look like. Grand Central Station has nothing on Atocha.

After a few wrong turns (come on, it's impossible NOT to get lost when you speak a bastardized form of a beautiful language) and a little meandering, met up with the tour guide with the easily remembered name of Lisa. She pointed out various sites along the way as we began our drive down the Gran Via, which looks a lot like any congested street during an early morning commute. Traffic jam? Check. Great, I definitely feel right at home.
La Gran Via, on a normal traffic-clogged day

While Lisa (the tour guide, not me in some weird guise) talked about all the great things we would see on this day trip to Avila, with a second stop at Segovia (next Sunday's blogpost - stay tuned!), I forced myself to wake up and pay attention to my surroundings as we were leaving the city. I'd been in Spain since early Wednesday morning; 3am in New York City, I'll have you know, and had taken a tour bus that day to get acclimated to central Madrid. It is truly one of the most beautiful Spanish cities, home to the Prado Museum, which I'd managed to get a shot of the day before the trip to Avila. You can't tell from this shot but the line around the Prado was ridiculous. Why didn't I go in? If you know me, you know how much I love HATE waiting in long lines. Maybe the next trip to Spain will include a tour of the Prado. Is there like an off-season at that place? Sheesh.
Prado Museum, Madrid
If I wasn't such a medieval buff, I could have found myself happily enjoying the sights of Madrid alone, but part of why I'm so enthralled by this country is its early history. Another thing; Spain has the most fascinating contrasts of colors. Okay, let me stop right there. If I wanted to, I could probably come up with 100 things that make Spain super amazing, but if I had to tick off just a few, I'd start with it's history and geography. It's a land of varying browns, red ochre and greens. I'd never seen sage-green grass before but managed to get a shot of it on the later drive to Segovia, which doesn't quite do it justice. Still, you'd get the general idea. Spain is also a country of amazing mountainous views, with steps hills and wide valleys. The colors and terrain shifts as you move northward. Driving from Madrid up to Avila, you climb slowly, and those reds and browns become more startling. Then, you see this:

Snow-covered mountains on the way to Avila
Again, taking photos with my Blackberry's camera isn't going to quite do this vista justice, but it was truly one of the most amazing sights of the morning sun glinting off pristine, snow-capped mountains. Within 20 minutes, the tour bus was on the outskirts of our first stop.

Avila is one of Spain's oldest cities and, as our tour guide explained, has existed as a major settlement from pre-Roman times. After the Moors invaded Spain from North Africa, Avila remained in their hands until the late eleventh century. The plan for its medieval walls, which encircle the old city limits, started in 1090 to keep out future Moorish incursions. Avila is the birthplace of Saint Teresa, one of only three women recognized by the Catholic Church as a Doctor of the Church. It is also home to many religious monuments, including cathedrals and convents and the mini-palaces of the nobility. Sights include the Basilica of San Vincente, Monastery of Saint Thomas, San Jose Convent, San Juan Bautista Church and Los Davila Palace. A few shots around Avila follow.

Which way to Segovia? Oh, that way!
Next Sunday: Segovia, where Isabella of Castile was crowned and married Ferdinand of Aragon, a city of medieval stained glass and the Alcazar of the Spanish royals.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by the blog.

Avila's Medieval gateway

Entrance at Avila's 12th century Basilica de San Vicente

Another shot of the Basilica


Avila's cathedral tower

Cobblestone streets at Avila

Birth place of Saint Teresa of Avila

1 comment:

.: EXIT NINETY-ONE :. said...

Oh, I can't believe you went to Avila too. I really don't know anyone who's been to this city either. Spain is amazing. If I could have my little lottery bungalow, I'd opt for a nice condo in Villajoyosa with a stunning balcony and ocean view! I've never been to Southern Spain.

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