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Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

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Sometimes, when I conjure up images of medieval European towns, I think that my imagined version must be so much neater and more fanciful than the real deal. After all, how can city walls built in the twelfth century be as beautifully symmetrical and clean as a sand castle dumped from a mold on the beach? Then I visit places like the Walled city of Avila and I realize that the reverse is true – the reality is so much better than anything I could have imagined.

(Full disclosure: this is a stock photo of the walled city of Avila, courtesy of Pixabay, not my photo. It was snowy when I went – scroll down for my much less impressive winter photos.)

The Walled City of Avila is Rich in History

Avila has been inhabited as far back as the 5th century BC, when a people known as the Vettones lived there. They called it Obila (“High Mountain”) and built one of their strongest fortresses here. Then came the Romans, who called it Abila or Abela. Roman incfluences can still be seen today in the town’s layout. It is rectangular in shape, with two main streets intersecting at a public swuare, or forum, in the center.

After the fall of the Roman empire in the late fifth century, it became a stronghold of the Visigoths, then was conquered by the Moors. What followed was a series of repeated attacks by the northern Iberian Christian kingdoms in a spiritual/geographical tug of war. The city became virtually uninhabited due to the constant conflict.

However, in the late eleventh century, Avila was repopulated following its definitive reconquest by Raymond of Burgundy, the son-in-law of Alfonso VI of León and Castile.

The Walls

Not surprisingly, the main attraction at the walled city of Avila is, well, its walls. The walls of Avila, constructed in the 11th through 14th centuries, are the largest fully illuminated monument in the world. And I highly recommend seeing them at night. They are nothing short of spectacular:

The walls around the city of Avila enclose an area measuring about 77 acres, with a perimeter measuring 8, 256 feet. They are nearly 10 feet thick and include around 90 towers. The walls are considered the best-conserved example of their kind in the world.

Visitors to Avila can, weather permitting, walk along part of the wall. There are four entrance points, one of which is accessible for those with disabilities. However, the best views of the city walls are from the ground, where you can fully appreciate just how imposing they would appear to any would-be invaders.

The Cathedral of Avila

Considered the earliest example of Gothic cathedrals built in Spain, construction of the Cathedral of Avila began in 1107. Notice anything off about it? The cathedral may appear to be a bit lopsided, or it may seem like part of it’s missing. That’s because the south tower, which should be to the right of the entrance, was never built.

The church’s eastern apse was fully integrated with the city walls. In the night shot of the city walls above, the rounded part of the wall that is shown is the exterior of the church apse. Inside the church, we could see how thick the walls were by looking at the windows in that part of the church:

There were so many beautiful things to look at in the Cathedral of Avila. I especially loved the alabaster baptismal font, which depicted Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist. It dates to 1514–1516.

Interestingly, the cathedral has a secret passage. Be sure you get the audio guide, which is included with the price of admission, to learn about the secret passage’s discovery and possible uses. The signs are in Spanish only.

The Basilica of San Vicente

Another notable church in the walled city of Avila is the Basilica de los Santos Hermanos Mártires, Vicente, Sabina y Cristeta, or Basilica of San Vicente for short. Christian martyrs and siblings Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta were martyred during the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.). Their corpses were buried into the rock and much later this basilica was built over their tombs. 

The main attraction in the Basilica of San Vicente is the cenotaph honoring the three martyrs.

The cenotaph features scenes of the three martyrs lives and deaths. They had refused to sign a document acknowledging they had offered sacrifices to the Roman gods, hence their death sentence. Nearby, there is a stone slab in the floor with Hebrew symbols carved on it. The story goes that a Jew, also accused and faced with death, promised God that if he got free, he would convert to Christianity and provide the martyrs with a tomb.

What to Eat in Avila

It seemed like every city we visited in Spain had its own special dessert. ponche segoviano in Segovia, mazapan in Toledo, and in Avila, yemas. Their more formal name is yemas de Santa Teresa. Now if you know Spanish, you may be aware that a yema is an egg yolk.

Occasionally, food will have a name that has nothing to do with what the food actually is. Toad-in-the-hole, for instance, has nothing to do with toads. Or even frogs. But yemas are, in fact, egg yolks.

They are, essentially, a soft boiled egg yolk that has been cooled and dusted with sugar. I tried it. It wasn’t bad. I also had a pastry in Madrid called a rosquilla de yema, which was a donut-like pastry with a sugary egg yolk glaze. Both items were surprisingly not gross. I don’t know that they would be my first choice for dessert, but they were nowhere near as disgusting as I feared they might be. Definitely worth a try if you’re feeling adventurous.

Why You Should Visit the Walled City of Avila

Hopefully you can see here that Avila not only looks great from the outside, but also has a rich history inside its walls. It is a perfect destination as a day trip from Madrid, and a lovely destination all its own. You can get to Avila from Madrid by train or bus, both of which run regularly on a daily basis.

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