“When you approach (Ávila) from the west almost all you see is its famous wall, a mile and a half of castellated granite… it looks brand new, so perfect is its preservation and seems less like an inanimate rampart than a bivouac of men-at-arms….” Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
As we drove further south into Castilla y Leon the scenery quickly began to change as we left the flat high plains completely behind and began to drive through pine forests with Alpine like meadows, lakes and rivers and snow capped mountains. Eventually we reached a desolate treeless table top plateau with a wilderness landscape with giant grey boulders lying randomly on the bracken coloured land and then we dropped a little and at eleven hundred metres started to approach Ávila, the highest provincial capital in Spain.
The old city of Ávila is completely enclosed within a medieval wall and as our hotel was inside it we drove through one of the main gates and into tangle of narrow streets and immediately became lost and confused. Just as things were beginning to lookcompletely hopeless we found a tourist information office and went inside for help. The man at the desk explained that parking was very difficult (we’d guessed that already) and that it would be best to go back out of the old city and park in a public car park nearby.
He gave me a street map that looked like a bowl of spaghetti and told me that it was too difficult for him to try to explain how to get out and that I should just drive around until I get to a gate. ‘Thank you very much, that was very helpful’ I muttered silently under my breath.
Well, we eventually found the way out and the car park and then we had to walk back into the city and to the Plaza Catedral to find the Hotel Palacio De Los Velada. It was a four star hotel and we don’t usually do four star hotels but I had picked up an excellent half price deal and found ourselves staying in a genuine old seventeenth century palace that had been converted into this wonderful hotel with a large internal courtyard, grand wooden balconies, sumptuous furniture and an exceptional room.
The next morning after breakfast we had an early walk into the town before checking out of the hotel and we stepped out in shirt sleeves but were immediately forced back to get a jacket because although the sun was shining, at this elevation, there was a sharp chill in the air.
The hotel was next to the cathedral, which was closed to visitors this morning on account of this being Sunday and the local people were using the place for the purpose for which it was intended (i.e. worship) so we walked around the outside instead and were delighted to see a dozen or so Storks sitting on huge but untidy twig nests at the very top of the building.
They sat perfectly still in pairs just like bookends with only the breeze occasionally ruffling their feathers. Periodically one or the other would fly off in search of food climbing high and magnificently on the morning thermals that were beginning to form. Upon return they greeted each other with a noisy display of bill clattering that resonated through the granite streets and echoed off the sides of the buildings like rapid machine gun fire.
We walked outside of the old city walls and found ourselves in the middle of preparations for a half marathon that was going to take place around the city walls with athletes all warming up and preparing for the big event. In the early morning sun the view over the table top plain to the snow capped mountains in the distance was unexpected and satisfying and we sat for a while and enjoyed it. It was peaceful and serene and I felt unusually contented.
Later we went back into the city to walk the walls, which (according to the guide book) are the best preserved in all of Spain and although they have had some recent renovation still capture the spirit of an impregnable medieval granite fortress. They are two and a half kilometres long with two thousand five hundred battlements, eighty-eight cylindrical towers, six main gates and three smaller pedestrian gates.
Ávila was used in the 1957 film ‘The Pride and the Passion’ that starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra when a group of Spanish nationalists during the war of independence (The Peninsula War) lugged a huge gun up the mountains to attack the city and liberate it from the French invaders. It was based on the book ‘The Gun’, written by C S Forrester.
We paid the €4 fee and received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate entrances to which our tickets entitled us entrance and then climbed the steps to the top of the wall. There were excellent views of the town, of the countryside beyond and the Storks sitting on their piles of sticks on top of the Cathedral and other buildings. We thought that Ávila seemed a friendly sort of place because all of the information boards on the wall and in the town were thoughtfully translated into English. There were an awful lot of steps to negotiate on the wall and because not all of the upper walkway was open this involved having to double back a lot as well to get to the exits.
After completing two of the sections we stopped for a drink in the sun in San Vicente Square on the outside of the walls and we agreed that we really liked the practice of always providing a little tapas with the drinks and we hatched a cunning plan – three bars, three drinks, three tapas, free lunch!