Like no other city in Spain, Avila invites its visitors to repose and contemplation. It conveys to its guests the stillness and mystery of the spirituality that lies within it convents and monasteries. In Avila flourished the famous Spanish mystics, Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross. This city of saints hides within its magnificent walls a priceless compound of churches and palaces while preserving in its streets the medieval austerity of the Castilian spirit.
In the center of Spain and at an altitude of 1.127 meters—the highest city in Spain above sea level—Avila is built on a hill at the foot of Guadarrama Sierra. The Adaja River waters the city. Avila’s province is one of the nine in the Autonomous Community Castile-Leon. Its dry climate is one of sharp contrast between cold winters and hot summers.
Avila’s origins are among the oldest in Castile. The first signs of a primitive civilization are the burial stones and sculptured groups of boars left by the Celtiberians around 700 B.C. In the third century B.C., the Romans settled it and called it Avela. They incorporated it to the Lusitania province, and built its first wall making the city a strategic point of defence. The Episcopal see of Avila was founded around year 65.
The Visigoths settled in Avila after the Romans bringing in a bleak period in its history with several centuries of decline. In the beginning of the 8th century, it was conquered by the Moors. The Christian kings succeeded in taking possession of the city losing it to the Moors time and again until Alfonso VI reconquered it in 1085. He charged Raimundo de Borgoña with the repopulation of the city and with supervising the reconstruction of the wall over the ruins of the ancient Roman fortress. The current city walls as well as temples, convents, and palaces were built during the twelve century.
The peak period of Avila’s history was the 16th century when various industries, specially the textile industry, flourished. Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross were born during this period. To this day, the whole city is permeated with Teresa’s legacy and poetic spirit. Her works as well of those of John of the Cross raised Spanish mystical poetry to its highest level.
The 17th century saw Avila’s decline as an industrial center. In the 18th century some signs of recovery begun to appear such as the Construction of the Cotton Textile Royal Factory and the creation of Friends of the Country Society. It was well into 19th century when a more significant renewal of the city took place, evidenced by municipal projects, restorations, housing developments, or the introduction of religious orders and buildings. Avila’s rich cultural and artistic legacy earned it the title World Heritage, which was granted by UNESCO in 1985.
Some Important Sights:
The City Walls
Avila’s walls are much more than a mere device for war. They are as the city’s narrator presenting to its listeners its past and its people. The walls were an active, decisive factor in the distribution of the urban space of the various social groups that inhabited the city. The walls—with a perimeter of 2,516 meters, 12 meters in high, 3 meters in thickness, 88 towers and 9 gates—surrounded the city entirely. It represented an unconquerable bastion against the enemy, and it has remained intact throughout the centuries. Avila’s walls are among the best preserved walls in the world.
The building of the Cathedral works during the 12th century in the Romanesque style, and it was completed in the 16th century as the first cathedral in Spain of Gothic design. Two characteristics are harmoniously combined in Avila’s cathedral, the elements of a church and those of a fortress. Built within the city walls and situated next to the ramparts, it constitutes a part of their system of defense. In its exterior architecture, the details of a fortress are predominant above those of a church. The most important feature of the interior is the main chapel built in transition Romanesque style with Mudejar addtitions.
San Vicente Basilica
The Basilica stands outside of the city walls where the tradition claims that three of Avila’s saints were martyred during the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian. It was built during the 11th to 14th centuries in the purest form of Romanesque architecture. The interior is spacious and majestic, shaped as a Latin cross.
Other Places to Visit
Churches: San Juan, San Pedro, San Segundo, San Andrés, San Esteban, San Nicolás, Santo Tomé, Santa María de la Cabeza. Monasteries: San Francisco, Santo Tomás, La Encarnación Convents: Our Lady of Grace, Saints Teresa’s (her home), San Jose’s. Palaces: Nuñez Vela, Davilas, Valderrabanos, Bracamontes, and Deanes. The lookout Cuatro Postes with its fabulous view of the city. El Mercado Chico, where the old Roman forum was situated, and the centre of the town. The Romanesque bridge over the Adaja River. The nine magnificent city gates.
Avila’s cuisine of medieval linage, is a simple and basic approach to cooking, yet delicious. Roast lamb, fried trout, grilled steak, stewed partridge and bean stew are among the better known dishes. Deserts: Hornazo (cake) and Yemas de Santa Teresa (sweets made of egg yolks and sugar).
San Segundo (May 2). Typical pilgrimage to the saint’s hermitage. Nuestra Señora de las Vacas (2nd Sunday in May). At the end of a pilgrimage, gifts resented by the faithful are auctioned. Fiestas de la Santa (8-15 October). Main festivity of Avila in Saint Teresa’s honor. Virgen de Sonsoles (2nd Sunday October). Pilgrimages celebrated with nearby towns. Summer Festivities.
Penitential processions of the Stations of the Cross during the early hours of Good Friday morning, which travels the length of the wall.