Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Adventures in Ávila

Well... it would seem I have some catching up to do, so just a quick blurb about Ávila, for the town is interesting enough that it deserves some mention at least.

Because I was originally trying to coordinate this trip to travel with Will, my co-worker, I actually did a little more planning than previous outings.  For example, I asked how long it would take to get there, from which station should I leave, how much sight seeing would be required, and what should I eat.  This last point is particularly important to me for obvious reasons.  I love tasty sustenance.  But more than that, most Spanish towns have a specialty or two that is unique to their city or region.  Taking a few minutes to eat a meal rather than, say, a CLIF Bar is a great time to reflect and absorb the atmosphere.  Food, thoughts, feel... a few of my favorite things.  So I felt prepared for this one.  Just to be safe, I also took the time to unceremoniously tear out the two pages on Avila from Lonely Planet.  Really, who wants to carry a mediocre guide book around when you can get the same information from a couple of pages?  (Even so, it was of no use whatsoever.)

However, once again, I neglected to watch the weather the day before (I blame this on the fact that Will couldn't come, as he had a prior invitation to watch rugby with some old British guys).  So, while it wasn't snowing, 9 am in the mountains is a little nippy.   I needed socks... and what do you know, there was a sock store! Problem solved.  From there, after asking a few people directions I eventually found my way to the medieval quarter.  Train schedule, woolen socks, part of a guidebook... I was feeling invincible.

Old Avila is a walled city that follows the usual line of Spanish history (Visigoths - Romans - Arabs - Christians) so it's an interesting mix of ancient influences.  It is most notable for its cathedral and its walls.
There is all sorts of interesting history behind it, but the most fascinating part for me is that it combines religion and warfare, as illustrated by the cathedral.  Avila is a "deeply religious town" (Lonely Planet) and takes great pride in its cathedral, as well as their patron saint, Teresa de Avila.  The cathedral is beautiful, and, already feeling reckless after ripping Lonely Planet apart, I blissfully ignored all signs prohibiting cameras.  (Let's be honest... if there aren't guards walking around to enforce those flimsy signs, it's hard to resist.  Besides, how could I possibly pass up an opportunity to archive sights that my students will probably never see?)

So, religious beauty.  Then comes the militaristic fortification part.  Not only was it built as a fortress, but there are also slots for archers concealed among the turrets and eves.  Moreover, as I was wandering around inside wishing I knew more about gothic architecture, I just happened to glance at a sign and skimmed it well enough to realize that it was explaining a recent discovery (a lucky stroke, considering it was in Spanish and I am usually too lazy to read well.).  As it turns out, last year (that would be 2010... 1,000 years after construction began) researches discovered a secret passageway in one of the chapels.  Now, to the best of my knowledge, most cathedrals feel their chapels are sacred and don't want any sort of secular influence to taint their holy stones (refer to photography prohibitions).  This passageway, however, led to two separate parts of the city, both of which were political hubcaps (and are now the post office and a restaurant).  Crazy!  And I thought my church was exciting because it had "catacombs"!

Defense and religion - the archer slots can be seen above the circular window.
Anyway, combined with the yemas (egg yoke pastries) and judías blancas (a white bean dish eagerly recommended by a souvenir shop owner), it was a pleasant experience.  And I had done just enough planning to make it back to the train with two minutes to spare.  I suppose you sacrifice some spontaneity when you plan, but it is nice not to have to wait around another hour for the next train.  So, in all, Avila is not a vacation destination, but it's definitely worth the trip... especially the food : )

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