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You couldn’t really consider Ávila to be a small town, but from its center it sort of feels like one. Its population has risen and
fallen over the centuries – there have been as few as 4,000 inhabitants, but the present population exceeds 58,000. But the central
portion of Ávila is isolated from the rest of the city by a fully-intact medieval wall that surrounds it. This wall is considered
to easily be the best-preserved city wall in Spain, and one of the finest in Europe. It was built beginning at the end of the 11th
Century, shortly after the reconquista passed through this part of Spain. Its good condition seems to suggest that it didn’t
get attacked too much after it was built. But before that, the city’s strategic location on top of a hill had made it enough of a
battle zone between Christians and Muslims that the population had pretty much fled.
We arrived in Ávila following a 90-minute train ride from Madrid’s Chamartín station.
Train Station, Robledo de Chavela
At 3665 feet above sea level, Ávila is the highest provincial capital in Spain, and we found it somewhat cooler than Madrid, though
still warm. The train station in Ávila is well outside the city wall, and we took a bus (both the #1 and #4 buses connect the station
to the old town) to get to the tourist attractions. We were dropped off near the San Vicente Basilica just outside the wall. The main
things we wanted to see were inside the wall, so we planned on visiting the San Vicente church later, if we had time.
Though there’s an entrance through the wall near the bus stop, we headed for the next entrance to the south, which put us next to our
first point of interest, the Ávila Cathedral. The cathedral was begun late in the 12th Century, but was not finished until the late
14th Century. It was built in gothic style, and was situated in such a way that it shared a wall with the city wall. We found entry
to be inexpensive, but the cathedral’s no-photography rule cut down on (but didn’t quite eliminate) our enjoyment of the church and
its adjoining museum. Here’s some of what we found there:
From the cathedral we proceeded westward until we located the Convent of St. Teresa. St. Teresa of Ávila was a 16th Century nun who
studied and wrote about mysticism. She founded several convents across Spain, but not this one, which was built over her birthplace
after she was canonized in the 17th Century. She is considered the Patron Saint of Headache Sufferers. The convent is still active
and largely not open to tourists, but we were able to visit the church. Relics of St. Teresa are on display, including a sole of one
of her sandals, and a finger from her right hand. Photography of the finger is not allowed.
From St. Teresa’s convent we headed back toward the cathedral using a different route, which turned out to be spookily deserted.
We found a small shopping area with some restaurants, and selected one for lunch. After eating, we continued past the cathedral and out
of the walled part of the city and headed back toward the bus stop where we’d been dropped off.
On reaching the bus stop we determined that we had some time to visit the San Vicente Basilica across the street. Not very much time,
though. We walked over and paid the inexpensive entry fee and discovered that photography was not a problem.
We gave ourselves a hasty tour, photographing anything that looked remotely interesting, but not being quite sure what any of it
was. Later we found out that the church was built starting in the 12th Century (and ending in the 14th Century) on the traditional
site of the martyrdom of St. Vincent and his sisters Sabina and Cristeta at the hands of the Romans. The church is Romanesque in
style and holds the tomb of St. Vincent, decorated with scenes of the martyrdom.
We returned to the bus stop in time for our trip back to the train station, where we caught our train back to Madrid. We found a
promising restaurant and had dinner. Nella wasn’t too hungry, so she had “just a salad”.
With this being our last evening in Madrid, we wandered around for awhile, looking into shop windows and comingling with the crowds. We
eventually found our way into a Museo del Jamón (Museum of Ham), just to see what all the fuss was about.
Museo del Jamón, and other similarly themed restaurants (Paraiso del Jamón, Palacio del Jamón) embody the deep regard Spaniards have
for cured meat of pig, and their discriminating tastes when it comes to same. When entering a Museo del Jamón, one can’t help but be
struck (almost in the face) by long rows of ham legs, hanging from racks. Each leg has a tag hanging from it, indicating its type and
quality. Apparently one looks for a black toenail, as this indicates the leg in question belonged to a black Iberian pig, the source
of prized jamón ibérico. The best pigs are pure black Iberians which have been allowed to roam free. During the last part of their
lives they are fed acorns, and after slaughter they are cured for three years or more. The result is ham which is deep in color and
rich in monounsaturated fat. It can cost upwards of $100 a pound, and is served in very thin slices.
We weren’t hungry, having just eaten, and besides the place was really crowded, so we didn’t get a chance to taste the ham. We took
some pictures and headed back to the hotel. We needed to pack, as we were catching a plane the next morning for a flight to the last
city on this trip, Barcelona.
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