The walls of Ávila

By Julie Skurdenis
This item appears on page 48 of the September 2018 issue.

Walking on top of the medieval walls of Ávila — central Spain. Photos by Julie Skurdenis

Sixty miles west of Madrid lies one of my favorite places in Spain: the small city of Ávila (population 58,000). Four decades ago I wrote two books of walking tours of European cities. Ávila was one of the 24 cities included in those books.

One of the reasons Ávila ranks as special is its magnificent stone walls that encircle the city, among the best preserved in Europe. I wanted to walk along these walls again and revisit the medieval city they enclose. I also wanted to see how the walking tour I wrote then had held up over the years.

Turbulent history

Ávila's history stretches back to at least the 5th century BC, when the Celtiberian civilization flourished there. In the 1st century BC, the city became an outpost of the Roman Empire. Then came the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe who overran the Iberian Peninsula in the 6th century AD. They were succeeded by the Moors from North Africa, who invaded the peninsula in the early 8th century AD.

For the next almost 400 years, this area of central Spain seesawed between Moors and Spaniards until being reconquered around 1085 by Raimundo de Borgoña, son-in-law of King Alfonso VI of León and Castile. Soon thereafter, Ávila's walls rose atop previously constructed walls. Early sections date from the late-11th century, but most wall construction dates from the second half of the 12th century.

The walls

One of the monumental gateways punctuating the walls of Ávila.

Built primarily for defense, the walls enclose an area of 77 acres, with the present-day city spreading out beyond the original walls.

The walls stretch for 8,255 feet, about a mile and a half, and include 88 semicircular towers, thousands of battlements and nine monumental gateways, several of which are flanked by twin towers soaring 66 feet tall. Even the apse of Ávila's cathedral became incorporated into the wall's defensive network.

What is unique about Avila's walls is not only their age, intactness or state of preservation but that there is a walkway along the top of the walls for a distance of over 5,500 feet, well over a mile.

Ávila flourished in the medieval period. Its walls were never besieged. However, in 1492 the Jews were expelled from the city and from Spain. The Moriscos, Muslims in Spain who had converted to Christianity, suffered the same fate in 1609.

With the departure of these two groups, as well as of the nobility, many of whom moved to Madrid, began Avila's economic decline. It is sheer good luck that the walls have managed to survive.

Ways to visit the walls

Before you walk the walls, it's a good idea to circle them by cab or car to see their extent. Los Cuatro Postes (Four Pillars) is a vantage point just outside the western section of the walls from which there is a memorable panorama. It's especially dramatic at night with the walls lighted.

Visitors should allow time to walk both on top of the walls as well as beside them. The best place to begin a walk on top is at the tourism information office on Calle San Segundo. From there, you can walk along half of the eastern walls, the entire northern section and a portion of the western walls, a walk of about 45 minutes to an hour at a leisurely pace.

Two good places to walk beside the walls are along the northern side on Carretera de la Ronda Vieja, a road running just below the walls, and on Paseo del Rastro, the pedestrian walk at the base of the southern walls.

Additional sights

A few of the semicircular towers punctuating the medieval walls of Ávila.

Besides its walls, Ávila is brimming with sights to visit, enough to keep a visitor busy for several days. Among my favorites is the Cathedral, considered the earliest Gothic-style church in Spain, although it was begun in the 12th century during the Romanesque period. It is one of the finest examples of a fortress-church in Europe, with an apse that also serves as a sturdy turret in Ávila's walls.

Just outside the walls north of the Cathedral is the Basilica of San Vicente, an excellent example of Romanesque architecture, built on the site where Vincent and his sisters were supposedly martyred in the 4th century AD. Their elaborate tomb rests in the church's transept crossing.

Just inside the Puerta de Santa Teresa, in the southern walls, is the 17th-century, Baroque Convent of Santa Teresa built over the site where the mystic saint, Teresa of Ávila, was born in 1515.

Finally, about one mile southeast of the old walls is the Monastery of Santo Tomás de Aquino. Portions of the monastery were used by Ferdinand and Isabella as their summer residence in the late 15th century. They were the Spanish monarchs who united Spain through their marriage in 1469, expelled the Moors from Spain in 1492 and financed Columbus' voyages to the New World.

Their only son, Juan, died in 1497 at the age of 19 and rests in this monastery in an alabaster sarcophagus. Juan was the brother of Catherine of Aragon, who became the first of Henry VIII of England's six wives.

The infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada was buried in this monastery in 1498, but the exact location of his burial is unknown.

All these sights were part of a walking tour of Ávila that was included in a book I wrote long ago. As to how well my Ávila walking tour has stood the test of time — not too badly. Things change slowly within a city encircled by walls that are almost one thousand years old.

If you go…

Basilica of San Vicente as seen from atop the walls of Ávila, Spain.

To learn the hours that the walkway on top of the walls is open, check the website www.muralladeavila.com/en. The entrance fee is 5 (near $6).

Although Ávila can be visited on a day trip from Madrid, I recommend staying at least a night or two. Ávila is magical at night, when the walls are lighted and the streets of the Old City are quiet and mysterious. You can imagine yourself back in the Middle Ages as you stroll past centuries-old Renaissance mansions and ancient stone churches.

My husband, Paul, and I stayed in one of Spain's historic paradores (inns), the Raimundo de Borgoña (2 Marqués de Canales y Chozas, Ávila; phone 34 920 211 340, www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-avila), housed in a 16th-century palace.

Our room, which overlooked the parador's garden and a section of the northern wall near the Puerta del Carmen, one of the wall's nine gateways, cost 160 ($190), including breakfast.

Taking a train to Ávila from Madrid's Chamartín station takes about 90 minutes and costs about 20 each, round trip. Stop by a local tourism office in Madrid to check on train schedules. There's an excellent tourism office in the Plaza Mayor.

The walls of Ávila from another angle.