Avila is often described as the “City of Saints and Stones”. The saint is St Teresa, and the stones are the city walls, supposedly the finest in the whole of Europe. Avila is also just a bus ride away from Segovia, where I was planning to visit the Roman remains. So I decided to find out if the medieval walls of Avila lived up to the hype.
What is Special About the Medieval Walls of Avila?
As you’ll know if you follow this blog, I’ve been to lots of walled cities. Some of them have been complete circuits (like Avila), and there have been one or two where you can walk along the whole length of the walls (unlike Avila). But I have never seen walls as picture perfect as those of Avila. For one thing, they have been meticulously maintained so that the stone gleams in the Spanish sunshine. And, if you climb to a vantage point outside the town, the whole of the walled city is visible, guarding its inhabitants like a giant fortress.
The walls were built in the 11th century, to protect the residents from the Moors. It seems to have been a co-operative venture between different groups of citizens. Christians, Jews and even those Moors who lived inside the city all took a part in building and maintaining the defences. The walls have been well preserved since the Middle Ages, but work continues on making them safe and accessible to tourists. The walls and the old city of Avila became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Exploring the Avila City Walls
The Avila city walls are around 2.5 km long, with 82 towers and nine gates. At present tourists can walk along approximately half of their length, in two separate sections. There are information boards, and you can climb to the top of some of the turrets. From here you get fine views of the old city within, and of the churches, valleys and mountains on the outside.
Avila can get very crowded with coach tours from Madrid, so you might want to walk the walls at the beginning or end of the day. There is access in three different places: by the Cathedral and at the gates of El Puente and El Alcazar. You need to be aware that there are lots of steep steps, particularly by El Alcazar. However there is a lift and a small wheelchair-friendly section at the Puerta del Puente.
Alternatively, it is easy to walk around the outside of the walls. They are less accessible inside the town, as private properties are built right up to the wall in several places. In this respect I was particularly fortunate, as the garden of my hotel, the Parador de Avila (built in a 16th century palace) backed on to the city walls. This meant that we could enjoy an evening drink sitting in the shadow of a private section of the wall!
A Different Perspective on the City Walls
The UNESCO inscription also includes a number of churches and monasteries outside the walls. One of these is the Basilica de San Vicente, a fine Romanesque church and supposedly the site of St Vincent’s martyrdom. This church is very close to the Puerta de San Vicente and you get a great view of it as you walk along the walls.
No visit to Avila is complete without crossing the river and walking up to the monument of Cuatro Postes. Opinions differ as to whether this commemorates St Teresa, or the exiling of a group of 12th century looters. But what is not in doubt is that from here you get the best view of Avila’s walls, and a different perspective on the city.
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