HERDING HUMAN CATTLE THROUGH THE STREETS OF AVILA & SEGOVIA
Avila and Segovia are small towns just outside Madrid, both with a lot to offer the keen tourist. Avila is famous for its grand city walls and as the birthplace of St Theresa, one of Spain’s most beloved Catholic saint. Segovia, on the other hand, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a stunning Roman aqueduct, grand cathedral, and magnificent castle ensconced within its city walls. Being the enthusiastic travellers we are, we wanted to see both Segovia and Avila and so, to save ourselves some time, we chose to sign up for a tour that covered both destinations in one easy day trip. Man was that a bad idea…. Not because Segovia and Avila weren’t worth visiting, but because the dynamics of large group touristing just drives us nuts! Despite the frustrations of bring “on tour”, however, we still really enjoyed our day trip and were especially enamoured by Segovia’s grand cathedral and imposing Alcazar.
Driving North out of Madrid our tour took us high into the arid Meseta, Spain’s central plateau. The scenery along the way was bleak and rocky, strewn with immense grey boulders and with few trees.
Within an hour or so we could see Avila appearing in the distance. At an elevation of 1,132m, Avila is one of the highest cities in Spain. The town is built on the flat summit of a rocky hill, which rises abruptly out of the brown, arid, treeless Meseta. As soon as it came into view we could see why Avila is so well known for its Medieval city walls.
Avila’s walls were built after the city was reclaimed from the Muslims by the Spanish army in 1088. Spain’s king at the time, Alfonso VI, ordered the construction a stone walls that would forever more protect the city from the Moors. Those walls took 300 years to complete and still stand today.
Within the city walls we saw Avila’s most popular historic site: the church of St Theresa. Built after the canonisation of St Teresa over the house where she was born, the church contains her relics (i.e. bits of her skeleton) and other artefacts relating to her life and religious work. Supposedly St Theresa’s finger bone has performed miracles, and Franco (yes, THAT Franco), slept with the digit by his bed for decades in the hope that the saint would watch over him. All a bit creepy really, but each to their own.
Saint Teresa was born into a noble family in Avila on March 28, 1515. Religiously inclined from a young age, Teresa joined a convent at age 19 and had a vision some years later that inspired her to found the Order of Carmelitas Descalzos (Barefoot Carmelites). Adhering to a dogma of strict asceticism the order spurned the overt wealth and greed of the church of the day. Canonised in 1622, St Theresa continues to be highly revered, especially amongst the profoundly religious Spanish. As her birthplace, Avila is a popular pilgrimage site and the church dedicated to her was packed with visitors. We find the Catholic practice of saint worship all a bit bizarre, but didn’t want to impose on other people’s religious joy, so we had a quick look around the church and quickly stepped outside to wait for the rest of the tour group.
Whilst in Avila we also visited the Basilica de San Vicente, an interesting Romanesque church built on the site where St Vincent was martyred at the hands of the Romans.
The church is one of the oldest in Spain and dates back to the 12th century. The building centres around the richly decorated tomb of St Vincent, which was covered in sculptures depicting the gory events of the saint’s torture and execution.
With its great city walls and multiple patron saints, no wonder Avila is known as the “City of Stones and Saints”! We would have liked to seen a bit more of the town, but the tour didn’t allow for it, so we shuffled back to the bus like good cattle. What little we saw of Avila’s old town was quite small and nondescript, though its central square was nice.
A short bus ride from Avila was Segovia, our second stop for the day and one of our favourite stops in the whole of Spain.With 2,000 years of history to its name, Segovia is just magnificent!
The old town of Segovia is built on a rocky bluff which affords great views across the surrounding plains This location was chosen by the Romans as the site for a fortified city, and soon grew to become an important regional centre. During summer, however, water shortages were often an issue; to help ensure the town and its surrounding agricultural lands always had enough water, the Romans built an aqueduct which is still standing today.
Touted as the most important Roman civil engineering work in Spain, the aqueduct of Segovia was built around 50BC. It consists of about 25,000 granite blocks held together without any mortar, and stands some 30m above the ground. The aqueduct transported water from Fuente Fría river, situated in the nearby mountains some 17km from the city, into Segovia for 1,500 years. With its 2 tiers of arches and imposing height, the aqueduct of Segovia really is an impressive construction! The only thing we’ve seen that comes close to its magnificence would be Pont du Gard in France.
Segovia’s position along key trans-Iberian trading routes made it an important centre of commerce, especially wool and textiles. The end of the Middle Ages saw something of a golden age for Segovia, with the establishment of a powerful cloth industry union. Several splendid works of Gothic architecture were completed during this period, including the city’s iconic cathedral.
Begun in the 16th century but not finished until 1768, La Catedral de Segovia was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain. Fronting the historic Plaza Mayor in Segovia, it stands on the spot where Isabella I was proclaimed Queen of Castile. We found Segovia’s cathedral to be truly enchanting from the outside, looking like a multi-spired crown atop the hill of Segovia.
Its interior, though, was surprisingly bare and uncluttered.
The most richly decorated parts of the church were by far the chapels, 20 of which line the walls.
Across from the main entrance we found the Gothic cloister, which is older than the cathedral and houses a small museum of religious art.
From the cathedral it was short walk down hill to the 3rd great monument of Segovia: the Alcazar. With its pointed turrets and crenelated battlements, the Alcazar of Segovia looks like a fairy tale castle – there’s even a rumour that Disney artists were inspired by the Alcazar when they rendered Sleeping Beauty’s palace.
The Alcazar of Segovia, like many fortifications in Spain, started off as an Arab fort, which itself was built on a Roman fort. The current royal palace was built in 1152 and was one of the favoured residences of the kings of Castile, and pays homage in its styling and decorations to Spain’s Moorish heritage. This is clearly visible in some of the gold-plated stucco ceilings, and the elaborate reading windows at the front of the fortress.
Our favourite rooms inside the Alcazar were the Hall of Thrones, with its plush red wall hangings, and the Hall of Kings with its many windows.
After exploring the Alcazar of Segovia with our tour group we were then allowed some free time. And oh the joy as the yoke was removed and we were allowed to roam freely through the streets of Segovia’s old town! And so for the next hour, like caged animals newly released to discover the wonders of free range living, we roamed far and wide.
We tried to fit in a day’s worth of exploring in those precious 60 minutes of free time. And though we did manage to see a bit of Segovia’s old town, we definitely didn’t get to see it all or truly immerse ourselves in it. All we really managed to achieve was ascertaining that we would love to visit Segovia again – this time on our own and with more time to spare!
Eventually the time came for us to make our way back to the bus so we could be whisked back to Madrid. As wonderful as the sights were today, being part of a large herd of unthinking tourists (emphasis on the “tour” bit there) almost ruined the experience for us and has just reinforced our preference for independent travel. That’s not to say we’re averse to organised tours, just not BIG group tours. If it’s really too hard to do things by ourselves or if we’d just prefer to have the expertise of a guide for the day, small group tours can be great. The limit for us is around a dozen people – any more than that and the physics of fluid dynamics takes over and the group turns into a mindless mass that can only ever flow in one direction: where ever the guide goes.
Still, even having to share the day with 40 of our new best friends didn’t detract from the wonder of Avila and Segovia, and we’re really glad we got to see them both.