Walking The Medieval Murallas of Ávila

I’d seen the walls from the highway on the way to Madrid – like something out of a period piece, the red roofs of the historic  center spill down from a shallow hill, corralled by more than 80 stone towers. In this city of stones and saints, it’s what puts Ávila on the map.

On a recent trip to visit the city I studied abroad in, I detoured towards Ávila, a small provincial capital nuzzled up to Madrid. This meant backroads past crumbling castles, farmland and hamlets that are but a blip on a little-traversed highway.

Sigh. I love Castilla y León.

Las Murallas de Avila y su Visita

Ávila is a city of stone churches, small plazas and the birthplace of Saint Theresa the Mystic and Saint John of the Cross, founders of the Descalced Carmelites, though the imposing muralla is what I came for (I did light a candle for my abuela at the Church of Saint Theresa while de paso, though).

Construction began under Alfonso VI at the end of the 11th Century, and nearly a millennia later, the entire city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage City, one of thirteen in Spain.  

Western Walls of Avila

Iglesia Santa Teresa, Avila

Avila CollageThe Cathedral of Avila

More than one kilometer of the city walls can be visited – the short tramo from the Puerta del Alcázar around the plaza and to the cathedral, and from Puerta de las Carnicerías around the western side of the old city to Puerta del Puente, at the lowest point of the city. You can also exit at Puerta del Carmen, right next to the Parador de Turismo. One ticket is valid for the entrances at Puerta del Alcázar and Puerta de las Carnicerías.

Walking the City Walls of Avila

The Cathedral of Avila from the City Walls

Puerta del Carmen Avila

Selfie at the Murallas de Avila

Visting the Medieval Walled City of Avila Spain

Leave 90 minutes or so to visit the walls, and don’t miss the numerous Romanesque and Gothic churches within them. Also of note is the museum, convent and church dedicated to Saint Theresa (or the yolk pastries bearing her name). 

If you go: The walls are open daily from 10am, with guided tours available. Tuesdays from 2 to 4pm free. If you have a Carnet Joven, show it with a photo ID for a discounted ticket. Be sure to bring sturdy shoes, as some parts of the walls are hazardous. Regular admission is 5€, reduced 3.50€. If you want a great photo, walk or drive to Los Cuatro Postes, just across the Adaja River.

If you like walks and hikes and old things, you’ll enjoy: The Dubrovnik City Walls | Climbing Teide, Spain’s highest point | Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Have you been to Ávila? More importantly, have you tried ternera de Ávila?!

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla-La Mancha

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain. 

At the risk of breaking my engagement, Castilla-La Mancha only conjures up one thing to me: Don Quijote de la Mancha, the star-crossed lover and would-be knight who is synonymous with Spanish culture. While I can admire Don Alonso’s attempt to bring back chivalry in the early 17th Century, the very thought of him reminds me of high school Spanish class and having to make a video of our own quijote-like adventures (we attacked the rickety jungle gym in my back yard with a stick and made up a parody to a Backstreet Boys song, in case you were wondering).

The expansive region east and southeast of Madrid has quite a few claims to fame besides Quijote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, and the ‘giants’ he fought at Consuegra. I’ve admittedly only been to Toledo for two days, and spent two weeks living in the Monasterio de Uclés, but my hunch is that the medieval architecture, the sunflower fields and the Manchego cheese (yep, it’s from La Mancha, bendito sea) would win me over.

Name: Castilla-La Mancha

Population: 2.1 million

 

Provinces: Five; Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, Guadalajara, Toledo.

When: September 2007, 8th of 17

About Castilla-La Mancha: “Shifting Borders Since 711″ could be the unofficial tourism slogan of this area of Spain. Once part of the the Muslim caliphate in the early 8th century, Christian crusaders slowly fought back and the whole region was eventually unified under the Catholic Crown in that infamous year, 1492. 

During those centuries, the region became known as Castilla la Nueva, a shout out to its cousin, the Kingdom of Castille. This area actually included Madrid, then a small farming village, and its capital was named as Toledo. Under the Catholic Kings, New Castille regained its Christian heritage, giving way for Cervantes to pen sweeping ideas in his famous novel.

In the late 18th century, José Moniño, Count of Floridablanca, redrew county lines, so to speak, creating several comarcas and making Albacete a region of Murcia. It was not until the creation of Autonomous Regions with the 1978 Constitution that Albacete returned home to Castilla-La Mancha, and is now its largest city.

Despite being one of the largest territorial regions, Castilla-La Mancha is sparsely populated (I lived in Uclés, population: 220, for two weeks. We were lucky to have a place to escape from camp food!). Just take the high-speed train between Madrid and Córdoba for proof.

Wine, olives and livestock thrive on the dry plains, and historically La Mancha has been known for agriculture more than industry.

Must-sees: Castilla-La Mancha is home to one of Spain’s former capitals and a heralded city, Toledo. This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for being the Ciudad de las Tres Culturas, or a haven for religious tolerance before Torquemada and the Inquisition rolled around.

In medieval times, Catholics, Jews and Muslims rubbed elbows in the Plaza del Zocodover, and the artistic and cultural legacy is still present. Famed Spanish painter El Greco made this city his home and his artwork remains preserved in his home and workshop near the Tajo Gorge, and the Alcázar’s historical significance is renowned. If you’re in Madrid, make the trip.

The old school windmills at Consuegra are under an hour’s drive from Toledo, and while they’re no longer used, they have whimsical names of knights.

The famous casa colgantes, or hanging houses, of Cuenca are widely known. Built on the gorge of the River Huécar, they’re the main attraction in a town full of noteworthy monuments, churches and museums. Its historic center is also a UNESCO site. 

And wouldn’t you know? Manchego cheese is largely produced in this region of Spain, as is wine and sunflower oil. So eat, drink and be glad you found out about this region. And try Marzipan, a traditional Christmas sweet that is mass-produced in Toledo.

My take: If you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ll know I champion small-town Spain and count food and drink among my favorite things. Toledo is a quick train ride outside of Madrid and an absolute treasure, and you can reach Guadalajara and Cuidad Real in no time. There’s absolutely no reason why you should skip Castilla-La Mancha.

And if you want a Quijote fix without traveling too far, there’s always Alcalá de Henares.

Have you ever visited Castilla-La Mancha? 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León

Love and the Art of Flamenco Guitar Making: A Visit to the Guitarrería Mariano Conde

The sawdust on the floor gave it away: this was actually a living, breathing sort of workshop, not one where the workers are tucked away, out of sight for appearances. My ears perked with each twang of the six strings of a flamenco guitar. There was a few hollow knocks, followed by a bit of sanding.

That’s where the sawdust came from. 

Growing up, I played the clarinet and learned music theory while perfecting trills, scales and my embouchure. Upon taking a flamenco course in Seville, I discovered that I shared the innate rhythm bailaores possess, the internal metronome that allows them to recognize palos and styles, then spiral into dance. My ears picked up the 2/4 and 3/4 counts and set my feet into motion with a firm golpe using my whole foot.

There are three big parts to flamenco – el cante, or the song; el baile, or dance;  el toque, or the guitar. The guitar is what accompanies  the cante, and sets rhythm to the bailaor. 

To learn about how flamenco guitars are crafted, Tatiana took us to the Mecca of guitarras flamencasGuitarrería Mariano Conde. Tucked away from the Ópera area on Calle de la Amnistía, this workshop has existed since 1915 and is operated by a third-generation craftsman and his son. 

Mariano hardly looked up from his work as he welcomed us into the bi-lever taller. He was sanding down the intoxicating curves of a flamenco guitar, crafted from cyprus and a century-old design. There was a muttered holaaaaa bienvenidas and a quick dos besos for Tatiana as she led us downstairs into the dimly lit belly of the shop. 

The tools of the trade stood against the wall – picks, sanders, measuring sticks, protractors. Nearly two dozen guitars in various stages of development, each showing just a fraction of the work that goes into crafting a lightweight flamenco guitar. In all, about 300 hours of labor go into producing a single instrument.

Mariano descended the stairs, carrying a soundboard over his shoulder. Made of thin strips of cypress or spruce, this part of the guitar provides for the reverberation and the sound that is transmitted when strings get plucked. Once this part of the guitar has been crafted, the sideboards are affixed, followed by the fretboard, or neck.

Just as a painter signs the bottom of a masterpiece, Mariano’s signature comes by way of the carving on the top of each fretboard – his is a minute, gently sloping “M.”

Many of the guitars we saw were in their final stages of production – applying coat after coat of French shellac, drying, or ready for the strings and bridge to be attached. Around the sound hole, Mariano adds another signature of his workshop, one which is solely dedicated to flamenco guitars: the rosette.

Made from carved and dyed pieces of wood, the color and pattern of rosettes changes regularly, and his current design pays homage to the first generation of flamenco guitar craftsmen in his family. The costs begin at 2800€ and rise steadily from there, depending on the wood used and hours of craftsmanship.

Unless, of course, it’s a Sonata.

A list of about 30 names of guitars, named for the poems that accompany the tag, are specially crafted for famous names in flamenco (including the recently deceased flamenco great, Paco de Lucía) and specialty buyers, including musicians who do not perform in the flamenco style. The Sonata guitars are pricey, but done solely by el maestro himself.

Mariano himself was hospitable, answering my questions between teens looking to replace nylon strings and other curious buyers who walked into the shop.

To say the Conde Hermanos, sobrinos de Domingo Esteso, are household names when it comes to flamenco guitars, would be an understatement. I’m not a flamenco aficionado, but can appreciate the discipline and attention it take to perfect an art, be it el cante or el baile or el toque.

The Art of Making, Alma Flamenca from Deep Green Sea on Vimeo.

I visited Guitarrería Mariano Conde as part of the ‘Origins of Flamenco’ tour with OGO Tours. Check out their website for loads more, from food to walking tours to excursions. Javier and Tatiana graciously invited my friend and I free of charge, but all opinions are my own.

If you’re interested in more Madrid and flamenco: My Perfect Madrileño Day | Mercado San Miguel | Where to see flamenco in Seville

Do you like Flamenco?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla y León

 Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

Finally, after six months, we’ve hit my first taste of Spain – a taste that is as tender as a suckling roast pig, as fiery as a robust glass of red wine and something that, honestly, feel like home to me.

In May 2005, I studied abroad in Valladolid, the de facto capital of Castilla y León and one-time capital of Spain. It’s where Cervantes, Columbus and Torquemada once called home. It may not have the monuments, the vibrant culture ubiquitous to Spain, the soaring skyscrapers – but that’s what I liked about it. 

Andalusia means so much to me, but it all started in Old Castille. 

 Name: Castilla y León

Population: 2.5 million

Provinces: Nine: Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid, Zamora. 

When: May 2005, 1st of 17

About Castilla y León: Castilla y León is the largest of the 17 autonomous communities (close to one-fifth of its landmass!), and one of its most illustrious. It was here that marriages (and thus kingdoms) joined and saints roamed, where scholars changed the face of modern Castillian Spanish, and where cities practically shine gold.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

So, let’s start from the beginning.

Despite having been inhabited for a millennia, the modern-day Castille and León was born out of the marriage of two monarchs. The Leonese crown had long been stronger and held more land, though at the beginning of the second millennia, their power began to wane, losing the kingdoms of Galicia and Portugal, along with their prestige. 

In 1230, the kingdoms became one when Castillian King Ferdinand III ascended to the vacant Leonés crown. These two crowns would fight independently in the Reconquest, eventually defeating Muslim taifas, though not before the Catholic kings – among the best-known Spanish monarchs of all time – send Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. Castilla has long been known for its scholarly and democratic traditions, which include being the region responsible for spreading castellano Spanish, as well as the first place where a curia, or public forum to address issue affecting the pueblo, was held.

In fact, Valladolid was the capital of Spain for five years in the early 17th century.

Among illustrious castellanos are El Cid Campeador, Felipe II (my favorite Spanish king with his funny hat), Santa Teresa de Ávila, Miguel Delibes, San Juan de la Cruz, Adolfo Suárez, and even former prime minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Must-sees: Oh geez, where to start. I started, of course, in Valladolid, though there isn’t much to see in the capital city. There’s the national sculpture museum, a contemporary art center, a beautiful Plaza Mayor and a smattering of churches, though I spent most of my free time at the manmade beach on the Pisuerga River and at a bar called Sotobanco.

Skip Vdoid and head to the other treasures in the province, including nearby Peñafiel and its castle, which now hosts a wine museum. Castilla y León has a few protected wine regions, including Ribera del Duero and Toro – two of my personal favorites.

Castilla y León has six UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other region in the world, and several are a quick day trip from Madrid: the old cities of Ávila, Salamanca and Segovia (plus its aqueduct), the Gothic cathedral of Burgos, the old Roman gold mines at Las Médulas (check out Trevor’s post and pictures) and the archaeological remains of Atapuerca, near Burgos. This, plus the numerous pilgrim routes that cut through CL and eventually lead to Santiago de Compostela.

Castles are a prominent feature in Castilla y León – like in Ireland, they’re practically everywhere and there are rumored to be around 300 of them. Check out the Templar castle in Ponferrada, Segovia’s fairytale-like Alcázar and Castillo de la Mota in Medina del Campo, which was a prominent fortress in the Battle of Castille. You’ll also only find Gaudí outside of Cataluña in León and Astorga, where a beautiful palace lies along the French Way of Saint James.

Food is also a huge reason why Castilla y León shines. Apart from wine, Castilla produces a number of specialty meats, including morcilla de arroz in Burgos and roast suckling pig, pungent cheeses and milk, and is the largest producer of grains in Iberia. Cracker giant Cuétara is based in Aguilar del Campoo (not a typo), near Galicia, and with reason – there is nothing but fields around! Be sure to check out León’s Barrio Húmedo for free tapas, as well – I once at a croqueta de pizza pepperoni! You can also pick up sweets in Ávila that throwback to the town’s famous saint, Santa Teresa the Mystic.

The cities themselves are lovely, from the golden hue of Salamanca, a city famous for its university and Lazarillo de Tormes, to León’s juxtaposition of Gaudí palaces and humble stone homes. Burgos’s old town shines and Ávila’s fortified stone walls are still intact.

My take: If you’re a history or language buff, you have to get to Castilla y León sí o sí. If you love wine and meat and cheese, head out there. If you love churches, castles, rivers, limestone villages… you get it. 

To me, Castilla y León is more Spain than Andalucía. Call me crazy, but it’s the Spain I fell in love with nearly a decade ago, and the Spain that beckoned me back. Andalucía is flamboyant where Castilla is demure, yet a bit coy. And the wine… 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria

Have you been to Castilla y León? What were your impressions of it? Cue Kaley and Cassandra chiming in now...

Spain Snapshots: The Guadalupe Monastery of Cáceres

Many great places in Spain are seeped in legends, mentioned in texts or venerated by the insane queues at its ticket offices (I’m looking at you, Alhambra). 

For me, the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe was an obscure monastery and the name of many females, little more than a blip on a map in the wild back country of Extremadura. I figured it was worth a detour on our way to Trujillo.

Then came this:

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Turns out, I have something in common with this particular image of the Virgin Mary (besides my birthday being on the day of her ascension into heaven): we both made a pilgrimage to Guadalupe from Seville of 320 kilometers. When she arrived, though, she was buried next to the Guadalupe River and not discovered until the late 12th Century.

On that very spot, a humble chapel was erected and eventually converted into one of Spain’s most important (and arguably most stunning) monasteries.

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to pray.

While we weren’t on a religious pilgrimage, really, I’m slowly ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off of my Spain list, and Guadalupe is listed as such. We joined the last tour of the day after getting lost in teeny towns on nearly abandoned highways, many of which bear names that were later given to cities in the New World, like Valdivia, where we devoured fried calamari sandwiches.

Tours to Guadalupe’s cloisters, treasury, church, religious art museum and sacristy can only be done on a guide tour in Spanish, which leave on the hour. As the monk droned on about artistic heritage, I stole into the Gothic cloistered courtyard.

As we had joined the last tour of the day, an elderly monk showed us through the sacristy, painted in its entirety by Zurburán, and invited us to the room that held one of three black Madonnas. The soaring chamber had frescoes of Catholicism’s most famous female saints, relics in every wall and a small turnstile that allowed the three women on my tour named Guadalupe to kiss the hands of the veneration.

They, like Columbus and Cervantes before them, had come to pray in front of the woman who gave them their name and ask for her eternal protection.

As it turns out, the 60 minutes we’d budgeted for the monastery stretched to nearly two hours, meaning we were late to meet Angela from Trujillo Villas, but a night in a cozy palace-turned-vacation-home has us back on the right track the following morning before visiting Yuste and the gorgeous hamlet of Garganta la Olla.

Have you ever been to Extremadura?

A Tenerife Road Trip

There is no greater freedom than windows down, music up and open road. On a recent trip to Tenerife – a volcanic island in the Atlantic that resembles a flat-based bowling pin and boasts Spain’s highest point, hosts a bustling tourism scene and is packed with colonial history. We rented a car from Hertz to see as much as possible during my quick weekend break. Over a day and a half, we made a huge loop around the island, hitting major cities and natural sites while skipping the heavily-touristed South End.

I left the planning to Julie and Forrest. As locals, they had clued me into what we’d be doing, eating, climbing and drinking. For was even going to take care of the driving.

The Novio and I rented a car when we were on Gran Canaria about six years ago, zigzagging around this near-perfect circular island – there is really no other way to see the islands. 

Day One

Santa Cruz del Puerto

Julie and Forrest live in the island’s capital, right near the port. Julie grew up in La Coruña, right near the port, and despite living a year in Seville, craves the water. She gave me a primer to the city’s few historical sites as we walked through lush urban gardens and decided that having a beer and catching up would serve us better.

The following morning, we were eager to get a start on the day. The majority of the island’s tourism heads to the south, where discos nuzzle up to the black sand beaches and there are holiday package hotels on the primera línea of every inch of beach. Our road trip on the TF-5 would take us to the northern tip of the island’s sites.

Teide

From Santa Cruz, take the T-5 towards La Laguna to the T-24 to the Teide National Park

The Megane climbed steadily through the birch trees towards the geographic center of the island. One of the biggest things on my Tenerife must-dos was seeing El Teide, a volcano which doubles as Spain’s highest point and one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island. The whole national park was mind-blowing, given that the landscape was positively lunar, dry and stunk of sulfur.

We paid to take the gondola up the view-point, which faces the southeast side of Tenerife and the island of Gran Canaria, but also got special permission to access the peak via foot. It was a steep, hot climb, but well worth the views.

La Orotava

From the park entrance, take the roundabout towards T-21, snaking down the mountain until you reach La Orotava.

After a morning of hiking on only a coffee, Forest directed the car towards the western side of the island, known for its wine crop and misty weather. As the clouds rolled off of Teide’s peak, we were left with a rainy, cloudy afternoon.

For lunch, we stopped at a guachinche, or a family run restaurant and winery. For the bargain price of 25€, we feasted on local cheeses and sausages, drank the family’s fruity wine and shared stories of living in Spain.

Puerto de la Cruz

Hop back on the T-5 to exit 32 to T-31 and follow the signs to the center of town.

We probably could have served to get rolled down the volcano to Puerto de la Cruz from the guachinche, but a quick car ride found us in Puerto, the north’s holiday-maker capital. This seaside village was once known for its stately Canarian palaces, but the center of town is overrun with German tourists nowadays. Puerto is also home to Loro Parque, the island’s best-advertised attraction, so it was difficult to not feel strangled by mass tourism.

We bee-lined straight for the black sand beach of Playa Jardín and walked around its old fishing neighborhood, La Ranilla, characterized by brightly colored facades and seafood restaurants. 

The center of town was crawling with people on a market day, so we found a terrace with ecological products for a quick coffee. It almost looked like a Canarian Disney Land – built up colonial houses with wooden balconies, small shops brimming with mojo picón and local wine and botanical plants lining the skinny roads. 

El Sauzal

Rejoin the T-5 to exit 21 and join the TF-172.

As night fell, Julie promised me a drink and a view. In their weekend travels on Tenerife, she and Forest had found a gorgeous terrace bar in the town of El Sauzal, a small blip of a town that seemed to drip down the side of a mountain.

The menu at Terraza del Sauzal was full of food and drink choices, and I settled on a Campari orange margarita. We watched the sun stain the sky pink, then dip into the ocean until the next day.

Day Two

Mirador de las Teresitas

Follow the port towards the northern tip of the island.

The following morning, we followed the road leading out-of-town towards the Anaga peninsula and nature reserve, keeping the port on our right-hand side. Immediately leaving the town of San Andrés, the road climbs to the Mirador de las Teresitas, a viewing point high above a beach of the same name.

The cliff is covered in graffiti and is apparently a sort of drug den, but that morning, we could see across the port to the capital, as well as Teide in the distance, peeking out of the clouds. Playa de las Gaviotas stretch under us on the other side.

I had only a few hours before my flight back to the mainland, so we hopped back in the car and sped towards San Cristóbal de Laguna, a colonial town nestled between two mountains.

San Cristobal de la Laguna

Take the T-5 out of the capital, towards the Tenerife Norte airport.

Apparently airport architects made a huge X on a map of the island as to where NOT to put an international airport, but Tenerife North was built anyway. The wind tunnel where La Laguna, as it’s known locally, sits was windy but sunny and warm for a March day.

The well-preserved historic center is the island’s other UNESCO site and is entirely pedestrian, crowned with a university and the Catedral de La Laguna. While there was plenty of history just under the glossy surface of La Laguna, we decided on beer and a few light tapas.

A few hours later, Forest dropped me off at the airport, and Julie made me promise to come back so we could do the Southern half of Tenerife. For a girl who has lived in four different cities and four different autonomías in Spain, Tenerife must be pretty special if she’s decided to stay on just one more year.

Like road trips? Check out my other posts: Montenegro // La Rioja // Understanding Spain’s Driving Laws

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