Kirk's Mad Madrid Month travel blog

My first glimpse at the walls of Avila

A slightly different angle, showing how far into the distance the wall...

You can see in the middle of the picture one of the...

Yours truly in front of the wall.

Close up view of the same gate. Only cars can fit through,...

Basilica of Saint Vincent from the staircase

Puerta (gate) de San Vincente

The main entrance into the basilica

Looking from the entrance towards the altar. Notice the gothic arches

A relic just prior to the altar.

The main altar

Altar piece on right hand side of the naive.

The relic. Notice the keys on the upper section, and above that,...

A view of the Basilica from outside.

At the gates of Saint Vincent, looking in to the town.

Plaza Mayor, Avila style.

The way up to the walls of the city.

House (church) of Saint Teresa

The main altar piece inside the house of Saint Teresa

Small chapel, with altar showing Saint Teresa, on one knee before god

Famous lead light window. Many churches in Leon had similiar themes

Outside the city wall near house of Saint Teresa. The walls are...

Narrow streets in Avila. Barely room for cars

A view from the bus as we head away from Avila

Aqueduct in the distance.

Yep, it's big. 30m up to the top level.

Off into the distance....Unbelievable how big it is & how long it's...

Church of San Millan, built in the early 1100s

Cathedral of Segovia

Plaza Mayor.

Altar inside Cathedral of Segovia

The choir inside Cathedral of Segovia

The altar of San Antonio - patron saint of Segovia. Look at...

Leading outside the church to the museum (didn't go in there). Love...

Foot of the Cathedral, over the choir to the apse. Looks smaller...

Just before entering the gardens of the Alcazar

Just before entering the Alcazar gardens, looking towards the castle.

The tower of King John II in the foreground of the Alcazar

I think the picture looks better without the people in it.

Looking across where the moat would be from the drawbridge

Looking the opposite side from the drawbridge

Looking down into the moat. It's a long way

This is one of the more popular attractions. Groups heading into the...

One of the knights in the first room

See the child size suits of armor on the left

Looking from the dining area, into the hall.

Dining room. The cabinet in the far left is the original

For his and her majesty.....

The photo doesn't do it justice. The craftsman ship was amazing.

Looking from the throne itself, to the right you'd see this.

Another side of the throne room.

The guards were tiny, but their weapons were sharp.

This hall is under restoration, but has a nice fresco at the...

Outside the hall window. The church on the right was built by...

Outside the windows of the long hall. Looking towards Monastery of El...

Comfy but small looking bed.

The chambers. The sculptures above went the whole way around the room.

A close up view of some of the faces.

This room joined the chambers to the abbey.

Out the window of the small room, looking down at the river.

On the terrace, looking up at the main tower.

The well is in the middle of the "ships bow"

There were a few people down the stairs leading to the tower....

Here's that guy ruining the photo again.

Taken from the very point of the terrace. See how small the...

Inside the armory tower.

Some more suits of armor, and cross bows on the wall.

Me attempting an arty shot. Fountain with King John II tower

From outside the Alcazar grounds, looking back toward the cathedral

El Escorial - the Valley of the Fallen.

I woke up nice and early this morning to make my way to the Plaza Espana and the Julia travel agency, where I have a birthday present awaiting for me. Ali has arranged for me to go to Avila and Segovia, probably after hearing me talking about how I'd love to see them both 100 times in Melbourne after my very brief visit to Spain last year.

The first port of call was the small town of Avila, and a bit of a history lesson from the tour guide Arturos. He said today we would be a small reminder of how the Muslims used to have control of the Iberian peninsula, and how this part of the world was also a part of the Roman Empire. We left the city by driving past the hotel (wish they could have picked me up) through the district in Madrid which is called Araveca, which is an upper class area (at least until I arrived). The area was the front line of Madrid during the Spanish civil war. Most of the buildings were levelled during this time apparently, which is amazing that they've been built back so quickly, with a focus in some parts on maintaining the architectural style.

As we left the main part of Madrid, driving past the "West Park and the Air Force Headquarters, we were confronted by one of the many victory arches in the city. This one though seems a bit distasteful, as it was built by the leader of the Nationalists who won the Civil war, Fransisco Franco. It was finished in the mid 1950's, and as we drove past, I noticed graffiti & posters promoting the protests against the current government.

A few minutes later we sped past the Prime Ministers palace, which had very little security outside the building. In comparison with the Australian and English residences for their Prime Ministers, it was a huge surprise, particularly with all the protests going on.

A little further out, and we were in the outer suburbs of Madrid, where some of the wealthier people live (those who want houses, rather than apartments in the CBD). There was quite a bit of green here, in comparison to the rest of the outer suburbs, which are covered in dry brown grass and shrubs. Fairly soon, this was replaced with mountains and much fewer and fewer houses.

Arturo took a bit of time to talk about the wars against the Muslims, and how these mountains basically became a bit of a front in the 800 years of war between the two forces. The Muslims were for most of the time, south of these mountains, whilst the Catholic Iberians were north of them.

Early on, in 790ad, the only parts of the Iberian peninsula were the North West, areas known by many as Galicia (roughly North of where Portugal is) and Asturia (east of Galicia), which at the time stretch a little bit further to the east than Pamplona. At this time, the Iberian Peninsula was called Al-Andalus. The terms "Al" and "Guad" (river or Guadi meaning Valley) were arabic terms, which to this day still permeate through much of Spanish culture. Many streets and towns are still derivative of these prefixes. Alicante, Alcala and the term alcazar for example and Guadalupe, Guadalajara, etc.

Food was also influenced by the Moors, who refused to eat pig. Because this was something they would not touch, it left it to the Iberians, who now treasure pork in their diets. Also many desserts which have honey or sugar in Spain, are derivative of the Moorish period.

This was important to know, as Avila (now the capital city of the principality called Castile-Leon), was a town which was deeply affected by the Moorish kingdom and the Romans. Before the ancients Romans conquered the town, it was called "Obila", meaning high mountain. It didn't look too high to me however. Later, the Romans called the town Abila. From here the town became owned by the Visigoths, who had control of the city until it was taken by arabic forces. They had control of the city until mid way through the 10th Century. It was strategically in a good place to defend from, being on a hill (mountain). The Christians attacked the town from the North many times before it fell. After it was taken, it stayed largely unpopulated, until 1090, when the construction of the city walls was undertaken.

As we approached the city, we passed the suburbs which are outside the city walls, which have a similiar design to Carcasonne in France apparently. The city walls stretch for nearly 3km around the city. The walls are nearly 3m thick, and there's 88 towers from which the town could be defended. Most of the wall is 12m high. There's also 9 gates, 2 of which are the main entrances to the city. They have 2 very large towers either side of the city, which stand about 20m high.

After we went past the outer suburbs, the road did a big circle, and in the distance, we saw them standing proudly. It's a very imposing site, and I can only imagine how much larger they would have felt to people at the time. Maybe due to the incredible size or maybe purely by luck, the town was never attacked again after the walls were created.

We stopped just outside the city at a road house, with a threat of use the bathrooms now, or decline at your peril. There would be no toilet inside the city for us to use. I made a quick stop, as I saw a lookout across the road from where the bus had pulled up, which looked perfect for a photo opportunity. I asked someone at the lookout to take a picture for me (rare for this trip!).

The town was just across a valley, which had a small river run through it. The river was crossed by a bridge built by the ancient romans, however nowadays there is a 2 lane bridge for traffic to cross. The roman bridge is closed to traffic so it can be preserved.

The bus crossed the bridge and drove around the face of the walls, until we got to a small place for the bus to park.

We took a short walk up a stair case, until we got to the Basilica of Saint Vincent, which coincidently enough is opposite the Puerta de San Vincente (Gates of Saint Vincent). We had a look around inside, and there was some nice architecture. The church was started as Romanesque, but morphed a bit into a gothic inside with it's arches. The church was built (allegedly) on the site where Saint Vincent was martyred (along with 2 others I can't remember). Apparently they were buried in the rock. A wealthy jewish man was rumoured to have mocked the story, and he was attacked by a snake, which come out of a rock. He built the cathedral after converting to catholicism.

From the church we took a walk through the city gates, and though the small town. We stopped midway in their version of Plaza Mayor, which had some pretty buildings around it. We then continued to the other significant site in the city - the house of Saint Teresa. The house of Saint Teresa is now a church, which was built on the site of her house.

She was born into a wealthy family, and was always attracted to the church. She went to try become a Martyr at the hands of the moors at a young age, but was returned to the city by her father. She was caught at a site, which was called "Los Cuatro Postes", which means the 4 posts. Apparently, I found out, that was the lookout where I had my picture taken.

She eventually joined a convent (which was fairly common for women in Spain prior to marriage), called the Carmelites.

Teresa did not believe the Carmelite lifestyle was all it should be, when she entered. She found that many of the young women - who had come from wealthy families - spent most of their time not in spiritual endeavours, but experiencing many things which a nun should not. She spent a lot of her time in deep spiritual study, where she avoided all worldly pleasures. This wasn't to reject where she had come from, or as a direct criticism of others, but she considered it a way for her to reach salvation. Her rigid believes in this way of life called "asceticism" led her to create a doctrine for others to follow. She then spent her life trying (and succeeding) to reform the Carmelites.

She was said to have had 2 visions, which contributed to her being canonized. One of which was she was at the foot of some stairs, and a baby appeared. The baby is said to have been the baby jesus. This image has been captured on many windows in churches across Castile-Leon since. Another vision she had, was that an angel pierced her through the heart and body with a spear, pulling her entrails out of her body, leaving her with a great love for god. (I know if someone pierced my heart, I wouldn't have a great love for their boss, but hey, that's just me!)

When she died, her autopsy showed she had a hole in her heart. Many believe this was caused by the angel that day she had the vision.

After the visit to the church, we went to the museum in the adjacent building, to see some of the sacred artefacts. We weren't allowed to take pictures here, but on display was a piece of wood (like a small railway sleeper), which she used as a pillow. Also on display was her right hand ring finger, and some of the manuscripts she had written. If being made a saint means you have parts of your body cut off and put in glass jars for people to look at several hundred years later, I plan to sin as much as possible.

After the museum, we walked back to the bus, and started our trip to Segovia. The trip was going to take nearly an hour, and we were told this was a perfect time for a siesta (apparently included free of charge in the tour package). It would have been fantastic, except Arturos spent 25 mins telling us what we would do when we got to Segovia, and what we could eat for lunch. I was lucky that my lunch was included in the tour package - the "gastronomic" option.

Segovia was also built on a mountain\hill, with a valley surrounding it. A short distance from the town, standing proudly above all other buildings, is the Cathedral of Segovia. The town itself had a celtic-iberian name when it originated "Segobriga". Which is made up of two words, Sego - "victory" or "success" and briga - which means "city". So, the city is really the Victory city. Segovia is about 1hr from Madrid (30min by high speed train), and is a common place for people from Madrid to visit on the weekend, as it is slightly cooler than Madrid, due to its higher altitude.

The city was owned by the Celts until 75BC, when it was taken by the Romans. Early in this time, the Romans built a lookout tower, which was the precursor structure for the Alcazar I was looking forward to visit. The bus pulled in at the bottom of the hill, and in the distance along the main street, I could see the Roman Aqueduct. Even from this distance, about 1.5km away, it looked huge.

We walked along the city towards the aqueduct, and instantly, things felt very different to Madrid. Avila was a bit the same, but it was small - it felt like a little village. Segovia felt like a small city, but the pace of the city seemed slower, more relaxed. The heat of Madrid was not there, it was about 27 degrees, as opposed to the high 30s of Madrid.

As we got close to the aqueduct, which was not towering above me, the gypsies started approaching, trying to sell us clothing and what appeared to be a lottery ticket. I'm guessing it had last weeks winning numbers on it too.

I stopped and looked up at the aqueduct, and walked around the plaza, to try see just how far across the city it expands. It was built in the 1st century AD and completed around the start of the 2nd century under Emporer Trajan (he had a few monuments in Rome that I saw in 2010). It carries water from a river about 16km away. The visible part that I could see in front of me was about 800m long and 30m high (so we were told), and has no mortar or binding materials in between the stone. Instead, smaller stones were cut and fit into the gaps, so that it did not move.

The aqueduct is in impeccable condition at the moment. It was damaged in the mid 9th century in the wars against the Muslims. It was restored in the 15th-16th century. However, it is supposedly under threat from 21st century transport, which is causing vibrations and potentially making it unstable. I hope that Spain can get enough money to keep it in healthy condition. Supposedly Amex has funded part of its restoration, as well as a worldwide fund to maintain historical monuments. This is supposed to be the best kept Roman aqueduct in the world. I could believe it. I hope it stays this way.

We took a small break from site seeing to experience some culture at this point. A small group of us got taken down a road near the aqueduct to a restaurant. We went up a few flights of narrow stairs, and into the main restaurant area. I was seated at a table with 3 others, all in their 50-60s. One was a lady from Argentina, who promptly asked me if I spoke spanish (in Spanish). I said sorry, only a little. She shook her head and turned away. The other two were a couple from Mexico. They were incredibly friendly. Their son was working somewhere in Noosa, which they told me after they found out I was Australian.

The couple made sure that I was kept in the loop of the conversation, particularly the gent, who would stop the conversation and say "What we are talking about is...."

We discussed parts of South America, particularly Uruguay and Argentina, which sound like lovely places to visit.

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, we were given a traditional stew, which was called "Judiones de La Granja" (beans from la granja). The stew had big white beans, chorizo sauasage, and bits of pork (apparently the ears and feet). It was very creamy and did taste nice.

The main meal was something I was told was a delicacy of the region, and I was pretty excited and a bit apprehensive about. It was called Cochinillo, or roasted suckling pig. Apparently it is a very old dish, where they take a baby pig, and roast it (making the skin nice and crispy) and then they cut it up and serve. I was a bit worried they'd bring the whole pig to the table. I can put meat in my mouth, provided it doesn't look like the animal it came from. Luckily for me, it was pre cut before it was brought to the table. They served it with tongs and put pieces down on your plate.

They gave you a knife and fork of course to eat it with, but the knife was redundant. It was really not needed for this meal, as it was so tender and juicy. I used the knife to push meat off the bone, and let it fall on the plate. It melted in my mouth - no need to chew.

Lastly, they brought a dessert which was a small cake called Ponche Segoviano. It was a cake which had been soaked in honey, and dusted with icing sugar. There was another little cake as well, and a bit of ice cream to cool us off. We finished lunch (couldn't eat anymore without over indulging and making myself sick), and then headed up to the plaza mayor, to the Cathedral of Segovia. I had a grand total of 7 minutes to get there, and it was supposed to be a 10 min walk. So, I had to put the after burners on. That was a bit of a shame, as I'd have loved to walk slowly through the streets and take it all in.

I eventually got to the cathedral, just a minute or so before the tour guide, and he pointed out the town square behind us, Queen Isabella I received her coronation. It was hastily arranged, as she was not by the "laws" of the time, the natural heir to the throne. Luckily for Spain this was done, as her and her husband Ferdinand were very successful in completing the reconquista (reclaiming and repopulating the iberian peninsula).

So, with the little history lesson behind us, we were told the story of the cathedral. At the time it was first started, around 1525, many of the main cities of Spain had cathedrals. The townsfolk were all adamant that they needed one to be considered a serious town, and demanded a gothic style cathedral, like the other great cities. Of course, the gothic style was slowly phasing out at the time, which makes the fact that it took nearly 300 years to complete all the more remarkable. It is a monstrous building, and quite remarkable to look at on the outside.

On the inside though, you're made aware of the fact that the money had run out during the building. Before it started, Toledo was the capital. By the time it finished, Madrid was the capital of Spain. When Madrid was made the capital, a lot of government money was directed to it, to make it look and feel worthy of being a capital. Apparently this has been at the detriment to the cathedral, which has many sculptures around the chapels, which look like they are made of marble. Unfortunately, they are made from a plastic substance and are hollow, demonstrated when Arturo walked up and knocked on the virgin Mary sculpture with his hand. He said that the cathedral still asks for money to complete the fit out of the chapels, but so far had been ignored. Maybe tomorrow he says.

The choir sits in the middle of the cathedral, which is very different to many other cathedrals, which has the choir around the altar. The affect that it has in the Segovian cathedral, is that it breaks up the space, and makes it look smaller on the inside than it really is.

We left the cathedral with one last tale. The bell tower had an accident when there was a very large earthquake in Portugal. The earthquake caused the bell to snap from it's structure, and crash to the floor below, damaging the bell tower. It has since been reconstructed more like the towers in Notre Dame (flatter and square) rather than the tall narrow gothic spire many other churches have.

We then made our way to the Alcazar, and I must admit I was a bit tired, but still excited. We walked down some narrow cobblestone streets, past the Jewish and muslim quarters. We went passed a Carmelite convent, which had a tribute to Saint Teresa in Spanish on its facade.

Towards the bottom of the hill, we found a plaza, and a gate with some lovely gardens in them. We started walking through the gardens, and out of no where, came the almighty Alcazar. Arturo went to go get the tickets, and my Mexican friend took a picture of me, and I returned the favour. We got our tickets and then walked up to where the drawbridge opened across the chasm below. It's quite a long way down, and shows why it was such a great place for a fortified castle to be built. As I mentioned before, it started as a lookout tower, and transformed over time into the "Alcazar" (royal residence) we see today. In the late 1800s the castle almost completely burnt down, after having been used as a prison and then later a artillery school.

Inside we entered into a large room with several suits of armor. Unfortunately, some of our american tourist friends couldn't read the "do not touch" signs and decided to play with the suits of armor, bending them into different stances and shaking hands. Some of the suits were for children, and others were full sets with knights on armored horses. Very scary looking.

In the next room was the dining area. The chairs in the room were recreations, as the original furniture was damaged (probably in the fire, although how was never mentioned).

It was a very detailed room. There was a large chest of draws in the corner, which was nearly 600 years old.

The next room was a little darker, and had the thrones for the King and Queen. The roof was a beautiful arabic design, very intricate. Apparently the arabs were hired to do similiar designs in other places, including remarkably, Jewish synagogues.

After the throne room, we entered into a long hall, which was still being restored. On the sides of the room were some magnificent views of the countryside. At the end was a frescoe on the wall, which I tried to capture in photos. From here we went into a small hall, and then into a very dark bedroom. The bedroom had some incredibly old tapestries, which again, were a perfect place for some tourists to wipe their sweaty hands. Grrr.

The room after this seemed like a room of government. Above the walls, were sculptures of many different monarchs. It was incredible to look at. My jaw dropped when I walked through. There was also some more windows to look across the landscape.

The last two rooms we looked through, was a small sitting room, and the abbey inside the castle. The abbey had a small altar, and didn't have much natural light.

To get some natural light, we walked outside onto what I'd have to say is a terrace. It was surrounded by ramparts, which I had to walk to and look over the edge from. Falling from here would be instant death, as you'd crash down the cliff face below. On the terrace was a well, which had been installed to keep the inhabitants from loosing their water supply in case of a siege. At the tip of the triangular shaped terrace (like the bow of a ship) was a guard tower, and off to one side of the terrace was a very narrow walk way and another guard tower. My mexican friends got a picture of me with the tower in the background. I couldn't spend much time here either unfortunately, as Arturo said we had 10mins to look here, and in the armory inside, then get to the courtyard where we entered. I also wanted to look in the gift shop, to try get some souvenirs.

After getting my souvenirs, I went outside and waited for the group. We had a 15 minute walk back to the bus - all down hill. We got back on the bus, a bit tired and thirsty, and headed back to Madrid. On the way, we passed near El Escorial, and in particular we could see the "Valley of the fallen", which is marked by a very large cross. Those lost in the Spanish Civil war were buried in this area. This too has an interesting background, but I'd have to do a different tour for that.

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