If you’re a traveler who cringes at tourist-trap plazas laced with performance artists and trendy, instagramable restaurants adorned with fake florals, Ávila may be your solace. A town nestled in the province of Castilla-La Mancha, Ávila exudes old-world medieval character, stripped-down beauty, and religious grandeur, being the birthplace of St. Teresa. Ávila will not check all of your boxes if you are seeking a more typical, hedonistic trip to Spain replete with sunshine, sangria, and nightly Spanish guitar shows (cue the film Vicky Cristina Barcelona) - but I promise it's worth the visit.
My first impression of Avila was rose-colored from the beginning. The day was cloudy, a chill in the air imbuing the trip with mystery and intrigue as we boarded the train out northwest from Madrid. On the two hour trip, our eyes were treated to cows grazing verdant grass, horses flirting with each other in vast fields, towns nestled in dense forest, and snow-glazed mountain tops in the distance. My boyfriend, Pepe, and I hopped off the train at half past noon, the ten-degree drop in temperature from Madrid biting us teasingly (49 degrees in April), and rain droplets kissing our heads. After unloading bags in our hotel a bit of a trek from the town’s center, we took a bus back to town and ambled around the quaint streets, marvelling at its bare-boned, quiet beauty, our stomachs rumbling audibly.
After a quick Yelp search for the best restaurants in town, we approach the stairs up to Los Candiles. We are turned away, but are prudent enough to reserve a table for the next day. Our bones chilled, we turned some corners and our eyes wandered up to a nondescript deli: Mesón Gredos. Upon entry, I was immediately comforted by the chili peppers, garlic, and jamón knotted together adorning the walls and banister like Christmas garlands. “Donde quereis,” the chaval behind the deli counter assures us, gesturing us to sit wherever we desire upstairs. As we walk up the winding staircase to the second floor, I am once again convinced that best restaurants in Spain make you feel as though you are walking into someone’s dining room. We sit down at a table in the corner, dining with about two other families in the intimate space.
For a mere 18 euros each, we share a bottle of Rioja and a three-course meal. Our first pick is clear-cut: judías del barco to warm our bones, which is served boiling in a clay pot, steam dancing up to warm my face. The salty chorizo paired with savory broth and juicy beans is sinfully scrumptious. Pepe orders patatas revolconas topped with pork belly, and I’m awestruck that his head-sized appetizer is only course one of three. We then slowly savor our second course: his a red-wine glazed beef, mine a thin entrecot with papas fritas. Our young waitress carries a surly, tired look about her. I could sense that she'd been working at this family business as soon as she was old enough and wished to be whisked away like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She asks if we want a postre. Pepe looks at me and coaxes, “puede que quepa uno, no?” We decide on the cheesecake, hands down the best I’d ever had: savory, spongey, dense and light at the same time, testament to an unshakeable family recipe.
Bellies bursting at the seams, we embark on a walk across the town, its cozy streets inviting us to fall into a carefree pace. There are stunning churches on every corner, many so tall that your head cranes to see the top of it. After knocking on many ancient locked doors, we decide the siesta is a true institution here and continue onwards. Pepe declares, “I swear if we find a warm church, I will believe in God.” We find the square of Santa Teresa and to our surprise, the church doors aren’t locked. We enter and find St. Teresa’s humble shrine in the back left corner of the church, complete with a replica of her bedroom as a little girl. We sit down together on the back pew and watch as other tourists enter and marvel at the adornments of her shrine - heavy gold plastered on all four walls from the bottom to the top, complete with a beautiful porcelain sculpture of her. Once our respects were paid, we headed out to find our next destination: the cathedral. The town is so charmingly small no maps were needed - we were able to find our way following our noses.
If you visit Ávila, a must-do is the Catedral de Ávila. Although it possesses just an ounce of the fame Notre Dame does, I found it just as prodigious, or even more so. As its construction started in 1095 and finished in 1475, it is gothic in every sense of the word: cold and cavernous stone walls, grandiose wheel chandeliers, harboring illuminating candles, a dome ceiling that is worth craning your neck to admire. There is also a museum included in your entry ticket that exhibits garments, old scripture, and other timeworn religious relics.
After our cathedral visit, we idled out to find solace in a warm cafe, affronted yet again by the apathetic and forlorn youth serving us. This young man was again charged with palpable ganas to leave this small town, not a single smile or eye contact delivered, filling me with a sense of melancholy. We ordered café con leche and ate an orange donut as well as Yemas de Santa Teresa before taking a bus back to the hotel. If you ever visit Ávila, it’s crucial to try these yemas, traditional saccharine pastries made from only egg yolk, water, sugar, and lemon. The story goes that these pastries became popular during Saint Teresa’s life, when nuns would prepare them in their convents. Winemakers in this time period used egg yolks in the purification process of wine production, and would give the leftover egg yolks to nuns as it was tradition for them to prepare sweets to sell.
The next morning, after a large breakfast buffet, we got to downtown Ávila and explored the muralla, the original fortress or stone wall marking the perimeter of the town. As soon as we climbed the extremely steep and narrow steps, I felt like I was sashaying through a scaled down, Spanish version of the Great Wall of China. The muralla is fairytale-classic: round, steep pillars with the battlements and parapets iconic of a child’s drawing. Roaming the narrow fortress walls, to the north my eyes feasted on the bucolic fields beyond, a 180 degree turn and the top of the cathedral greets me at eye level, and from east and west, a bird's eye view of the charming medieval square below. It truly felt as though I was in a time machine back to 1515 AD. After spending as much time as possible on the top, we carefully rushed down the steep steps and hustled to lunch to make it on time for our reservation, a mere two minute walk away from the muralla entrance. Paralleling Mesón Gredos from the previous day, Los Candiles is a simple, dining-room style, family-owned place, with lackluster decor that you don’t even blink at because the food is so damn good. We ordered a bottle of red made by the owners, full-bodied and delicious. After our entrantes (appetizers), our smiley waiter (an older guy this time) proudly brought out the famous chuleton de Ávila, a piping hot steak stamped with a toothpick bearing “Geographical protected zone: Carne de Ávila, España.” After lunch, we returned to the part of the muralla we hadn’t seen yet and took some pictures, (including some telenovela-type shots). We hadn’t had photos on our mind during the first trip up to the muralla, but could not leave Ávila without capturing its glory.
Upon descending the muralla a second time, we were able to enter another church (after the siesta hour had concluded, of course): Capilla de San Mosén Rubí. We were ushered in by a nun with a warm smile. It is worth noting that the older folks of Ávila, by contrast, seem perpetually happy. This church, like many in Ávila, is cathedral-esque in girth and height. We sat on a pew to admire the architecture and began to speak about St. Teresa. Pepe edified me about the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. I was unfamiliar with this work of art, but was enraptured by Pepe’s analysis of it. Located in Rome in the Cornaro Chapel, Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpted in white marble what he recognized as St. Teresa’s “ecstasy” as she ascends into heaven, seated on a cloud and enveloped by gold sun rays. She lays, enraptured, at the hand of an angel, who holds a gilded spear that appears to have pierced or is soon to pierce her chest. Pepe and I explored what we thought the lance symbolized as well as the ecstatic, blissful, erotic expression on St. Teresa’s face. I furthered my research on this piece of art and I find it very groundbreaking. The “bridal spirituality” of St. Teresa and the recount of her rapture with the angel is also a contentious yet provocative topic. If you are interested in this piece of art, I encourage you to read more in the links below.
The Capilla de San Mosén Rubí was last church visited. Upon our exit, it was time for us to board the train back to Madrid. It was raining, the air hovered around a chilly 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was a sense of piety hanging in the air. The town definitely has a certain sleepiness baked into its stone bones. It’s the kind of provincial place where anyone walking by will kiss your baby hello, because yes, they actually know you and your baby.
Once again, if you plan a trip to Spain expecting flamenco, discotecas, and paella, Ávila will not fulfil your hopes. Similarly, if you enjoy long walks along a bustling promenade, a teeming art scene, upscale hotels and trendy bars with neon, lit-up phrases like “good vibes only,” consider basing your trip in cities like Barcelona and Madrid. However, if you seek authentic, historical immersion, hearty and plentiful local food, and medieval architectural beauty, Ávila is your cup of tea - or to be culturally adept, your café con leche.