Avila and Segovia

August 21, 2015 - Madrid, Spain

I had nearly finished this entry when my lack of technical prowess and a slow internet, and perhaps Sod as well, all conspired to wipe it out. Max said, never mind, now you can improve on the last one which was either a comment about the last one (which he had read) or an expression of hope.

Anyway, I started off last time with a shamefaced confession that I had remembered that George Orwell's book is in fact 'Homage to Catalonia', not Barcelona. Oops!

After breakfast at the Hotel Catalonia Gran Via (yes, it's in Madrid which is definitely not in Catalonia - for 'Catalonia and Castille' think 'England and Scotland' - same love of being lumped together) we walked down the Gran Via to the Plaza Espana and the Julia Travel Office where we met our guide Isabel. When I made the booking for this day trip I mentioned in the 'any comments' space that Max is allergic to garlic. This is not because I thought Julia Travel needed this tedious piece of information about Max, but because the restaurant where we were to have a 'traditional Segovian lunch' would be very sorry if they served him anything with garlic in it. Believing, correctly, that nobody would have read my comment, I reiterated it to Isabel so the restaurant could could be warned. Her response suggested that we had no business coming to Spain at all if we didn't eat garlic, but she would put herself out to the extent of warning the restaurant, but only once we had arrived there. Good start.

There were about 40 people on the tour so we had a full-sized coach and, this time, a good window. On the way out of Madrid Isabel commented particularly on the beautiful tree-lined streets and numerous parks of the city, mentioning with pride that the city contained some many millions of trees; it is certainly very pretty.

The trip to Avila took about 90 minutes, and was mostly through very dry grazing country with some rather scrubby cultivation of ... we weren't sure what. Just outside Avila we stopped for a comfort stop, and I walked away from the hotel to a vantage point where I could see and photograph the amazingly well preserved 12th century walls.

The bus left us outside the walls and we walked along beside them for a while before going in through the oldest gate. Isabel turned out to be a very good guide - well informed, relaxed and sometimes quite funny. She gave her commentary in Spanish, then Italian, then English so sometimes we had to wait for a bit before we knew what was going on. We saw the remains (minimal) of Roman walls which had been excavated while something else was going on, and she told us that the medieval walls had been thrown up in somewhat of a hurry - I didn't hear what the crisis was; an anticipated attack from someone or other. Isabel pointed out that the cause was probably not anything particularly well thought-out, or words to that effect, but just because, at the time, everyone liked fighting. We walked through narrow streets and into the main square guarded by 4 smug-looking lions on shoulder-high pillars. Apparently during Roman times, the Emperor or some General or other gave the land as a pension to legionaries who turned 65 while still on duty - there was some connection between a leo (lion) and a legionary, but, given the poor state of my hearing, I only ever get about half of any given story.

We then walked through another square where a there was produce market setting up and Max spied a whole table of wrapped sweets - we bought some on our way back after our visit to the church.Then it was down some broad steps, through more narrow strets and into another square.

It's a lovely little town, the birthplace of St Teresa whose parents were very rich and gave much land to the church. Some of it - I think - became the convent where St Teresa lived for many years, although she travelled about a fair bit. We did a quick circuit of what is now the church of Santa Teresa de Jesus but contains a reconstruction of the VERY SAME kitchen (since made into a shrine, we understood, although we didn't squeeze in with the other 38 + Isabel) in which St Teresa was born. Nor did we go into the Building of Relics (or some such) which allegedly (and I use the word advisedly) contains St Teresa's finger. Isabel told us that St Teresa died elsewhere but months - years? - later her coffin was brought back to Avila and when it was opened up, there she was, fresh as the flowers of which she smelled. Bits of her then seem to have been taken to a number of sacred sites around the Catholic world. No way to treat a saint, in my opinion, but at least it gave many pilgrims the opportunity to see a 'relic'.

We then walked back through the market square and down to the last part of our visit, the church of San Vicente. Part of this church is Romanesque, including the entrance, but the sacristy and the altar are Baroque, highly decorated with gold, with pointed Gothich arches. Isabel advised us to avert our gazes from all the glitz and concentrate on the Romanesque, including a very beautiful tomb, made of porphyry, carved and painted with the story of three Christian children, San Vicente and his two sisters, Sabina and Cristeta - I don't known why he got all the credit - who are all buried there. The carvings include a picture of the soldier who had the children put to death (we see that bit too) but who was so moved by their martyrdom that he immediately converted to Christianity himself and built their tomb with his very own hands.

To be continued in Segovia .... soon!

I was going to write the trip to Segovia very quickly, but didn’t, and then when I finally did, I lost it again. So here is the next attempt.

The drive from Avila to Segovia was about an hour long, and took us through hilly, scrubby country, with some fertile valleys and small areas of cultivation. We were dropped again outside the walls, and Isabel bustled us up the narrow cobbled streets until we reached a square dominated by the old Roman aquaduct . She told us that we would have to photograph it, if we wanted to, after lunch as we would not be exploring another part of the town and wouldn’t be coming back the same way. Then we all trooped down a wide staircase and those who hadn’t booked for the ‘traditional’ lunch disappeared through a narrow doorway to be given tapas and a drink, while the rest of us went further down the street to El Cordera Restaurant. We entered through a wide, tiled hallway with little niches decorated with pots  or flowers or pumpkins, then climbed a deep-red tiled staircase to the restaurant. This consisted of one large room separated by different levels into more intimate spaces. Isabel, as promised, mentioned Max’s disability to the waitress who looked at him sorrowfully and said he would have to have salad as his entree but the rest of the meal would be okay for him.
We sat at a table with a nice Argentinian woman on holiday in Spain for two weeks (the extent of her annual leave as an accountant in a family business) and separated from her 8 and 13 year old children for the first time. She translated between us and the only other couple at our table, retired Catalans from Figueres who were as friendly as you can be when limited to nods and smiles. Family photos were passed around except by us as we don’t carry phone/cameras.
The first course for those unaffected by garlic was a thick bean soup - I personally couldn’t taste any garlic in it but Max wasn’t risking it anyway, and quite enjoyed his rather plain salad. Then came roast suckling pig and potatoes. Max was given the rump complete with little curly tail bit, perhaps to compensate him for missing the soup. He didn’t eat the tail though; it looked like a piece of string.
Dessert (also manifestly without garlic) was a custard, kind of like a creme caramel, and a little fried thing which was quite nice and sugary and which I later discovered was made of deep fried dried milk. I think. Sounds unlikely, though. Lunch also included a bottle of red wine which we polished off amongst the five of us.
When we left the restaurant, we went back up the stairs, took the obligatory photo of the aqueduct then followed more narrow, cobbled streets to the cathedral where Isabel was waiting for us. It is late Gothic, and I found its most memorable feature to be a highly decorated pulpit made of red and white marble.
Isabel led us out into a lovely square from which we had a really good view of the old walls  (not as complete or well maintained as those at Avila) and were able to appreciate how high the town is above the surrounding countryside.
At the end of the square, and perched almost on a promontory at the end of the town, is the Alcazar (palace). It has been put to a number of uses since its construction in the 11th century - a fort, a palace for the Catholic kings of Spain, and eventually for Queen Isabella who was crowned there the day after the death of her husband Henry IV. It was a gaol for 200 years, then a military academy, and now is really just a museum. beautifully maintained, and not crammed so full of stuff as to be overwhelming. You enter it across a bridge over a narrow but extremely deep gorge, and are then led through the various rooms. The first one has a number of suits of armour, and one very impressive armoured figure on an equally impressive life-sized armoured  wooden horse.

We saw the throne room, the royal bedroom complete with royal bed and the main meeting hall with a frieze of the busts of all the kings who had lived there. Some of the walls are tiled in the lovely Moorish fashion, and there are stained glass windows and many paintings and tapestries.
From a kind of covered corridor, like a cloister, you can look way down over the gardens, including a maze, and across the countryside. As we walked along, there was a storm gathering, and although we heard only one distant rattle of thunder, and saw one bolt of lightning, the whole landscape was covered with a magical light.  In the foreground were several monasteries, in one of which the monks are supposed to have discovered how to turn base metal into gold. Isabel was suitably sceptical.
Altogether this is one of the most magical castles, most beautifully designed, located and decorated, that you can imagine. I learnt later that Disney copied it for his magical Cinderella Castle in Tokyo Disneyland. The sublime to the ridiculous?
As is the way with guided tours, there wasn’t enough time to wander, or to stand and reflect, but enough to realise how truly beautiful if all is.
And then, of course, we had to scurry back down a steep winding street to the waiting bus. The sky was still threatening, and the massive dark grey clouds over the castle as we walked away were spectacular.
Back in Madrid, we walked back from the Plaza Espana up the Gran Via towards the hotel. We ended the day with a sangria and a plate of patatas bravas, more than enough after a big lunch!


Basilica de San Vicente at Avila
Calle Tostado near Catedral de Avila
Inside Basilica de San Vicente
Aqueduct of Segovia
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