The extensive history of Avila begins with the primitive Celtiberian settlement of the Vetones around 700 B.C. The first wall was built with the arrival of the Romans in the third century B.C., making Avila a strategic point of defence. Following several centuries of decadence, the city was repopulated and rebuilt in the 11th century. The legend says that Raimundo de Borgoña, son-in-law of King Alfonso VI, was in charge of supervising the reconstruction of the wall over the ruins of the ancient Roman fortress. The peak period of the city would come in the 16th century, when wool manufacture would allow its economic take-off. During this boom, many civil and religious buildings were built in the city, which still stand in the historic quarter.
The wall is the symbol of the city, and it is one of the best kept, medieval walled-enclosures in Europe. Its perimeter of two and a half kilometres are marked by almost 2,500 crenellations, a hundred towers, six gates, and three openings.
The Gate of Leales, one of the main entrances into the ancient city, leads directly to the cathedral, a temple which resembles a fortress, erected between the 12th and 14th centuries, and whose apse, called "cimorro", is semi-detached from the wall, making it the largest round turret of the whole bastion. While Gothic and Baroque elements overlap in the façade, in the interior the elaborated relieves of the retrochoir, and the alabaster sarcophagus of El Tostado are astounding. The Diocesan Museum has numerous art pieces, among which a monumental processional monstrance should be highlighted, a work by Juan de Arfe.
Within the confines of the wall, medieval corners, such as the Plaza de los Dávila, intermingle with more than a dozen Renaissance houses of noble lineage, among which it is worth mentioning the Mansion of Velada, the Palace of Valderrábano, and the Palace of Núñez Vela.But the most remarkable building is the Palace of Dávila. It is a severe fortress made up of four houses, the oldest of which dates back to the 13th century. The compound stands out for its crenellations and for its quite famous Renaissance window.
Nearby stands the Tower of Guzmanes, erected in the 16th century, and which presently houses the City Council. These are only a few of the more than a hundred mansions and palatial residences that existed in Avila between the 16th and 18th century, fact that can be seen in the full name of the city: Avila de los Caballeros, or Avila of the Noblemen. The square of Mercado Chico, the place where the ancient Roman forum stood, is now the city centre. The front of the City Hall faces it, and so does the façade of the church of San Juan, rebuilt between the 15th and the 16th centuries.
Throughout history, Avila was the birthplace of famous Spanish mystics, like Santa Teresa de Jesús and San Juan de la Cruz. This is evidenced by the great number of churches and convents that are scattered around the city. In Plaza de Santa Teresa we find the convent under the same name, built in 1636 on top of the house where Santa Teresa del Jesús was born. The building, with a Baroque main front, houses an important collection of carvings made by sculptor Gregorio Fernández, in addition to a chapel, remarkable for its profuse ornamentation, devoted to the Saint. In the interior there is an orchard where, according to the legend, the mystic of Avila played as a child.
Beyond the confines of the walled-enclosure sits the monastery of Encarnación, erected in the 16th century, and where Santa Teresa lived as a nun for more than 20 years. Inside it, is worth it to stand before the places that the writer frequented, such as her cell, or the chapel of Transverberation.
Another remarkable building is the Basilica of San Vicente, erected in the 12th century next to the site where three Saints were tormented during times of the Roman emperor Diocletianus. This temple is considered to be the most beautiful example of Romanesque architecture in the city, even though it incorporates architectural elements that were added during later periods. The exterior of the building is dominated by three magnificent apses, the western front, also known as the Portico of the Glory of Avila, and the southern façade. The interior is graced with beautiful vaults, and the sarcophagus of San Vicente, an important funerary monument attributed to master Fruchel. Behind the basilica sits the church of San Andrés, a Romanesque building that holds in its interior the most important decorated capitals of those still preserved in the city.
Also from the Romanesque period is the church of San Pedro, one of the oldest in Avila, dating back to the 12th through 13th centuries. The sobriety that characterised this building attracted the most relevant figures of Avila for centuries. The most remarkable elements from the outside are a great Cistercian rose window in the main front, and three apses. From the inside, the scant ornamentation contrast with the interesting series of paintings and reredos.
Beyond the confines of the walls, though near the Gate of Leales, stands the Palace of the Deans. Originally, as its name suggests, this monumental sixteenth-century house was built to accommodate the consecutive deans (priests in charge of the management of the cathedral chapter) that Avila had throughout history. The first thing that draws attention is the Renaissance façade, with its double row of columns, plateresque shields, and Baroque pinnacles. These elements give the whole compound an undeniable stately air. In the interior, the main building and its outbuildings are arranged around a courtyard with two galleries with Gothic arches. These premises presently house the Regional Museum, which holds interesting collections of archaeology, ethnography, and fine arts. In addition, the museum has an annexe: the old church of Santo Tomé the Elder (12th century).
Traditionally, the Isabelline Gothic monastery of Santo Tomás, finished in 1493 during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, was the summer residence of the Spanish Royal Family. The compound is dominated by a monumental church of only one nave, with orgive vaults and a few side chapels. In the middle of the transept is the beautiful marble sarcophagus -sculpted by Domenico Fancelli- of the Infante Don Juan, son of the Monarchs. Outstanding as well is the magnificent reredos, made by Berruguete, and the raised choir. The convent area is arranged around three cloisters -the Novitiate, the Silent, and the Royal cloisters- richly ornamented. On the other hand, the old royal outbuildings house the Oriental Museum, which exhibits an interesting collection of artwork from the Far East.
The visit to this millenary city can conclude at the viewpoint of Cuatro Postes, which presents one of the most beautiful views of the medieval walled enclosure.
Gastronomy and the outskirts
In any of the restaurants of the capital of Avila it is possible to unveil the excellent regional cuisine. Outstanding are the delicious roasted suckling pig and lamb (asados de cochinillo y cordero), as well as the famous chuletón de ternera, veil T-bone steak from Ávila. Both the veil and the El Barco-style haricot beans from Ávila have their own Designation of Origin. Much of the fame that baked goods from Avila enjoy are due to the delicious yemas de Santa Teresa (a sweet made with egg and sugar).
There is a varied selection of accommodations available in the capital. Semi-detached from the wall, the Parador de Ávila (Avila Inn) stands on top of the ancient palace of Piedras Albas.
Within the province of Avila there are also a number of important towns, like Arévalo, a beautiful example of the Mudejar period in the region that was declared Historic-Artistic Site; Madrigal de las Altas Torres, the birthplace of Queen Isabel the Catholic; Las Navas del Marqués, with the Castle of Magalia; and finally El Barco de Ávila, graced with the outstanding Gothic church of Our Lady of Asuncion (14th century) and the Castle of Valdecorneja.
The province also has important archaeological sites that are worth a visit, such as Castro de Cogotas, one of the most significant in Spain, and Toros de Guisando, which has stone sculptures of Celtic origin. And to conclude, the Sierra de Gredos Nature Reserve is a great alternative for nature lovers.