By Barbara Kingstone

Old town of Ávila with its extra-muros churches

Ávila is best known as the birth place of St. Teresa, but the experience of driving through the new city towards the old and seeing a massive, well-preserved wall still intact with 80 semicircular towers and nine gateways is another reason to visit. The wall was built to protect the Spanish territories from the Moors and Ávila is now known as the “city of saints and stones.” While the locals are having their traditional siesta, it’s time to climb the fortress’ steep stairs. Up here, the view of the city is a panorama of terracotta roof tops, steeples, church domes and mountains. Not to be overshadowed by the wall is the 11th century cathedral dedicated to San Salvador and built like a fortress with sentry walls and battlements. Even the sanctuary is built into the wall. It has a hodge podge of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architectural periods. The convent, built over the house where St. Teresa was born, is adjacent to her namesake museum. St. Teresa, a Carmelite nun who is said to have felt that the Order at that time was too worldly, hid in the convent. For the first five years she devoted herself to contemplation, and is said to have had experienced many visions. There are many relics that belonged to St. Teresa on display, but probably the most popular and somewhat eerie is one of her fingers in a glass jar. Still wearing two gold rings, it seems to beckon to be looked at.

Old City of Salamanca

To the west of Ávila is the small but grand cosmopolitan city of Salamanca. The busy city centre, known as the “Plaza Mayor” or “the living room,” is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. Some also call it the “Golden Square,” after the colours of the white sandstone, which has oxidized over time to take on a golden hue. Medallions of various Spanish kings are mounted on the buildings and the first and only non-royal to have a medallion is that of the dictator Francisco Franco. Originally, this square was for bullfighting and concerts, and until 1992, sport lovers watched their beloved toreros from the wrought-iron balconies. Spanish cities have their cherished cathedrals and in Salamanca the two favourites are attached. The Romanesque 12th-century cathedral is known as the Old Cathedral, while the Renaissance-style Plateresque building with Gothic additions and a Baroque-style dome from the 16th-century is called the New Cathedral. A curious feature on the newly restored façade of the New Cathedral is a column featuring a carved insert of an astronaut, to add a symbol of the 20thcentury. Perhaps one of the most noted sites is the University of Salamanca, founded in the 13th-century, It is a prestigious academic institution that still boast over 30,000 students, a major economic boon to the city. Miguel de Cervantes and Ignatius Loyola were students and Christopher Columbus presented here.

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