Two things distinguish Ávila: its eleventh-century walls, two perfectly preserved kilometres of which surround the old town, and the mystic writer Santa Teresa, who was born here and whose shrines are a major focus of religious pilgrimage. Set on a high plain, with the peaks of the Sierra de Gredos as a backdrop, the town is quite a sight, especially if you approach with the evening sun highlighting the golden tone of the walls and the details of the 88 towers. The walls make orientation straightforward, with the cathedral and most other sights contained within. Just outside the southeast corner is the city’s main square, Plaza Santa Teresa, and the most imposing of the old gates, the Puerta del Alcázar.
The city walls, a mixture of red limestone, granite and brick, were built under Alfonso VI, following his capture of the city from the Moors in 1090; they took his Muslim prisoners nine years to construct. At closer quarters, they prove a bit of a facade, as the old city within is sparsely populated, most of modern life having moved into the new developments outside the fortifications. It’s possible to walk along two sections of the walls from Puerta de Carnicerías to Puerta del Carmen and from Puerta del Alcázar to Puerta del Rastro; the former being the best with some stunning views of the town. There have been some experiments with night-time opening in the summer (usually 10pm–12.30am Sun–Wed), but check with the tourist office. Tickets are available from the green kiosk by the Puerta del Alcázar and the tourist office at Puerta de Carnicerías.
Santa Teresa (1515–82) was born to a noble family in Ávila and from childhood began to experience visions and religious raptures. Her religious career began at the Carmelite convent of La Encarnación, where she was a nun for 27 years. From this base, she went on to reform the movement and found convents throughout Spain. She was an ascetic, but her appeal lay in the mystic sensuality of her experience of Christ, as revealed in her autobiography, for centuries a bestseller in Spain. As joint patron saint of Spain (together with Santiago), she remains a central pillar in Spanish Catholicism and schoolgirls are brought into Ávila by the busload to experience first-hand the life of the woman they are supposed to emulate. She died in Alba de Torres just outside Salamanca, and the Carmelite convent, which contains the remains of her body and a dubious reconstruction of the cell in which she passed away, is another major target of pilgrimage. On a more bizarre note, one of Santa Teresa’s mummified hands has now been returned to Ávila after spending the Franco years by the bedside of the dictator.