The city of Ávila (pronounced with the stress on the first syllable) is the capital of the province of the same name. It belongs to the region of Castilla y León, but its proximity to Madrid means that it has strong ties with the capital also.
The city has grown a great deal in recent decades and now has a population of over 50,000. This growth is reflected in the physical expansion of the city, with commercial centres and housing developments on the outskirts, but it is still reasonably compact, and the centre of the city, revolving around the two main squares (the Plaza de Santa Teresa or “El Grande” just outside the walls, and the Plaza del Ayuntamiento or “El Chico” inside the walls) really does feel like the centre of things.
Avila is famous for a number of things, with the three most cited being that it is the highest provincial capital in Spain at 1132 metres (more than 3700 feet) above sea level, it has spectacular and complete medieval city walls, and it is the birthplace of one of the most revered and influential Catholic saints, St Theresa of Avila.
Each of these claims to fame has an individual influence on the town. The height of the city means that it gets very cold in winter. Avila during those months is not for the faint-hearted. While the cold is made bearable by the frequent vivid blue skies, there is no denying that thick socks and coats are a must. In contrast, the late spring and summer months offer respite from the unbearable heat of many other areas of Spain. Sitting outside will be the norm but you will need a sweater in the evening.
The walls, started in the eleventh century, are justifiably a lure for all visitors, and those who live here permanently never tire of the impressive sight. There was in fact a strong move in the nineteenth century to demolish the walls, since the locals considered that they were a hindrance to progress and development for the city. Fortunately, this idea did not prosper, but it is true that Avila suffered from a deal of neglect and was something of a backwater until relatively recently. However, in the last twenty or so years, the city has become revitalized. Although it has been with a view to attracting tourism, the main historic buildings and sights have been restored and the city is now attractive and livelier.
St Theresa could also be described as a kind of tourist attraction. Visitors may see a range of churches and convents connected with her life and everything from driving schools to bars seems to be named after her. The city is an important destination for many devout Catholics, and the influence of the church on local affairs is certainly still apparent.
From the point of view of those living and working in Avila, the city has pros and cons, some of which are quite strong. While the city has woken up in recent years, it would be an exaggeration to call it a vibrant centre: life here is gentler in pace, and has more to offer those who like a quieter existence than those who are looking to party every night. A lot of young people choose to study at universities elsewhere (although in Spanish tradition, they probably come home for the weekends, bearing their washing, to return stocked with tupperware containers full of home cooking!), although there are various options for further education here too. There is not always a huge variety of “things going on”, especially in the winter months. On the other hand, the fact that the city is not too extensive means that it is easy to fit in a range of activities beyond the merely professional or domestic. There are frequent concerts, mainly classical and folk, which are often free. There is an annual “comic strip festival”, a theatre festival and an environmental film festival. The twice annual city fiestas (in October and July) provide numerous and varied activities, (and there are smaller versions in each neighbourhood through the year) and the religious festivals are marked by impressive processions and celebrations.
For the sporty or those anxious to keep fit, there are two public indoor swimming pools, (and several outdoor pools for when the time comes), a number of gyms, and a wide variety of classes of the keep-fit variety. Enthusiastic amateur football players are always welcomed with open arms, and there are many other sports activities available. The surrounding province of Avila is one of the great attractions for those living in the city. The province is not at all uniform: to the north of the city are the flat plains where cereals are grown, but to the west and south are the Gredos mountains, and, beyond, the Tiétar Valley. Even the climate varies enormously: the Gredos mountains have snow almost year round at the peaks and are popular with climbers, whereas oranges and prickly pears grow in the Tiétar Valley, and olives and chestnuts are a speciality crop in some areas. The opportunities for walking and exploring are endless, and the flora and fauna will more than satisfy any enthusiast.
For those who want to go a little further afield, the city of Avila lies within easy reach of four other cities: the world-famous university city of Salamanca, the regional capital of Valladolid, Segovia with its Roman aqueduct, and Madrid itself.
As we mentioned above, Avila attracts tourism, often day-trippers or weekenders who come to climb up onto the walls and explore the Romanesque churches. But they also come for the food! The local beef is famous all over Spain, as is the roast suckling pig, and there are many other local speciality dishes to satisfy hearty appetites. Avila boasts high quality meat (and not just beef) and fish, and fruit and vegetables too. The tradition of home-cooking still lives on here, and the local shoppers are demanding of this high quality. The bars reflect the local cuisine in the tapas that they will give you with your drink: expect to be offered anything from Patatas Revolconas (spicy mashed potato with pork scratchings) to grilled whole chipirones (tiny calamari) with garlic mayonnaise. There is great rivalry between bars to offer the best tapas, and there is even an annual contest, with customers serving as the judges.