Back in July I started planning a secret trip for Chris. Well, actually, I had tried to plan the entire Bilbao/Northern Trip as a surprise for Chris. I ended up chickening out and thinking “I’m not sure on a couple things, I’d better get some help.” So I spoiled all of my surprises just to ask a couple simple questions. I like a challenge, it seems, so I did it again. And this time I completely planned a trip by myself, and kept it a surprise. The hope was to tell Chris the weather and duration and then take him to the airport without him knowing where we were going.
It’s not too hard for him to figure things out. Our visa situation requires that we stay within Spain. We can apply to leave but it would be this big thing going down to Palma and I’m not sure if I could’ve done it without him knowing. It would’ve been cool to just slap him on a plane and say “we’re going to Slovenia!” or something interesting. Instead he helped me print the tickets that clearly said “Madrid.”
Did that mean we were going to Madrid? Yes and no.
After landing in Madrid we got on a 2 hour train to he-didn’t-know where. I handed him the itinerary I had made. Ávila. We’re going to Ávila. Okay, cool, but what’s an Ávila?
For our whole vacation we traveled to many cities around Madrid, and, yes, also Madrid. Each time we changed locations Chris didn’t know where we were going next. We actually ended up enjoying this because it forced us to think more about the present. It wouldn’t be the usual “wow I’m so nervous about catching the train tomorrow” or “I like this city but I’m really excited for the next one!” It was only one city at a time. Six times.
Ávila, Segovia, Cercedilla, Madrid, Toledo, and Alcalá de Henares.
It was also cool because Chris didn’t necessarily know what the cities would have. Ávila, Cercedilla and Alcala de Henares are small enough that you can see the names and still not even know where you’re going. It was fun for me to just take things as they came and not have any expectations. You can’t talk about expectations and hopes when your companion can’t even have expectations.
In short it was a really different trip than we would usually take. Planning it alone wasn’t difficult but all the people asking us where we were going to go was difficult. “Oh you’re going on vacation next week, where to?” “Uhhh…”
So without further ado, stop one of Chris’s mystery trip:
Ávila is really unfair because it probably ended up being one of the best places we went to. It was quiet and more focused on inner-Spain tourists. It’s famous for having the best preserved medieval walls in Europe. We arrived late because of some serious train issues (half of Madrid’s stations are under construction). So we arrived just in time to see the sun set.
It was unbelievably pretty. This is the Spain we knew and loved for one year. You can’t even see this far on an island without seeing the sea or the towering Tramuntana mountains. And Bilbao and the north were gorgeous for wet, green mountains. But this, looking out over this was reminiscent of Andalucia. Just without the olives. Fields, farm land, hills. It was too pretty.
We lost the light but still toured around the city. We found a verraco, something unique only to this area of spain. Verracos are solid granite statues of bears, pigs or dogs (but usually boars since verraco = boar). They’re from the second iron age ( 500 BC). No one knows what they were used for. Possibly they acted as village guardians, or to mark grazing, pastures, or land. I thought they were cheery and cute. A famous verraco of a pig sits just inside the walls so we ate a jamon sandwich under the watchful eye of a pig verraco.
The next day we toured the famed walls. They’re not only old and great but they’re declared a World Heritage Site. Aka the UN thought they were so great they should be legally protected and preserved. They’re huge. They wrap over 1.5 miles around the old city. So you couldn’t possibly get all of them in one shot. For just a few Euros you can climb the walls and into most of the old towers.
If you look carefully in this picture you can see them wrapping around the city in the middle left hand side.
The walls go back forever. They probably started as Roman, then Visigoth, then Moorish. Typical Spanish history, honestly. Something that was cool were all the different stones they would sometimes use – clearly recycling whatever they had. There would be these strange looking stones that had a perfectly square box carved into them. Hmmm, water trough? Box? Turns out they held the ashes of dead Romans. So the builders pillaged cemeteries of history to build the walls. There’s even a verraco built thrown in there.
Why hasty and obsessive building? The usual “everyone vs everyone” Reconquista stuff. On one side of the walls there is an ominously named Puerta de San Isidro o de la Malaventura. That’s San Isidro’s Gate or The Gate of the Misfortune (Misadventure, Failure). The story goes:
Once upon a time there were many different kingdoms within Spain. This story concerns Castilla y Leon and Aragon. The queen of Castilla y Leon married for a second time to Alfonso, King of Aragon. The queen already had a son from her first marriage who was set to inherit his mother’s land. And naturally the King of Aragon wanted to add that land to his own. So big bad step dad came a calling and said give me my step son. I want to make him my own son and take custody of him (and thus custody of an entire kingdom). The child was being kept in Avila at the time. It had all these nice walls to keep children safe. The city outright refused to give the boy (their future king) to the king of the next kingdom over, but they did agree to let the king see the boy. The only way for the king to see the boy was for the boy to go onto the walls, and for the king to come up close enough to see. But being close enough to see also meant that he was close enough to be in danger, so he demanded some hostages from the city. Apparently the exchange rate on the life of a king is worth 70 nobles/knights if you ever need to know that. So the King of Aragon agreed he would take the 70 hostages and then come under the wall to look at the boy, then leave in good faith. But as soon as he got his hostages he changed his mind and the deal. Give me the boy or I’ll kill these 70 men.
If you know your medieval history you know how this ends. This story plays out a LOT around Spain. In both Toledo and Tarifa there’s the (real) stories of a sons getting captured or sent in with honor and then whoops now someone is holding a knife to your son’s throat and you’re like “whatever, I got wars to fight.” And the son dies. So 70 people are like nothing at this point.
Murdering 70 people just didn’t send enough of a message, not in medieval times. So to make their point, they either boiled everyone alive in oil or just boiled the severed heads. It depends on who you ask (again this is a real story). I guess there is some monument to “On this spot there was some boiling” but we couldn’t find it. The boiling area is now called Hervencias from the verb herventar – to boil.
The walls are the main draw to this town, but we also had a lot of fun exploring their history museum, as well as the abandoned church next to the history museum where the town stores all of the Roman, Visigoth, Moorish, and Christian statues and tombstones that they’ve uncovered.
Climbing castle walls and exploring museums all day can make you pretty hungry, but luckily this town is famous for something delicious and filling, steak. This whole region of Spain is very cattle oriented, most of their history museum was about machines and devices used to herd cattle and make cheese. We aren’t normally ones to splurge on a fancy steak dinner, but at these prices it was hardly splurging.
Three traditional local soups for starters (each) two small loaves of bread, a 1.65 lb steak with french fries (fried in olive oil no less), and dessert, all for the low cost of 36 Euros ($39.40).
It was a good start to what would be a great vacation.