The next stop on our new adventure was the historic walled city of Avila in northern Spain. The city has grown a bit beyond the original walled city which is around 1300 years old and is regarded as the finest walled city in all of Europe. It sports the famous nine gates wall comprising 87 towers. In our trip planning, Debbie discovered this intriguing city and so it easily became one of our stops.
The ride to Avila from Sevilla ended up being a bit of an “Amazing Race” adventure in itself. We started on the high-speed “AVE” train in Sevilla. It would take us to Madrid, where we would take a “short train” from the long distance arrival train station (Atocha) to another train station called Chamartin to catch our medium range train to Avila.
Arriving in Madrid, we had 45 minutes to get to our Avila train. It was the only train out to Avila with seats available. We were told it was plenty of time and that the ride to the Charmatin station was free. This might have been true if we actually knew the train station.
After we exited the train, we made the mistake of going into the main terminal area, which then made us have to buy tickets again to get to Chamartin station. That would not have been too bad, but signage was unclear about whether we could take the metro or a local train (it was actually both). I made a guess and got us 4 local train tickets.
Once on the local train we had another bit of a panic as to where to get off; there were 4 stops with “Chamartin” signage. We got help from a local and found the stop, no problem. We exited in Chamartin station and had about 10 minutes still left to get our train. We found it after a bit of searching on one of the various train boards but there was no platform marked.
The Madrid train station is pretty long and has 18 platforms (like gates in an airport). We came up in the middle. The board had our train number and “REG EXPRESS” next to it, but no platform identified even after a few minutes. We thought perhaps that “REG EXPRESS” meant that it left on a specific platform. I saw destinations lit up above each platform entrance and so I started running down the north end of the platform reading each one, hoping that one would be ours. We had about 6 minutes until our train left. Deb and the young adults followed closely enough in case I found it but not too far so they didn’t have to run to the end.
The north end was a bust so I ran to the south end. It would have been a lot more fun except that we are all wearing our Tortuga backpacks (thank goodness for those). Mine weight about 30 pounds and when I ran I didn’t exactly have a narrow profile. I got to be the blocker though for the others 🙂
The south end was no better and when I saw that our gate was not down there and that we had one minute until our train left, I expected that we’d be left behind.
Deb looked at the big board one more time and saw that our platform number had been posted! Of course, it was number 13. We all sprinted to the platform entrance, down the walkway and into the train just before it took off. While it was super stressful, it was a great, and successful, “Amazing Race” moment. Without the stress, I don’t think you get the excitement. But, we would probably have just settled for boring when it comes to catching the last train in a foreign country with two young adults in tow.
We arrived in Avila without any problems and it was a short walk to our hotel. Deb and I let Aidan and Nev relax while we scoped out the town and a place for dinner. We took a long walk all the way to the walled city part of Avila, next to the Church of San Vicente.
Church of San Vicente
We found what we thought was a good restaurant next to a helado (gelato) shop and went back for the young adults. On the way back to the restaurant we had chosen, we happened upon what we thought would be a better restaurant choice. We were really hoping for some great food after our experiences in Sevilla and we were not disappointed.
Avila is out in the country and there is evidently a lot of farm-raised beef. We had some of the largest and best steaks we’ve ever had (and that’s saying a lot since Deb is from Kansas). We all had great meals and our bad luck food streak was over.
The next day we went out to see the amazing walled city of Avila.
We started with a walking audio tour of the ramparts (the ledge up on the wall). It was a pretty interesting setup for an audio tour. As we walked by different areas, we would hear details about those areas specifically.
Walking the walls was not only fun but really gave us insight into defending a castle or walled city. This walled city was interesting in that about every forty yards or so there was a tower which jutted out from the wall.
These created more “surface area” for defense and gave defenders the ability to protect the wall better. The walls were all rock, about three feet thick. Despite a few areas where the wall had been repaired over the centuries, it looked like it wasn’t going anywhere.
The wall is named the “nine gates wall” because there are nine gates or portals around its circumference. Some are very small and a few are pretty large – car or carriage size. Two of the larger ones were on the sides and one of the smallest was at the very back end of the walled city.
The patron saint of Avila is Saint Teresa of Jesus. Santa Teresa founded the Carmelite order of nuns – a very secluded order of nuns. I had actually visited a Carmelite convent when I was in Catholic high school – at least I visited the door to the convent.
After the wall tour, we explored the interior of the walled city. They tried to keep the original layout and architecture as much as possible while allowing for modern conveniences like cars.
As you’d expect, the streets were very narrow and so all roads were one-way. It must be a nightmare maze for cars (good!). The streets were all cobblestone and many of the buildings were the original stone.
The Streets of Avila
Inside the walls there is of course a great church. We didn’t get an explanation of why this church wasn’t Santa Teresa’s church. It was gothic and was a really interesting shade of uniform gray rock. There was a large basilica on one side, flying buttresses, and a spires. The gargoyles seemed pretty worn but it had wonderful lion statues surrounding the church.
After a day of touring the inside, we walked back to our hotel. It was a great walk as we got to walk along the walls of the city. There was a green area between the walkway and the walls and you could almost get a sense of what this walled city looked like hundreds of years ago.
There were many rocky areas near the walls, which Aidan enjoyed climbing. We had a lot of fun in the late afternoon sun sitting on the rocks, taking pictures, and just enjoying the environment.
The Walls of Avila
That night we walked back to Avila and found another wonderful restaurant. The steak was fantastic once again and so was the duck. They had twenty entries under “sherry” and Deb and I enjoyed a fine sherry from the region for dessert. Nev and Aidan had to suffice with lava cake.
We left Avila the next morning. It was a short, but wonderful trip. Evidently, though, we switched our “bad food luck” for “bad train luck.” Our exit wasn’t nearly as exciting as our entry, but we had some stressful moments.
Our (original) train was to leave at 10:05 and take us to Madrid, Chamartin, where we had so much trouble before, and then catch a short connection to Madrid, Atocha for our next leg to Barcelona.
We arrived at 9 and Deb found an earlier train that could take us directly to Atocha without the confusing inter-city transfer, so we gladly hopped it. At 10:05, it stopped at one of its stops in El Escorial. It seemed like many other stops, although we noticed a number of people getting off. Then, they turned the train off.
The people who got off took another train. We were there alone. Based on what Deb heard, this train went all the way to Atocha. Well, we learned it did not. We had to catch another train to get there.
We were stuck in El Escorial at 10:20. We had to catch our train to Barcelona at 1:10pm and then our train from Barcelona to Avignon, France at 5:30. There wasn’t much time between the trains. So our “Amazing Race” stress started up again, but this time we couldn’t run or do anything. Frankly, I’d take running versus sitting any day of the week. At least you feel like you are doing something.
Everything worked out though. There was another train coming in an hour at 11:15 and it would get us to Atocha by 12:25 – plenty of time to catch our high-speed train at 1:10pm. The little snafu didn’t hinder us – as I write from our high-speed Ave train comfortable cruising to Barcelona at nearly 300 kilometers per hour – but it did tell us to be wary of trains near Avila in the future.
Traveling by train is at once more comfortable and more hectic than traveling by air. We hadn’t traveled by train in Europe much before and so hadn’t really appreciated this. Booking trains can be confusing. Transferring between trains can be stressful. Sitting in the comfort of a high speed train is indeed a wonderful experience.
The AVE trains, at least in Spain, have these most amazing bocadillos (sandwiches) with serrano ham and manchego cheese on a grilled baguette. Pure heaven. These have become a highlight of our travel. In fact, we now call the high-speed AVE trains the “sandwich trains.” We all were looking forward to the sandwich trains from Madrid to Barcelona and then from Barcelona to Avignon.
I think we have the rail system down now. The young adults now have a feel for what travelling by rail should be like (unlike rail in the Pacific Northwest). We’re not sure what “curve ball” we might find in the next stop, France, but we are ready for it. We are looking forward to more great adventures, interesting discussions with Nev and Aidan, and amazing places to see. Stay tuned. Pura vida.
PS: More pictures!