Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Castile - Day 5, Ávila

The weather was so settled that I practically stopped carrying out the early morning check because it was so reliable and this morning we just went down to breakfast without giving it a second thought. The breakfast room was really special and so was the food. It was laid out on the tables and the choice was overwhelming; hot food, cold food, a selection of bread and fruit juices and local specialities as well. It was necessary to be really disciplined amount portions because it would have been too easy to fill right up with the first visit and not leave room for all the other delicious selections. This was the best hotel breakfast that we have had for a long time and we rued the fact that we had only one night at the Palacio De Los Velada.

After breakfast we had an early walk into the town before checking out of the hotel and we stepped out in shirt sleeves but were immediately forced back to get a jacket because although the sun was shining, at this elevation, there was a sharp nip in the air.

The hotel was next to the cathedral, which was closed to visitors this morning on account of this being Sunday and the local people were using the place for the purpose for which it was intended (worship) so we walked around the outside instead and were delighted to see a dozen or so Storks sitting on huge but untidy twig nests at the very top of the building. They sat perfectly still in pairs just like bookends with only the breeze occasionally ruffling their feathers. Periodically one or the other would fly off in search of food climbing high and magnificently on the morning thermals that were beginning to form. Upon return they greeted each other with a noisy display of bill clattering that resonated through the granite streets and echoed off the sides of the buildings like rapid machine gun fire.

We walked outside of the old city walls and found ourselves in the middle of preparations for a half marathon that was going to take place around the city walls with athletes all warming up and preparing for the big event. In the early morning sun the view over the table top plain to the snow capped mountains in the distance was unexpected and amazing and we sat for a while and enjoyed it. It seemed hard to believe that twenty-four hours ago we were driving across the southern plains with all thoughts of winter behind us and now were in the mountains surrounded by snow.

After we had checked out of the hotel we went back into the city to walk the walls, which are the best preserved in all of Spain and although they have had some recent renovation still capture the spirit of an impregnable medieval granite fortress. It is two and a half kilometres long with two thousand five hundred battlements, eighty-eight cylindrical towers, six main gates and three smaller pedestrian gates. Ávila was used in the 1957 film ‘The Pride and the Passion’ that starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra when a group of Spanish nationalists during the war of independence (The Peninsula War) lugged a huge gun up the mountains to attack the city and liberate it from the French invaders. It was based on the book ‘The Gun’, written by C S Forrester.

We paid the €4 fee and received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate entrances to which our tickets entitled us to go and then climbed the steps to the top of the wall. There were excellent views of the town, of the countryside beyond and the Storks sitting on their piles of sticks on top of the Cathedral and other buildings. We thought that Ávila seemed nicer than Toledo and friendlier too because all of the information boards on the wall and in the town were thoughtfully translated into English. There were an awful lot of steps to negotiate on the wall and because not all of the upper walkway was open this involved having to double back a lot as well to get to the exits.

After completing two of the sections we stopped for a drink in the sun in San Vicente Square on the outside of the walls and we agreed that we really liked the practice of always providing a little tapas with the drinks and we hatched a cunning plan – three bars, three drinks, three tapas, free lunch! Just as we were leaving a mini-bus pulled up and a dozen or so men in blue and white football shirts got out. They were making a lot of noise and made straight for the bar. They were here from the nearby town of Aranda de Duero to watch a football match because their team Arandina were playing Real Ávila in the Spanish third division but as kick off wasn’t until five o’clock they were going to be doing a lot of drinking that afternoon.

Rested and refreshed we continued our walk around the walls but it became a bit repetitive and we tired of the reoccurring turrets and the seemingly endless walk so we abandoned the top of the wall and returned to street level and walked around the exterior instead. After about an hour we re-entered the city at the Puerta de Santa Teresa on the west side and we walked through the twisted narrow streets through the commercial centre and the market place and then deftly bypassed the shops back to the cathedral where we turned down the opportunity to pay and go inside in preference for staying outside in the sunshine. The sun was quite strong now but there was a stiff breeze blowing off the plain and accelerating through the narrow streets so I don’t think we appreciated just how strong it was. Soon we were back where we started at the Puerta Del Alcázar and it was time for a final drink and tapas before we prepared to leave.

We could hear the football supporters somewhere close and fuelled by an afternoon of drinking they were even noisier and more boisterous by now. They came towards us and then selected a bar to continue their revelry so we walked in the opposite direction and found a nice bar with pavement tables where we had a beer and an excellent portion of Spanish omelette. There were more blue and white scarves about by this time as fans were making their way to the football stadium but apart from the group making all the noise most were well behaved. The drinking group were all happy now and in very high spirits and I expect they were even happier after the game because I checked the football results later and Arandina won the match 2-1.

Football is the national sport of Spain and it is immensely popular. The top clubs play in La Liga and below that the Spanish league is divided into three main divisions, two of which are sub-divided into regional competitions. Division 1 and division 2a are national leagues. Division 2b is divided into four regional leagues (central, north, east and south) and division 3 consists of local groups regionalised to sensibly cut down on travelling and expense. This is the league in which Real Ávila play, but have aspirations of promotion through the 2009 play offs.

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