The first question is, did you read Part One? If you didn’t, you’re most definitely missing out. After all, *clears throat awkwardly* I am a wildly talented writer …
In all seriousness, do not let my poor attempt at writing deter you from experiencing the wonders of Segovia. It was number one on my list for a reason.
If you are a keen bean and already read Part One, by all means ignore me and continue reading. I’ll try not to disappoint.
The next stop on my journey was Ávila. I had absolutely no idea what to expect before I arrived but as it turns out, Ávila was instantly impressive. Completely surrounded by medieval walls dotted with towers, it is simultaneously intimidating and awe-inspiring.
I later read that Orson Welles described the town as a “strange, tragic place.” It’s a rather odd way for him to describe a city which he supposedly longed to live in if you ask me. Then again, I am not a brooding world-renowned actor and director. And honestly I don’t think that I could argue against his description.
Tragic might be a tad melodramatic but, there is an undeniable sobriety prevalent throughout the town. Known for its multitude of churches and its association with Saint Teresa of Ávila, the term frivolous doesn’t seem to be used here very often.
That being said, it is nothing short of fascinating. Surprisingly, of the three towns listed here, Avila felt most like a fully functioning city. While Toledo and Segovia both seemed to revolve around tourism, Avila offered a real community. Think of it as less of an amusement park and more of a quiet retreat. It’s a chance to dip your toe into the everyday lives of a more traditional, straight laced Spanish community.
If there is anything Ávila can be proud of, it is its walls. Europeans seem to have a slight obsession with any sort of wall that dates back more than a few hundred years. If a town is lucky enough to have preserved its ancient walls, it’s practically a shoo-in to become a heritage site. The bigger the wall, the greater the attraction, and Ávila tops them all.
Dating back almost a thousand years, the walls are undoubtedly what make the town so unique. Stretching over 2500 meters with 88 towers, imposing does not even begin to cover it.
Needless to say, walking the walls is a prerequisite. However, I have to admit that it was not my favourite experience. Roughly half of the walls are open to tourists making for a rather long walk without cover from the beating sun. Sunscreen is essential and heeled sandals are definitely a bad idea, trust me.
I rounded off my trip in Toledo and without realising it, quickly found that I had saved the best for last (though it is certainly a close call). Why was it my favourite? It isn’t entirely explainable, but I’ll give it a go.
Toledo sits on a hilltop nestled in a bend of the River Tagus. The location gives it the feeling of being cut off – in the best sense. Toledo somehow manages to seem ageless. Maybe it’s the eclectic mix of cultures and architectural styles, but the city feels ancient and completely fresh at the same time.
Livelier than Segovia and less subdued than Ávila, Toledo is a unique patchwork of cultural influences. Evidence of Arab rule during the medieval period is still prevalent as is that of the large Jewish community that lived there for several hundred years.
It isn’t everyday that you find a cathedral, a synagogue and a mosque all dating back to the medieval period in the same small town. The Santa María la Blanca is one of the oldest synagogues in Europe and the effects of Arab design in the city’s architecture gives the city a distinct flair.
After having visited close to a hundred cathedrals around half of which have been gothic, I am no longer easily astounded. But visiting the Cathedral in Toledo was undoubtedly an unforgettable experience. While overall it follows a similar mould to other gothic cathedrals sprinkled across Spain, it was one of the most beautiful and memorable I visited. Outside surrounding buildings crowd it, but inside it is cavernous. Without doing the Cathedral an injustice by trying in vain to describe it in detail, it is the most beautifully haunting piece of architecture in the city.
With its unique beauty, Toledo has naturally established itself as an artistic centre. Clearly, El Greco was also inspired by the city. He produced many of his later works while he was living there and remained there until his death. Many of his paintings can still be seen in the city.
I don’t tend to waste my time with souvenir shopping when I travel. Tacky shot glasses and magnets are just not my thing. But the main souvenirs in Toledo turned out to be an integral part of the city’s culture and heritage.
There are two things that Toledo is famous for producing more than anything else. The first is steel, specifically for blades. Surprised? You weren’t the only one. I certainly didn’t expect to find souvenir shops crowded with extravagant swords and daggers that looked as if they had been swiped from a movie set. Except for the cashier, some of these shops could’ve been mistaken for medieval armouries. While it might be tempting, this isn’t the place for an impulse purchase. Try explaining away a broadsword in your luggage.
If sharp objects aren’t your cup of tea, rest assured, Toledo is just as famous for its Damascene artistry. If you have no idea what this is that is because you have probably never come across it before. Toledo is one of the largest centres for Damascene in the world. The art involves inlaying layers of metal most commonly silver or gold on a blackened steel background. The effect is striking and completely unique.
You will find stores crammed with jewellery and decorative objects using the Damascene technique, not all made with the same quality so be careful what you buy. I came home with earrings as well as two bracelets. In case you were wondering, I also came home with a small letter opener in the style of a sword. What can I say? I’m a big Game of Thrones fan.
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Middle: Ávila Walls
Bottom: Toledo Cathedral