Return to Ávila and Salamanca

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Ávila

For five long years now, I’ve wanted to return to Ávila, a small Castilian capital that I fell in love with on a short day trip from Madrid on a snowy February day in 2010. I even toyed with switching with someone in Ávila who was wanting to stay in Bilbao (and in the end, I’m glad I stayed in Bilbao, rain and egotistical people Capital of the World). I also wanted to return to Salamanca and give the famous university city a second chance, as the first time left me rather unimpressed.

I took advantage of being in Ávila province last week for VaughanTown to revisit these places on the way back. I regret not being able to visit some of the places nearby like Ciudad Rodrígo and Zamora, but that gives me an excuse to return in the future. (I plan on picking up Zamora, Lugo and Ourense whenever I finish the Camino de Santiago.) It also gave me an opportunity to complete some travel to-dos that I had left hanging on my prior 2010 visits.

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¡Bienvenidos a Ávila!

On Friday afternoon, I said goodbye to my new friends from VaughanTown at Cuatro Postes, which was coincidentally the monument I deliberately avoided seeing so I would have an excuse to return to Ávila. Five years later…I went to my pensión next to the train station, rested a bit as I waited for it to cool down, and went off to explore the province capital.

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Cuatro Postes

I stopped at the Oficina de Turismo for a map and meandered the cobblestone streets and admired the walls and views. I didn’t go up the walls (murallas in Spanish) as it was 5€ and I was on a budget, and I had already done the wall walk. It’s well worth doing again though, but budgets are budgets unfortunately. I walked through the park along the Río Adaja and went to the Cuatro Postes to admire Ávila. On the way back, I visited the Parador, as I am prone to do whenever I am in a city that has a castle renovated into a hotel (ie…Parador).

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Catedral

Ávila is the highest province capital in Spain and is said to have more Romanesque and Gothic churches (along with bars and cafés) per capita in Spain and has been a UNESCO World Heritiage site since 1985.

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A león de Athletic in Ávila.

As I am prone to do, I took time to admire the beautiful sunset from just outside the walls. It was a special moment as I reflected on the amazing week I had just had and on my future as the sun said adiós to Friday, August 28th, 2015.

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Ávila Sunset

On Saturday morning, I had a quick tostada con tomate y café con leche at a bar near the train station before catching a bus to Salamanca. The bus was pretty empty, as I like buses to be, and it went through the small towns and villages between the two capital cities. I arrived to Salamanca around noon, and at first, my impression was the same as before: overrated.

After dropping my stuff off at the pensión, I made my way to the city centre and meandered the streets. It was hot, about 35ºC (90s F). The streets were full of people, however. The Plaza Mayor was happening, and although I didn’t have a relaxing café con leche in the actual Plaza, I did nearby.

The Plaza seemed smaller for some reason, but it also seemed more impressive than I remembered. I went inside the library at the Casa de las Conches (the Shell House), and I had a unmemorable lunch before going to find the frog. On my previous visit, I didn’t find the frog, and I wonder if that is why I have had a lot of bad luck in my professional career. It is said that university students must find the hidden frog for luck on their exams.

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Find the frog. ¿Dónde está la rana? I’ll never tell…

It took me a while, but I did it. I found the frog. Team Pablo for the win!

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Team Pablo!

I crossed the Roman bridge and admired the river.

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Lanzarillo de Tormes

As a fan of Lanzarillo de Tormes, an important piece of Spanish literature that inspired Charles Dickens, I was super excited to see the river again.

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Salamanca sunset

I watched the sun set from the Roman bridge, and I saw a bit of the supermoon, although it was hard to capture a picture of it.

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My camera doesn’t like moon pics.

Sunday morning, I went to the Cueva de Salamanca (the Cave of Salamanca), where legend has it the Devil gave lessons in evil. I saw no traces of Lucifer, thankfully (and that part of the legend escaped me until just now while researching the cave!) Today you can climb some steps for some precious views of the city.

Next, I went to the Parador, which didn’t impress me much. I took advantage of exploring the area near the river more. I stopped at a bar-café, Mordiscos I believe, and the waiter happened to be from Bilbao. Although I don’t support the local team (I am a diehard culé (Barça supporter) along with my #1 team, València CF), whenever I see an Athletic item, I have to ask. I do like how Athletic will only sign players from the Basque region, and I believe La Liga would be more interesting with Spanish-only players (I do like Messi and don’t mind Suarez, but I am so sick and tired of the antics of Neymar and especially Cristinao Ronaldo.) I digress. I had a relaxing café con leche here and read a while before having lunch at the same restaurant I ate at five years ago, Don Quijote.

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Salamanca

The Don Quijote restaurant has some amazing ambiance, and the food is quite good too. For those complaining that Spain doesn’t have vegetables, I had a delicious salad that also included peaches. (I never was a fan of veggies until I moved to Spain).

Salamanca left a better second impression than a first. When they had told me it was a “Granada del norte” (Granada of the north), I had my hopes high. If you say a city is a “Granada” of a place, you raise the bar so high it is impossible to reach. This time, with lower expectations, I got more out of my visit to the city.

That said…I still prefer Ávila and believe it is my favourite capital of Castilla y Léon, but Segovia, León and Burgos are pretty stiff competitors.

When I moved to Spain, one of my professors told me to spend a night in Ávila and another on Salamanca whenever I visted these two cities. I finally listened…por fin, le hice caso. The moral of the story, as he would say, is don’t marry a loser and listen to your professors.

 

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A different English village in Spain.

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Last week, I participated in another English village in Spain. This one, VaughanTown, happens to be part of the Vaughan English Learning Empire of Spain. From Sunday morning until Friday evening, I joined 21 other “Anglo” volunteers to help 21 españoles out with the English language by giving them an opportunity to use all that English grammar and vocabulary they have been studying ad nauseam for their entire lives but never actually use.

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The most popular 1-to-1 Spot

The location was in the heart of the Gredos near Barco de Ávila in the province of Ávila. The hotel was amazing, and the scenery was breathtaking. We arrived about 13:00, and after a brief introduction we had some lunch and time to check in and unpack. The rule is that two Anglos (English-speakers) and two Spanish-speakers sat at every table. At the beginning of the week, it was quite difficult for the Spanish-speakers to understand (especially the Scottish accents, but I had some problems with those myself). By the end of the week, their conversation skills had improved.

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The hotel/el hotel

After checking in and receiving more rules, we were off to our one to ones, which we spent talking to the Spanish speakers and assisting them as much as we could.  We usually walked on the many trails nearby, the most popular being to the Río Tormes (Lanzarillo de Tormes) Throughout the week, there were some group activities and three Entertainment Hours, which consisted of skits rehearsed throughout the day.

The Spanish also have to prepare a presentation in English. As a lifelong student of Spanish (and now Catalán), I understand the nerves of having to present on a topic not of your choice in a language that is not your own. It’s very difficult. I can barely do it in English myself if it’s not in the classroom.  Major props to the Spanish who participated.

One evening, there was a queimada, which is a Galician tradition to burn out the bad things in your life. Queimada is an alcoholic drink made from orujo (a Galician alcoholic beverage), sugar, lemon peel, coffee beans and cinnamon that is set on fire. It’s ready when the flames are a bright blue.

On Wednesday, we had a brief tour of the village of Barco de Ávila. On Thursday during my free time, I found another village, Los Llanos de Tormes, which had even more beautiful views of the Gredos mountains.

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Los Llanos de Tormes

There was lots of wine, even more water, lots of great meals, but most importantly were the memories I now have of these 42 people from all over Spain and all over the world who had gathered here this week.

I’m not going to make a statement as of which is better, VaughanTown or Pueblo Inglés    (now Diverbo). Both are unique opportunities, and both depend on the participants. You get out of it what you put into it. Either one will give you lifelong memories and a week with some fantastic people, and there are too many variables to say which is better.

If you’re interested in applying for a week with VaughanTown, their website can be found here.

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Ávila…a wall around the city.

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Ávila, a small Castilla y León capital of 59,000 habitants located 1132 metres (3714 feet) above sea level 115 kilometres north of Madrid, remains one of my favourite cities in the Greatest Peninsula in the World and a place I’ve wanted to return to ever since my first (and really, only) visit in 2010. I definitely prefer it to its neighbours Segovia (which I also love) and Salamanca.

Ávila is said to have the highest number of Romanesque and Gothic churches per capita in Spain, along with bars and restaurants. Along with Toledo, it’s one of the most medieval cities in Spain, and by visiting the city, you feel like you’re stepping back into time. The city is surrounded by medieval walls, which for a nominal fee, you can visit and walk along the top of. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 for good reason.

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It was a snowy morning in late February 2010 when I visited Ávila. I caught the morning train from Chamartin as I really didn’t feel like going to Estación Sur de Madrid (whenever does anyone want to go there?) and the price was about the same. A couple of hours through some gorgeous countryside, and I was in Ávila to have my morning tostada con tomate y café con leche. I remember going instantly to the muralla (wall) and paying to walk above it and falling in love with the city and the wall. It was cold but sunny, and I was quite happy to see snow once again. I meandered through the city, planning a return trip that I still have yet to make. I left something left to see, the Los Cuatro de Postes, so I would make sure to come back. I made it to the Springfield and shopped the last bit of their rebajas (sales) before heading back to Madrid. I was tired from the day’s meanders.

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Yeah, I’ve never really made it back, but I did see the Los Cuatro de Postes from a bus stop of 15 minutes on the way to a summer camp. And I made it back to Ávila provincia (province) in 2010, to a beautiful village called Candeleda. I was in the mountains a bit away from the town, but I fell in love with the brilliant sunset I saw every night.

My personal blog’s comments on Ávila were short and to the point. I always go back and read them to refresh my memory. I was going through a BAD flatmate situation at that time, which explains why it was so short as I had been complaining about that instead of writing on my day. Youth!

Yesterday, I went to Ávila for the day. We read about it in class. It’s an amazing city…highest province capital in Spain. It has this “muralla” (wall) surrounding the city. It’s just how I like my Spanish cities to be. A clash of medieval and modern. Way cooler than Zaragoza.

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Ávila Capital

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The province capital is a wonder in itself. Higher in altitude than any other Spanish capital, the city offers spectacular views with a medieval flair. It has a ton of churches to visit, including a cathedral and basilica, many beautiful plazas to have your relaxing café con leche (or irlandés (Irish)) and a ton of charm and history.

Muralla

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The city walls were constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries and has a perimeter of around 2516 metres (7548 feet or 2516ish yards), which is the equivalent of 88 blocks. There are 9 gates, and the average height is 12 metres (12 yards or 36 feet) and is the largest fully illuminated monument in the world. Only about half of it is open for pedestrians, and it’s worth the price of admission to walk wherever you can on top of these mighty walls.

La Sierra de Gredos (Yet to discover)

The mountains of the Gredos are one of the largest in Spain, and its highest peak, Pico Almanzor is 2592 metres (7776 feet) high. The mountains are home to many flora and fauna, and part of the mountains belong to the protected area Parque Regional de la Sierra de Gredos.

Candeleda

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I was lucky enough to work at a summer camp located out in the countryside near Candeleda where I had this sunset every night. The “Andalucía de Ávila” has around 5200 residents and is home to the festival honouring their virgin Chilla in September and the Candelas in February. Former British Prime Minister John Major has spent many summers here.

Arévalo (Yet to discover)

Arévalo, population 8100, is a village whose name stems from the Celtic word “arevalon”, meaning “city near the wall”. Today its North Walls can still be seen, and the rest of the walls are undergoing restoration. It also is home to a Castle, el Castillo de Arévalo.

Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Yet to discover)

While only boasting 1600 habitants, the small village of Madrigal de las Altas Torres has one very important citizen, Queen Isabel I of Castilla, better known as the Isabella in Ferdinand and Isabellla, the Catholic Kings who finished the Reconquista and funded Christopher Columbus. Today it has some medieval walls and a chance to see España profunda.

Castro de Ulaca (Yet to discover)

Castro de Ulaca is an archaelogical zone near Solosancho and has been a “Bien de Interés Cultural” since 1986 (Place of Cultural Interest). It’s located in the Sierra de la Paramera and has an altar, a sauna and various houses from the Vettones in the century 1 B.C.