I had a week to spend alone in Spain before visiting friends south of Barcelona. It was a chance to indulge my meditative nature and my interest in medieval history. I could be in a corner of the world where no one knows me and allow myself to get dreamily lost in time. With a Lonely Planet travel guide as my companion, I set off by train from Paris to explore the culturally rich old towns of Ávila, Salamanca and Toledo.
From Paris (Gare d'Austerlitz) I could connect to Ávila via Madrid. Sharing a compartment with three women on the overnight Talgo express train did not exactly provide quality sleep, but I saved on hotel costs and arrived in Madrid in daylight. Foreign cities can seem pretty hostile late at night when metal blinds hide store facades, and hotels offering transportation tend to be prohibitively expensive.
The train arrived at Chamartin station in the boondocks, north of Madrid. Going on to Ávila (115 km) required transferring to Atocha station in town. Fortunately, my train mates told me (between their English and my flawed Spanish) how to do it easily without using the subway, simply by changing tracks upon arrival.
Before noon, under sunny Castillian skies, the train pulled in at Ávila. A city bus went from the "RENFE" (national railway station) to the walled city, but since it is only about a kilometer and my backpack weighed just 12 lbs, I decided to stretch my legs and cross town on foot. Ávila, what a gem! At Puerta de Alcázar, I gazed at the well-preserved pale gold, 11th century walls with their eighty-some towers and battlements, and knew I had found the Spain I had imagined.
Even my hotel, the Hostal Las Cancelas, was much in keeping with what I expected of Spain. I was charmed by its wrought iron and polished carved wood decor, and by its pleasant third generation owners. My room was impeccable, and its new bathroom seemed a luxurious bonus in such old world surroundings. But I hadn't come here to stare at my hotel room, so I doffed my backpack, took a revitalizing bath, glanced at my map and went for a bit of reconnoitering before searching for a place to eat. Spaniards eat lunch around 2pm.
Tiny enclosed Ávila is less than 200 meters wide and half a kilometer long. I was never far from the walls and the nine access gates, so I wandered the maze of streets without my map. When my stomach started making noises, I explored outside the walls starting at Plaza de Santa Teresa from Puerta de Alcázar and found that with each block, the prices on the restaurant menus went down by a few hundred pesetas. My tortilla de patatas (potato omelet) was tasty, filling, and inexpensive (600 pesetas; C$5.50, US$3.75) and came with a salad. Diners at tables nearby, having already finished their meals, were busy dealing cards for a few hours of playing. Shops were closed now and would re-open around 4pm when I would treat myself to a pastry from a multitude of lip-licking displays.
Meanwhile, I visited the 12th century Cathedral, and the Convento, a baroque chapel built at the birthplace of Santa Teresa (16th century reformer of the Carmelite order) then the Monasterio de la Encarnacion, where she is said to have had several mystical encounters. I don't know about that, but if restless spirits exist, this town must have its share. For one thing, the remains of Master Inquisitor Torquemada are buried here in the Monasterio de Santo Tomas, which functioned first as a university then as a center for the infamous Inquisition.
At sunset, I sit on a bench gazing over the valley, musing over that dark period of history. Every church spire and tall building seems to host a family of storks with huge hungry beaks poking out of nests a meter wide and deep. They too have watched events unfolding here for millennia. On Paseo del Rastro near the south side of the wall, parents stroll by with well-dressed children eating ice cream. As has been the custom for centuries, in the plaza under the arcade, groups of older folks gather to pass the evening. It is nearly midnight before everyone finally goes home and I climb up to my room. It has been a fulfilling day.
The next morning I took a day trip by bus to Salamanca. The bus was slightly less expensive and had a more convenient departure time than the train, but with smokers allowed at the back, it made for a less pleasant journey – the train has non-smoking compartments. About an hour and a half away on a quiet road, Salamanca is much larger than Saint Teresa's town. It has lost much of its former prestige as an intellectual center, but it is still a very graceful city and well worth the trip. Although it is quite a long walk from the bus station or the RENFE to the walled part of town, on foot one discovers the flavor of the place.
At the Plaza Mayor, designed and built in 1733 by Spanish architect José Churriguera, I sat at a café surrounded by grandiose sandstone buildings. Bullfights used to take place right here in this square, now teeming with book-laden university students. It was easy to visualize ladies in gowns of vibrant reds, blues, and saffron leaning over the iron balconies, fanning themselves and waving. I could almost hear the sounds of hooves and snorting animals, the excited crowd cheering Olé!.
Between pastries, fresh fruit, ice creams, and cold drinks on the run, I tried to get an overview of the main places of interest near the 800-year-old university. Here, where the extravagancies of Churrigueresque architecture belong, I was willingly transported back through the centuries. Where I walked, Fray Luis de León (1527-1591) might have walked, discoursing with students about astronomy, poetry, philosophy, and art. Salamanca is full of history; I could have spent a week or more here.
I had originally planned to leave Madrid for a future trip. Large cities can be daunting, and a few hours between trains seemed hardly enough time to bother trying to see anything of that immense city. But friends promised I'd regret missing it. And as the famous Prado Museum is just a few hundred meters from the Atocha train station, I changed my mind.
Taking an early train would give me eight full hours in Madrid before connecting onward to Toledo. I arranged a taxi-pickup to catch the 6:30am train from Ávila but was up in plenty of time in case it didn't show up and I needed to walk to the station. True to my instincts, a walk it had to be. Leaving my bag in a locker at Atocha, I grabbed a bite at a fast-food stand inside the station then went walking.
I found Madrid enchanting – and I have seen Paris many times – so much elegance everywhere you look. Plaza Mayor where the dreadful autos-da-fé took place during the Inquisition, Palacio Real, Paseo del Prado, Plaza de Neptuno; here was the Madrid of the Madrilenos. A scarcity of other tourists made the place more vibrantly Spanish so that soon I felt imbued by the spirit of Spain. I was so busy just walking and admiring, I was already tiring before reaching the Prado.
Leaving the museum so late was a mistake. I had forgotten my old rule of taking regular breaks when sightseeing. My legs were positively aching, and standing in front of paintings by Velázquez or Murillo or El Greco is simply not best done after hours of non-stop exploring. But I refused to leave the museum a minute earlier than needed in order to catch my train for Toledo. There would be time to rest later, but rest did not come as soon as I hoped. When I reached the Pension Segovia, very near the main plaza of Toledo, my reserved room had been rented – so much for credit card guarantees. "Don't worry," said the proprietor with a kindly three-toothed smile, "I'll find you a room." I checked my LP Guide and asked about nearby Hotel Imperia. "Yes, I can call them, but their rooms are expensive—4000 pesetas!" (C$37; US$25).
"I'll take it!" And she walked me over.
In the morning, I began sightseeing. Following my fancy, I drifted along behind one tour group or another, catching a few details of the various tour guides' commentary before wandering off on my own. Toledo is such a maze of streets and steep alleys. I didn't even bother trying to use my map. As long as I could get from the Plaza to my hotel, a few crooked lanes away, all would be fine. I spent over an hour at the cathedral, which is surely among the most beautiful in the world. I watched damascene artisans at work, admired the pottery and knives Toledo is famous for. Hours later my meanderings took me back to the Zodocover where, trying to ignore the gratingly incongruous McDonald's, I refreshed myself with tapas and beer.
That evening, after a dinner of judias con chorizo (sausage and beans), I sat at a café on the square and thought of all I had seen in these few days and of the cross-country journey ahead. The following night I would board a train bound for coastal Spain to meet friends in Tortosa, another ancient, picturesque town at the mouth of the Ebro River. I looked forward with pleasure to this more social part of my holiday and to sharing activities with friends, but that was even more reason to relish these final moments of unfettered contemplation. Yes, I was alone but never lonely – I had centuries of company.