Holy Toledo: Forget the Camino, here's Spain's new pilgrim path
Short breaks in Spain
Whether religious or not, following in the footsteps of Saint Teresa is a great way to see this beautiful part of Spain.
Pilgrims - many of them Irish - have walked the Route of St James along the Camino for centuries. In recent years, it has become a bucket list must-do for tourists and a financial boost locally, particularly along Spain's northern coast.
Now, a new pilgrimage trail is up and running.
It came to the fore last year to celebrate the 500th anniversary this year of the birth of St Teresa (also called Saint Teresa of Jesus), one of the country's most famous historical and literary figures.
This trail is different because she founded 17 convents in cities throughout the country, so travelling by car or public transport (not walking, as with the Camino) is required. Pilgrims decide their own route and receive a special card as a recognised pilgrim (see factbox) when they've visited a minimum number of cities and finished up in the beautiful town of Avila.
Never heard of Saint Teresa?
Briefly, she was a prominent Spanish mystic Carmelite nun during the Counter Reformation and an accomplished author of religious books. Aged 15, her mother died so she was placed in the care of the Augustinian nuns in Avila where she became very ill. It is reported she then had a vision which subsequently changed her life.
In 1535, she joined the Carmelite Order. Becoming disillusioned and longing for a stricter, less worldly, life she set about founding the convents.
On her journey, she joined up with another mystic and scholar, St John of The Cross (working parallel with the Carmelite monks), and reformed the Carmelites into the Discalced Carmelites Order. She died in 1582, was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1614 and canonised by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.
For dedicated pilgrims, it's an enchanting trail of ancient convents and monasteries. For us tourists, an interesting way to see some undiscovered areas of Spain.
I don't consider myself to be particularly religious and heading out to Spain knew precisely nothing about St Teresa. But by day two, I had become fascinated and seriously impressed with all she achieved in her short life. The illness, the long journeys, the aggression from existing Carmelite Order - a remarkable story.
A most moving moment...
This was meeting and talking to a nun of today through a hatch with double grilles in one of the convents, apparently a rare event.
Sr Anna Maria, originally from Australia, qualified as an architect but in her 20s received a calling to follow in St Teresa's footsteps. Travelling to Spain, she joined the Order and closed herself off from her family and the outside world.
Softly and calmly, she described life in the convent. Her cheerful voice and infectious laugh will remain with me for a long time.
The 'Footsteps of St Teresa' route, which was designed to mark the 500th anniversary, is also about attracting tourists to 17 cities. We managed five, starting from the lovely walled city of Avila (an hour from Madrid). Fab views from top of the ancient walls containing nine separate gates to city.
The old part of town is particularly interesting. Be sure to take a ride on the tuk-tuk - a half-bicycle half-bus driving around the tourist spots.
Next morning, we took the scenic route along a new road known as the 'high road' to Toledo. The first capital of Spain and for those who enjoy their sweets, the home of marzipan. The four Towers of The Alcazar dominate the skyline.
The enormous cathedral is the second largest in Spain with 27 chapels. Look for works by El Greco in the sacristy. On to Malagon, where the Saint Joseph cloister convent was purposely built, (other convents founded were adapted in existing buildings). The actual stone where the saint sat watching building in progress can be seen.
In the local church the confessional booth used by St John of the Cross has the original clay tiled floor.
Beas de Segura
This historic and pretty town (tiny streets bedecked with flowers) is gateway to the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas Nature Reserves. The impressive Monastery of San Jose del Salvador was St Teresa's 10th foundation.
Caravaca de la Cruz, Murcia
The final stop and close to the coast. This is definitely seaside territory and much less crowded than the Costas. A steep hill in the city ends at the Basilica-Sanctuary of The True Cross (not to be missed). Down in the old town the lovely and well preserved Baroque church adjoining the closed-up convent (nuns left city in 2004), is worth seeing.
And did I mention the fantastic scenery, olive trees as far as the eye could see, excellent food and local wines encountered along the route?
I returned home much wiser and full of admiration for St Teresa and as a tourist pleased to have visited some beautiful parts of Spain away from the more usual hotspots.
You can obtain a card to be recognised as a pilgrim who has taken the Footsteps of Saint Teresa route in Spain. It's available from tourist offices in the towns and villages along the route, or you can download it at huellasdeteresa.com.
You only have to visit a minimum of four cities in at least two regions (choose from Andalusia, Murcia, Castile-La Mancha, Madrid and Castile-León), and finish your route in Avila, where you can collect your distinction at the Pilgrim's Office (visitor reception centre).
George Keegan travelled to Spain with the Spanish Tourism Office (spain.info). He stayed in the four-star Parador in Avila, Convento de Carmelitas Descalzos (Espiritu Santo) in Toledo and Hospederia de Los Padres Carmelitas, Caravaca de La Cruz
Useful websites: avilaturismo.com; toledo-turismo.com; malagon.es; beasdesegurura.e; turismocaravaca.com.
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