Spain: Sun and fun in the footsteps of St Teresa of Avila
How to find your inner nun
I'm in a state of disbelief, and I may be struck down by lightning, but I have been on my second pilgrimage in as many months.
This time it's to Spain and a journey in the footsteps of St Teresa of Avila.
I'm not even vaguely religious, but it doesn't all have to be about prayer and holiness. There's the craic and sightseeing too.
We started our trip in the town of Avila, the birthplace of Teresa, about seventy miles from Madrid. It's a beautiful walled city, boasting a fabulous preserved wall with 88 turrets and we stayed overnight at the Parador de Avila, just inside the walls. It's a gorgeous building on the site of the former 16th century Piedras Albas palace. Our rooms were spacious with antique furnishings and every comfort.
'Huellas Teresa de Jesus' is a camino-like concept initiated two years ago to follow in the footsteps of St Teresa and a great way to see a somewhat undiscovered part of Spain. All in all there are seventeen cities in which she created foundations and the first of these is in Avila. The convent of San Jose was built in 1562 and has been designated a national monument.
Avila is a lovely city to wander around. The medieval streets are full of bars and shops. And a pit stop for four beers and a white wine amounted to the princely sum of €9.50. The seventeenth century Convento de Santa Teresa is built on the site of Teresa's house and contains some of her relics, including her ring finger, the sole of her sandal and the walking stick she used later in life. There is also a fabulous Basilica outside the walls which marks the site of the martyrdom of St Vincent. Teresa herself, at age seven, ran away with her brother to find martyrdom from the Moors, but was spotted by her uncle outside the walls and brought home. We also visited the spot where he found her, known as the 'Cuatro Postes'. From Avila we moved to Toledo and Teresa's fifth 'foundation' as she called her convents. We stayed in the Carmelite convent in Plaza de Carmelitas des Calzos. The rooms were original cells but en suite bathrooms had been added. Three priests and two monks live here. I was now finding my inner nun.
Eleanor on her travels
The cathedral here is a sight to behold. It's the second biggest cathedral in Spain after Seville. There are seven hundred and fifty windows and twenty seven chapels, albeit some of them very small. Daniel was our very informative guide. And very handsome. Forget the inner nun. Let's leave it at the inner cougar..
El Greco lived in Toledo and the massive sacristy is home to many of his paintings. There are also works by Titian, Van Dyke and Goya. In the Middle Ages, Toledo was a mixture of Jewish, Christian and Muslim and it was then that the Cathedral was built.
We strolled through the cobbled stones of the Jewish quarter, which is denoted by little plaques on the street. A whole 'where's Wally' type adventure ensued. Kids at heart. We visited the two synagogues of the city. One from the twelfth century and one from the fourteenth. They are both now inactive as there are not enough Jews left.
Not many people in this area of Spain speak English and food ordering was a bit of an issue. It was good from the viewpoint that you felt you were genuinely abroad, but a tad confusing when in need of food. At one stage we were trying to help the waitress translate and thought she was describing meat balls. 'Yes, Yes, cows' balls' she assured us gleefully.
On another occasion we were told we were having meat with wool, which we presumed to be lamb but never found out. But our meal in 'Nuevo Almacen' in the centre of Toledo was divine. The inner nun was now completely gone and the cougar was firmly in place. Mario our waiter, a gorgeous English-speaking law student was able to fully describe our menu. Enough Tapas starters to feed an army. Spring rolls with Thai sauce, croquettes with bacon and cheese, croquettes with a quail's egg on top, anchovies and red peppers on thin crispy bread, couscous with tomatoes and white melted cheese to name but a few. And then octopus and beef, both cooked to perfection for the main course. All of this with desserts and beautiful local wine was enough to completely throw the diet to the winds.
And then it was on to Malagon and the third 'foundation' of St Teresa. She founded this Carmelite convent in 1568. A very quiet and peaceful town, they are very proud of their connections with the Saint. The nuns are not allowed to come out of the convent and have to speak to people through a grille.
It was here we met an Australian nun, who with her prioress spoke to us for some time through the grille. She had originally been Church of England and was studying Architecture in Sydney when she got the calling and came to Malagon. She told us that they get up at half five and pray and then do housekeeping interspersed with periods of prayer throughout the day.
It was on to Beas de Segura and Teresa's tenth foundation and a visit to the Monastery of San Jose del Salvador, which is home to many of the relics of the Carmelite saints.
And then it was our final port of call and Caravaca de la Cruz and the twelfth foundation. Here we stayed at Hotel Rural, another convent, which has 36 rooms and is €30 for a single and €50 for a double. An original letter from Teresa is housed in the convent.
Elena, our lovely guide, showed us around the fabulous castle which houses the 'Sanctuary of the True Cross'. We visited the convent which is now empty but beautiful and full of statues and paintings.
A fascinating way to see the hidden Spain. And find my inner nun.
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