The Wonders Of Spain - A Look At Spain's Heritage Gems
Published: Jun 17, 2011
From the medieval walls of Avila to the scallop shell and star symbols of Santiago de Compostela, images of Spain’s World Heritage Sites are well known around the world.
The highlights mentioned here are only a few of the nation’s treasures, and a comprehensive list is available at www.spain.info/ca
Avila: Golden Walled City
Avila’s walls, stretching 2.5 kilometres, are synonymous with the 1,000-year-old city. Beautifully restored in the 19th century, they glow golden in the Spanish sun. Pilgrims come here to revere native Saint Teresa (1515 – 1582) whose personal belongings are on display in a convent built over her birthplace. Segments from her eloquent writings, her sewing items, even her drum (played because she was not gifted with a voice) show us the saint as human being.
Look up at Avila’s church towers and you’ll likely see storks, or at least their nests. Storks are symbols of luck, and encouraged to build nests on cradle-like structures provided. While you’re in Avila, don’t miss Los Davila Palace, a fortress made up of four houses dating to the 13th century.
Caceres: The Heart Of Extremadura
Caceres is small (pop. 91,000) but big on interesting historical sights. It’s the cultural heart of Extremadura (but not the capital – that’s Merida), nudging up to the middle of Portugal. Picturesque towers dominate the walled historic quarter, and cobblestone streets wind past fortified homes and Renaissance palaces, reflecting Spain’s golden age. Local specialty souvenirs abound in little stores, and even the convents sell delicious homemade sweets and pastries. Talking of convents (and monasteries and churches), take note of Caceres’ serene courtyards. Within the walls you’ll find Moorish wells, cool gardens, and the Barrio Judio (Jewish quarter). It’s as if time stands still in this glorious old city.
Cordoba: A Roman Capital
A network of squares, whitewashed courtyards, and twisting alleys surround the Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, testimony to its multicultural background. Under Roman rule, this was the capital of Hispania Ulterior, and under the Moors the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate.
History hasn’t deterred the city from moving ahead and Cordoba has some of Spain’s most modern infrastructures and services including high-speed rail service (AVE) linking major cities.
Cordoba hosts myriad cultural events through the year, including Flamenco festivals, concerts, and ballet. And on the city’s outskirts is the Medina Azahara, an important building from Spain’s Andalusian heritage.
Cuenca: The Hanging Houses
Approach Cuenca by car and you notice the vertical scenery starting at the river and topped by the fortress city, with ancient homes hewn into the rock. A luxury parador, once the 16th-century San Pablo convent, yields marvellous views of the river valley and the cliff top old town.
Cuenca is pattered with medieval streets, plazas, museums and the imposing Bishop’s Palace. The main attraction is Casas Colgadas (hanging houses) dating to the 15th century and lovingly restored. (One houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, among the best in Spain.) Cuenca is beloved by artists, both Spanish and international, and the area has some of Spain’s oldest examples of cave paintings.
Salamanca: The Brightest Jewel?
The heritage cities are all jewels in Spain’s crown, but Salamanca might be the brightest. A Roman bridge leads to the university (founded in 1218) and the town – a museum of architecture – is preserved in its entirety as a national monument. See it as the late afternoon sun bathes the golden sandstone with soft light. You’ll fall in love.
Don’t miss the 14th-century cathedral chapel. Students consider it good exam luck to spend the night with their feet resting on the effigy of Bishop Anaya. He’s buried here with his son, daughter and lover. The cathedral also displays the Cristo de las Batallas, an image of Christ carried into battle by El Cid. (You can learn more of Spain’s medieval hero in Burgos, where he was born and is buried.)
The old university is a marvel of space and light. Climb its broad stairs to the majestic library, opened in 1479. Countless treasures include original manuscripts from Cervantes, and examples of censorship from the Inquisition. If someone stole a library book, the punishment was expulsion from Spain. (As far as I could discover, it still is.)
Salamanca is not to be missed, in my books.
Santiago de Compostela: The Pilgrims’ Way
The first thing you notice in Santiago de Compostela is the number of pilgrims. This is the end of their journey and for the next few days, the city is theirs. Many have walked (or cycled or ridden horseback) 800 kilometres from the French border, some farther, and some a lot less. Their first stop is the magnificent cathedral, where their achievements (regardless of religion or lack of it) will be acknowledged.
This is a vibrant university town with a spectacular array of restaurants, bars and hostelries, and a lively nightlife. An outstanding hotel is the beautiful parador in Obradoiro square, built for pilgrims in 1499. Today it’s also a monument, open to the public. Eye-catching for its modern design is the Galician Contemporary Art Centre, worth a visit to see the collections inside and views of the historic quarter from its terraces.
Segovia: A Feast For The Senses
Segovia is like a fairy tale city, with a hilltop old town boasting a cathedral so beautiful it’s known as “the lady of all cathedrals.”
The entrance to the historic quarter is from Azoguejo Square with its dramatic Roman aqueduct. From here a labyrinth of small streets winds up, up to the peak, and on the way, yields views of rooftops in a hundred different shapes and shades of terra cotta. As you walk past Casa de los Picos (now home to the School of Applied Arts and Crafts) it’s impossible not to run your hands against the granite point walls. Segovia is a feast for the senses.
Other notable medieval buildings include the Alhondiga corn exchange and the Torreon de Los Lozoya tower, both used for cultural exhibitions.
Reward yourself with lunch in the parador’s restaurant, overlooking the Guadarrama mountains (snow capped when I visited and a ski area in winter). And treat yourself to a visit of Segovia beyond the ancient walls. You’ll find beautiful squares, gardens and numerous Romanesque buildings.
Toledo: A Museum City
Toledo’s old town is protected on its hilltop perch, and reached after acre-upon-acre of apartment buildings and industry. Don’t be put off. Toledo has been a city of steel manufacture for five centuries and the name is still a byword for quality.
It’s an important capital in the Roman Catholic Church, and Holy Week (Easter) celebrations are second to none. The Cardinal of Toledo is leader of the church in Spain, and the cathedral one of the most important in Europe. It was built during Moslem rule, in 1227, when Christians were permitted to hold modified services.
This is El Greco’s town. Several of his paintings are displayed in the Museum of Santa Cruz, including the evocative Tears of St. Peter. The Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca is well worth a visit for its fine architecture. Built in 1180, it’s the only synagogue remaining since the purge of the Jews during the Inquisition.
Spain’s Special Routes
Spain is criss-crossed with a number of designated “routes” offering trip-planning focus for groups with special interests.
Via de la Plata (the Silver Route) travels a road used since Roman times, from Gijon, Asturias, to Seville. It passes through Granada, Caceres, and Salamanca among other places. You might find echoes of Washington Irving, who in 1829 travelled the trail in search of the soul of Andalucia.
The Caliphate Route explores Spain under Moorish occupation, and their overthrow by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. It passes through Cordoba, Montilla, Baena, and Granada. The latter houses that glorious Islamic legacy the Alhambra Palace, occupied by Ferdinand and Isabella, and their daughter Catherine. (She became the first wife of Britain’s Henry VIII.)
Jewish history has an important role in Spain, and the Route of the Sefarad outlines areas of interest across the country. Jewish Quarters dating to pre-Inquisition are found in Caceres, Cordoba, Oviedo, Ribadavia (featured in the Festival of History each July), Segovia and Toledo.
The Green Spain route takes travellers to the country’s lesser-known areas, particularly along the northern coast. Here, too, is the Cider Route, where the majority of tourists are Spaniards who come to participate in the area’s unique cider tasting. (Cider is poured from a raised arm into a glass held low and the amber liquid must “break” against the tumbler to aerate it.) The Costa Verde (Green Coast) of Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia is remarkably different from the southern Costas. Many beaches remain pristine, and development tends to be low-key. (The area is prone to unpredictable weather.)
Just a few kilometres southeast is La Rioja and one of several Wine Routes, this one extending into Castile and Leon. Any designated route from the Spanish Association of Wine-Producing Towns and Cities (ACEVIN) leads you to some of Spain’s oldest wine-growing regions.
The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) is the famous pilgrimage drawing walkers from around the world to travel to Santiago de Compostella in Galicia. They walk, cycle, and even travel by horse. For many, religion has little to do with it. It’s about getting in touch with self, meeting like-minded fellow pilgrims, and experiencing life one kilometre at a time. There are several “caminos” (routes) to Santiago, but the one known as the “French Route,” some 800-kilometres from the border across the northern regions, has been popular since the ninth century. It passes through fields and plains, villages, over mountains and through valleys, and towns such as Pamplona, Burgos and Leon.
The Castilian Language Route also has its focus in the north, in the beautiful red-earth countryside of Castile and Leon, and La Rioja. The region is bright with wildflowers and the windmills evoke Don Quixote. The language has its roots in the ancient cities of Avila, Burgos, Salamanca, Santo Domingo de Silos and Valladolid – creating a delightful itinerary to interest anyone, language focused or not.
You can find more information on these and other official Routes from www.spain.info/ca.