Now, looking at my wrinkled hands, I marvelled at how totally unprepared I was for the cold…For someone from the tropics like me, that’s Cool Runnings cold.
My fingers were getting numb. You would think that the long, uphill walk from the gates to the Convento de Santa Teresa would warm me up a bit but it just exhausted me instead. I was hungry. I was getting cranky. It was about five degrees celsius out in the open here, twenty degrees less than what I’m normally used to back home. The three layers of shirts under my overcoat didn’t help either. I was not prepared for this. The guidebook said it was supposed to be a little bit warmer in June!
We arrived in this medieval city just the day before. Avila was fourth on our 10-city itinerary across four European countries. We just came from sunny Portugal where both the weather and the people were particularly warm. In great contrast to that, our arrival in Spain last night was greeted by a cold sheet of rain and weary faces from the receptionists at our hotel.
We arrived pretty late and almost didn’t make it for dinner. Luckily, the restaurant our travel agent booked was nice enough to wait for us. After a hearty roasted-chicken-and-potato dinner, we hurried back to the hotel which was outside the city gates. From my hotel room I could see how beautiful the walled city was bathed in the evening light. I couldn’t wait to explore it the next day.
Now, looking at my wrinkled hands, I marvelled at how totally unprepared I was for the cold. Of course, silly me never bothered to check what the weather was like here. Had I done my research, I would have known that Avila, being 1135 metres above sea level, would be very cold even in June, with temperatures going down to as low as 4-10 degrees celsius. For someone from the tropics like me, that’s Cool Runnings cold.
It didn’t help my mood when I saw my travel companions, all dressed in proper clothing, with matching gloves to boot. I screamed at one of them, ran at him in full force, and tore the gloves off his hands. Sorry, that was just me imagining. In reality, I dragged my feet grudgingly across the cobble-stoned pavement silently cursing myself.
As I was about to enter the church, an old gypsy woman–one of those who sit around churches selling religious items and the like– stopped me in my tracks. She touched my arm and looked at me imploringly. I thought she was begging for money so I started to get coins from my purse. But to my surprise, she held my hand and whispered “…muy bonita.” I looked at her weathered face and could only see sincerity. With my very limited Spanish, I humbly accepted her compliment. ” Muchas gracias,” I said with a smile, leaving her at the front door, giggling (perhaps at either my poor diction or my credulousness).
After offering a prayer inside the church, I stepped out and looked admiringly at the Convento de Sta. Teresa from outside. The convent is where the relics of Avila’s most famous daughter, Teresa, are kept.
For Catholics, Sta. Teresa is some sort of a medieval icon. She is widely known as the reformer of the Carmelite order and together with St. John of the Cross, founded the Discalced Carmelites. A Doctor of the Church, she was also a theologian whose seminal work, The Interior Castle, is one of the most read and studied Catholic literature in history.
Teresa practiced spiritual contemplation and mysticism. During one of her many spiritual ecstacies, she experienced the famous “transverberation of the heart,” which she described thus:
The angel appeared to me to be thrusting the spear of fire into my heart and piercing my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and left me all on fire with a great love of God.
This vision inspired the Italian sculptor Bernini to create The Ecstacy of Sta. Teresa, which is quite erotic, methinks.
//The Ecstacy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
Although the Convent was interesting, I found that the medieval city itself was even more. The gigantic towers of Avila’s walled gates were magnificent and a sight to behold.
I stood beside the formidable structure in awe of its granite-work. Built in 1090, it boasts of eighty-eight towers and nine gateways. This is perhaps why Avila was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985. It is also the largest illuminated monument in the world.
//That’s me attempting to wall-climb.
After the brief tour, we walked back to the bus that would take us to another medieval Spanish town. Across the road, I could see the sleepy town below, with mist hovering over the silent houses. Above, the sun was just beginning to peek out of the thick clouds, a few rays escaping and softly caressing the terracotta rooftops. It was quite breath-taking, really. Yet somehow, I couldn’t help but think of Manila’s corrugated tin rooftops. And how warm it was back home in June.
As I walked on, I noticed three old men sitting on a wooden bench, their platinum heads snug under their berets. They were discussing something that sounded important. I imagined them talking about how expensive olive oil has become or how fast the bread from the local bakery has been getting stale lately. In a small European town like this, food as much as politics, could also hold center stage.
I aimed my camera at them, hoping to elicit a smile. One of them spotted me and put on the best scowl I have ever seen on an older European gentleman, ever. What a champ. Disappointed, I couldn’t help but think that the cold really can bring out the worst in people.
With lips dry and fingers numb, I struggled to walk still, thinking what profound wisdom I could take home with me after this visit. But with my brain frozen, it was an effort to come up with anything, except this…
That I could never, ever, live in a cold place.
Convento de Santa Teresa
Plaza de la Santa 2, Ávila, Spain Museum: May-Sept daily 10am-2pm and 4-5pm; Oct-Apr Tues-Sun 10am-1:30pm and 3:30-5:30pm. Sala de Reliquias: daily 9:30am-1:30pm and 3:30-7:30pm