About an hour and half outside of Madrid there is a town called Ávila. After hopping off the train into the small city this past Sunday, I had a short itinerary of only two “must sees” set to be accomplished during my 7 hour visit.
1. Having read her work, “The Interior Castle” in high school, the Catholic in me recognized Ávila as the birthplace of Santa Teresa, so I headed to see perhaps the most grotesque thing I’ve come upon since arriving in Spain: Teresa’s nearly 500 year old finger. Severed from her right hand, the saintly finger is rocking some serious bling, adorned by an emerald ring. I gasped, I shuddered, I pondered the tufts of fur (?) creeping out of it, and then I moved on.
2. Ávila’s main attraction is the rather impressive stone wall that surrounds the city, still complete despite dating back to the 11th century. Facing a fear of heights and my own personal tendency of falling up steps, I climbed to the top of the famous “muralla” and circled the city from above. Casually strolling along the centuries-old structure, I stopped and read a brief sign, recounting the history of Ávila’s medieval wall. It read: “The wall is a great book in which all styles, cultures, languages, and visions of the world are present.” A light bulb went off in my head and a wave of relief washed over me. There in front of me, spelled out by some ever so kind Spanish historical association, was the overall impression of Spain that I had amassed over the past month, yet couldn’t find the words to describe. Throughout Spain, towns like Ávila had been passed through and populated by an array of peoples. Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Jews, and Christians have all, at one time or another, found a home in Spain. Often times, as one people left for one reason or another (the most common of course being expulsion by the next wave of people), the new inhabitants built upon or converted that which had been left behind: Mosques turned into churches – sacred space for sacred space – or stones taken from one structure to build another. This process of almost layering culture upon culture, religion upon religion, civilization upon civilization, has been, for me, the most fascinating aspect of Spain’s past.
As an American, I can’t help but to draw comparisons between Spain and the United States. Of course America is the great melting pot, where every culture and ethnicity come together to form whatever it is one might consider the American identity. This idea has been ingrained in me, and every other American citizen, from about the time I could talk. What I never realized, or perhaps bothered to consider, was the diverse history that exists across the world in countries like Spain. It’s not a simple story of this people and this ruler, followed by that people and that ruler, but there exists an actual exchange that continually took place. Buildings were recycled, words were adapted, and structures like the wall in Ávila were built, seen, and utilized by centuries upon centuries’ worth of inhabitants. Certainly this is a different sort of cultural mixing than our own American variety, but my new world eyes are still amazed to see Roman ruins or Arabic script on Spanish soil.