The road to Avila lies over the mountains and through forests of pine. Beyond the Escorial the railway climbs steadily, and for long distances without passing any station. Finally it reaches the top of the divide and plunges, or rather glides by long and sweeping curves, to the plaina bare, deserted country not unlike that which surrounds Madrid. The crossing of the mountain range, however, gives a delightful interlude between these broad tracts of treelessness, and all the way from the Escorial to the summit and beyond, our train toiled slowly through great groves of resinous trees, their trunks gashed with the ax and provided with taps, from which the native juices of the wood oozed slowly into rude receptacles much as one sees it done on the pine-clad slopes of AEgina. The Spaniards, however, do not use the resin for their wine as do the Greeks.
The overpowering charm of Avila today lies not in her many churches, beautiful as some of them are, nor yet in the memory of her most famous and exemplary Saint Teresa. It is to be found rather in the stupendous cincture of ancient walls which encircle the town now as of old, almost perfectly preserved, and buttressed as of yore by four score of mighty towers. To see these at their best one must go outside the city, preferably toward the west, and ascend the slight grade of the highroad to Salamanca. One crosses the river a rather inconsiderable stream, but boasting two parallel bridges for all thatand climbs up to a grassy knoll near by. It is a sort of second Golgotha, marked from afar by a great stone cross; and from the little platform on which the cross is set the view back upon the walls and towers of Avila is unsurpassed.
We climbed to the level of the cross, and feasted our eyes on that incomparable city of the past. If the Alcazar crowning the steeps of Segovia had been the castle of our childhood dreams, this comprehensive view of well walled Avila realized to the full the story-book notions of what a walled city should be. There lay the whole northern and western flanks of the town, protected by massive bulwarks of stone, the towers, huge and semicircular, breaking the out-line at regular intervals, the whole crowned with battlements. Here and there yawning gates pierced the fortifications, and we should not have been in the least astonished to have seen a cavalcade of knights with glancing helms come sallying forth.
The practical completeness of the whole structure today is the only surprizing thing, But complete it is, and one will do very well to walk along the northern side of the city just under the shadow of the mighty bulwarks to get an adequate idea of its massiveness. Here and there on the tops of towers that thrust themselves above the crenellations of the wall one will inevitably see, as we saw, immense nests of storks; and if one is fortunate there will be seen the storks themselves returning, no doubt from beneficent visits to the fecund families of Avila, to bring food to their own young.
These walls were here when Teresa and her little brother toddled out to get the Moors to martyr them; in fact, at that distant day they were already five hundred years old, dating as they do from 1090. Nine years was this stupendous upland fortress in building; and the work was so well laid that it seems amply able to endure for yet another millennium.