When it comes to walled cities, Avila in Spain is about as impressive as it gets. Although it may lack the fairy-tale aesthetics of Carcassone or Rothenburg, few other surviving walled cities in Europe convey the true military importance of defensive fortifications as well as Avila does. Absolutely dominating the surrounding hills and cityscape, from certain perspectives the walls of Avila and its iconic round towers seem to stretch endlessly into the distance. At the time of their construction, the fortifications of Avila were among the most daunting on the planet. However, they can do little to stop the hordes of modern-day tourists and military history enthusiasts who swarm to the place every year.
Avila has a long history as one of one of central Spain’s most strategic cities. Local Celtic tribes maintained a fort here since before the arrival of the Romans. For over a thousand years it was an important stronghold in Iberia, first of the Romans, than the Visigoths, than the Umayyads and their successor Moorish kingdoms. It was finally sacked after repeated assaults by Christian Crusaders during the early years of the Reconquista.
This was followed by a period of decline, during which Avila served as a military base for further expeditions against the Moors. The Christian conquest of nearby Toledo in 1085, one of the most powerful Islamic kingdoms in Spain, threatened to eclipse the importance of Avila even further. However, Avila was close to the geographical core of the region now known as the province of Castile and Leon, which went on to become the Kingdom of Spain, and the ancient city got a new lease on life.
Because of its strategic location, the Spanish monarchs took a renewed interest in Avila, and effectively re-founded the city in the 11th century. Construction on the massive outer walls began in 1090, and continued for nearly three hundred years. By the time of the wall’s completion Avila was considered one of the most impregnable cities in Europe. The city reached its height about the same time that the Spanish empire did in the 1500s, and it waned just as fast in the ensuing centuries.
During this period Avila was never really threatened by enemies. However, the city did see military action a number of times, first during the Napoleanic Wars and later during the Spanish Civil War. The famous walls have survived surprisingly intact, though repairs were required in the 20th century. Their survival has ensured Avila as being one of Spain’s premier tourist destinations.
The Walls of Avila surround the old city center as it was laid out in the Middle Ages. The roughly oval-shaped fortifications enclose a huge area which incorporates a large hill that has been inhabited since ancient times. Although the city of Avila has since spilled out into the surrounding countryside, the immediate approaches to the walls on most sides are still kept mostly clear. This has helped to preserve the visual aesthetics of the city and make it much easier to gawk at.
The wall itself is statistically impressive. Running approximately two miles around the city, it has an average height of fifty feet and is over ten feet thick. It is protected by nine gates and nearly ninety, fairly evenly spaced round towers. Thanks to a dedicated populace who never had any particular reason to tear the wall down, and to local authorities who have kept it maintained for tourist purposes, the Avila walls and towers are among the best preserved anywhere.
The Walls of Avila still guard the roads from Porto on the coast to Madrid, approximately fifty miles to the east. They are a partially open site, and can be accessed at several locations around the old city. There is no charge for admission. Web: www.avilaturismo.com (official website).
Iberia was home to many fantastic walled cities that spring up during the turbulent eras of the Taifa kingdoms and the Reconquista. There are several excellent surviving examples of civil fortifications throughout the peninsula. The Walled City of Toledo and the Walled City of Zaragoza are probably the best in Spain after Avila, while the surviving portions of the Walled City of Girona and the Walled City of Seville are also worth a look. Even more impressive than these is the hilltop Walled City of Obidos in nearby Portugal.