Ávila is a Spanish fortified city located in the autonomous community of Castile and León and is the capital of the Province of Ávila. Ávila was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
It is sometimes called the Town of Stones and Saints, and it claims that it is one of the towns with the highest number of Romanesque and Gothic churches per capita in Spain. It has complete and prominent medieval town walls, built in the Romanesque style; writer José Martínez Ruiz, in his book El alma castellana, described it as “perhaps the most 16th-century town in Spain”. The town is also known as Ávila de los Caballeros, Ávila del Rey and Ávila de los Leales (Ávila of the Knights, Ávila of the King, Ávila of the Loyalists), each of these epithets being present in the town standard.
Orson Welles once named Ávila as the place in which he would most desire to live, calling it a “strange, tragic place”. Various scenes of his 1965 film Chimes at Midnight were filmed in the town.
Situated 1132 metres above sea level on a rocky outcrop on the right bank of the Adaja river, a tributary of the Duero, Ávila is the highest provincial capital in Spain. It is built on the flat summit of a rocky hill, which rises abruptly in the midst of a veritable wilderness; a brown, arid, treeless table-land, strewn with immense grey boulders, and shut in by lofty mountains.
In pre-Roman times (5th century BC), Ávila was inhabited by the Vettones, who called it Obila and built one of their strongest fortresses here. There are Bronze Age stone statues of boars nearby.
Ávila may have been the ancient town known as Abula, mentioned by Ptolemy in his Geographia as being located in the Iberian region of Bastetania. Abula is mentioned as one of the first towns in Hispania that was converted to Christianity by Secundus of Abula, however, Abula may alternatively have been the town of Abla.
After the conquest by ancient Rome, the town was called Abila or Abela. The plan of the town remains typically Roman; rectangular in shape, with its two main streets (cardo and decumanus) intersecting at a forum in the centre. Roman remains that are embedded in town walls at the eastern and southern entrances (now the Alcazar and Rastro Gates) appear to have been ashlar altar stones.
By tradition, in the 1st century, Secundus, having travelled via the Roman province of Hispania Baetica, brought the Gospel to Avila, and was created its first bishop.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Ávila became a stronghold of the Visigoths. Conquered by the Moors, it was repeatedly attacked by the northern Iberian Christian kingdoms, becoming a virtually uninhabited no man’s land. It was repopulated about 1088 following the definitive reconquest of the area by Raymond of Burgundy, son in law of Alfonso VI of León and Castile. He employed two foreigners, Casandro Romano and Florin de Pituenga, to construct a stone frontier town and creating the walls that still stand.
The city achieved a period of prosperity under the Catholic Monarchs in the early 16th century, and their successors Charles V and Philip II of Spain, but began a long decline during the 17th century, reducing to just 4,000 inhabitants.
In the 19th century, there was some population growth with the construction of the railway line from Madrid to the French border at Irun and an important junction near the town. In 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the town quickly became part of the area occupied by rebel troops. Growth continued slowly again under Franco, but Ávila has not had a major influence in Spanish society in recent history, apart from the nurturing of politicians such as Adolfo Suárez, the first democratically elected prime minister Spanish post-Franco, and José María Aznar, prime minister from 1996 to 2004, who represented Ávila in the Cortes but was not from the town.