I went to Avila the first weekend I was here. I've actually had the pictures up for a while, but I'm just now getting around to writing about it because I am a bum. It's an easy day trip from Madrid (less than 15 EUR for a round trip train ticket) both because of it's distance (about an hour Northwest) and because there's really only three things that you would go to Avila to see. Those three things are, in no particular order: the cathedral, the medieval walls, and St. Teresa's birthplace. In the picture on the left, I'm standing on one of those things and a second is in the background. I trust you can work out which thing is which, and which is not pictured.
I went to the cathedral first, and found that I had it mostly to myself. The end of September is the beginning of the off-season, and Avila isn't at the top of the tourist list anyway, so instead of having to fight hordes it was just me, a few pairs of Spanish and Japanese tourists, and a French group. As for the cathedral itself, well the only interesting things are the fact that it's apse is actually a part of the city walls, and that it has a secret passage way that leads into the old city. Disappointingly, despite all sorts of signage talking about the secret passage way and its discovery (including several pointing right to the entrance) , the public is absolutely forbidden from exploring it.
Another thing the public is absolutely forbidden to do is take pictures, although given the guard/visitor ratio I probably could have gotten away with it if I had wanted to. Alas, the only thing I wanted pictures of was the one thing in the whole city I absolutely would not dare approach with my stupid flash-happy camera: the 15th century illuminated choir books. Naturally, since I have an interest in it, this was also the one thing about which the sleepy ticket agent/souvenir vendor did not have a book.
Something that kind of bothered me was the half-assed way that signage was applied to everything. It was not informative (i.e. nothing was said that I could not figure out myself by looking at the various items), and the signs themselves looked as if they had not been made or applied with much care. Especially in a sacred setting, I'm of the opinion that if you are not going to do something well, it is better not to do it. I would rather you gave me enough light to read the Latin inscription on a statue's base than have a poorly translate English card pasted next to it.
St. Teresa's birthplace was long ago converted into a convent, complete with a chapel on the location of her old bedroom. Like all pilgrimage sites in Spain, this one has over the years acquired a thick layer of bling that almost completely obscures it.
In the basement, there is a nice little museum explaining the events of Teresa's life. At least it is a nice little museum if you can read Spanish, which is the only language option there. I can read it well enough to get the gist, but by the time I left I had a splitting headache. Included in the museum are her writings, including a few of her actual manuscripts as well as printed versions. That's interesting for three reasons: 1.) she has a very distinctive style of handwriting, that is regardless of content, quite attractive; 2.) the printing press was still the hot new technology at the time, so the fact that her writings were noteworthy enough to print during her lifetime is interesting; and 3.) she is the only female Doctor of the Church which not only puts her in the same select group as Sts. Jerome and Thomas Aquinas, but means that essentially she was cannonized for her writing. For a woman in 16th Century Spain to have had the sort of influence that she had and continues to have, is absolutly mind boggeling.
The museum also includes exhibits about the founding of her order (she thought the order she was a part of was not strict enough, so she started her own), and her friendship with John of the Cross (Avila's other local Saint). There's the expected bit about the process of her canonization. To me the other truly interesting thing was a room about all the other Saints (and yes, the capital S is important). Whose lives were directly influenced in one way or another by St. Teresa. Most of them are there because they were members of her order or else the order of monks that St. John of the Cross founded. There are over a dozen, from John of the Cross, to a couple of martyrs of the Holocaust. To me, the fact that she lead others to a Saintly life is the most powerful testimant to her memory.
There are relics of Teresa and John on site (part of her finger and a ring, some un-specified bone of his). The relics themselves are located in a small room that is only accessible through the gift shop. I have a hard time not being insulted by this.
As for the city walls... well they're walls. And they wrap around the old city. The apse of the Cathedral actually forms part of one of the walls, and unlike most medieval structures in Europe, the walls have miraculously not been disassembled and used as pre-made construction materials elsewhere in the city. I bought the ticket and went for a walk until the combination of hurting feet and the sneaking suspicion that Spain is trying to kill me with non-OSHA compliant railings led me to decide that I did not want to stay in Avila for three more hours, no matter how attractive the guidebooks say that the walls are at night.
I exchanged my train ticket for an earlier one, and was back in Madrid in time for dinner. Including the train ticket, I spent just under 30 EUR on the trip (a number that does not include meals, because I ate lunch and dinner in Madrid), which is not to bad for one afternoon of site-seeing.