In the steps of St Teresa in Spain
The journey reveals to pilgrims the magnificent cultural heritage of the real Spain
Convent of St Teresa in Avila, Spain.
Statue of Saint Teresa outside the city’s walls
He was, he told us, the youngest guide in Toledo. There were about 60, he said. He, at 28, is the youngest. So proud he told us twice. A happy young man is Daniel, and enthusiastic about his city. As well he might be. Toledo is wonderful, complex, intriguing. A city of three cultures – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – with charming character. It’s no surprise that it is a World Heritage City since 1986.
Toledo is on a headland, over 500 metres above sea level, and shows its Moorish influence particularly through its deliberately winding streets. “So hostile strangers get lost”, we were told. It works too, as we found out.
Though not at all hostile, myself and the four companeros did indeed get lost as we made our way back to the Discalced Carmelite monastery where we were based that night for the hilarious fee of €30, B&B. I kid you not. Nice bright, comfortable, upgraded, monks’ cells.
It is a living monastery too, as we discovered. Finding our way there eventually by early morning, with the help of a local girl who had some English and brought us there, we were met at the door by a Padre who had no English. He tapped his watch to indicate to us five journos in search of a soul that we were . . . late. Or LATE, as the tapping suggested. It seems we were supposed to be back by midnight. Us? As if.
Yes, there was a deal of hilarity on our trip in the footsteps of St Teresa of Avila, the 500th anniversary of whose birth takes place this year. Not least as none of us in the Irish media pack had Spanish and, as we discovered, as not many people in central Spain have English. So our experiences in restaurant were adventures in themselves as we and staff attempted to establish what was on the menu.
For instance, at the really excellent Nuevo Almacen restaurant in Toledo, in cahoots with our waiter, a law student in real life with some English, we discovered lamb was on when he uttered the words “meat . . . with wool?” In another we found beef when the enthusiastic young waitress pronounced (eventually) the word “cow” with the delight of an Einstein stumbling on the theory of relativity for the first time.
Over the course of three days, courtesy of Spanish Tourism, we visited Avila, Toledo, Malagón, Beas de Segura, and Caravaca de la Cruz, just five of the 17 foundations established by the exhaustively indefatigable St Teresa. Included was the one we stayed in at Toledo.
She did it all in a 20-year period before dying at the age of 67 in 1582. No wonder she was the first woman Doctor of the Church. Well, she and St Catherine of Siena, both of whom joined that elite group of 34 super saints by decision, in their case, of Pope Paul VI in 1970.
Teresa set about reforming the Carmelite order of which she was a member, founding the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites alone with St John of the Cross. But she is probably better known in religion circles as a mystic. In her writing she has described the ascent of the soul through mental prayer, quiet, ecstasy, to divine rapture.
Our concerns were more mundane. It was a case of “so many churches, so little time”. But what churches! “Emotion in stone” wouldn’t be a bad description. More accurately “exuberant Latin emotion in stone”. Nothing of the Anglo European grid, line-by-line pattern, there. Baroque, Rocco, Brilliant, “. . . isn’t it mad Ted?”.
Spanish Tourism is promoting a sort of St Teresa Camino, or “Footprints of Teresa” journey, whereby pilgrims travel between at least five of her 17 foundations at a time and are stamped on arrival at each, similar to what happens people doing the Camino de Santiago further north.
However, you may visit as many as you wish but, in order to get proper recognition, you must at least visit four in two regions – where local tourist offices will confirm your presence by stamp. You must also include Avila as a fifth location before being properly designated a pilgrim. This, dear reader, is not for wusses, and speaking as one.
Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the ordeal. The relevant 17 cities are Avila, Medina del Campo, Malagón, Valladolid, Toledo, Pastrana, Salamanca, Alba de Tormes, Segovia, Beas de Segura, Seville, Caravaca de la Cruz, Villanueva de la Jara, Palencia, Soria, Granada, and Burgos.
The beauty of them is that this is in undiscovered country where most visitors to Spain are concerned. It reflects the truly magnificent cultural heritage of the real Spain.
So we arrived by Ryanair in Madrid and were taken to the lovely, well-preserved walled-town of Avila by bus, a journey of about 110 kilometres. There, where it all began. It was originally a Jewish town, as was Teresa’s family before forced conversion to Christianity.
Teresa grew up in Avila and established the first foundation of the Discalced Carmelite Order at St Joseph’s monastery in 1562. Her original home is now the simple St Teresa convent, remarkable for its simplicity considering the splendour to come.
We stayed and enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of the very comfortable Paradores Avila where they have a special “Carmelite menu” this year. It includes Carmelitas’ convent-style custard, and paprika-flavoured potato with bacon chunks. Though the custard came first.
But for me Toledo was the icing on the cake (I was never too keen on custard) of this trip. And in Toledo the cherry on top had to be the cathedral.
Built between 1226 and 1493, its stunning Baroque altar, several storeys high, is truly breathtaking, awesome in its detail and just one feature of a building which would take an entire holiday to explore properly in its own right. Even the sacristy has original El Greco and Goya paintings.
It was in Toledo that Teresa established her fifth foundation. But be warned. It gets warm in summer time. It was 34 degrees when we were there at the end of May and can rise to the 40s in August.
From there we went to the small town of Malagón which traces its origins to the Romans. We visited St Teresa’s third foundation and had one of the most remarkable conversations of our trip with Sr Anna Marie, an Australian architect from Sydney who entered the enclosed order there at the age of 23 in 1993.
We spoke to her about her simple life of prayer through a grill. She was accompanied on the other side by an elderly nun. They have little contact with the outside world.
Beas de Segura in Andalusia is a beautiful small city in striking mountainous surroundings. Our enthusiastic young guide Marie Therese escorted us up the very many steps to the convent of the Discalced Carmelites and 10th foundation of St Teresa, and the Monastery of San José del Salvador.
We also saw relics of St John of the Cross and St Teresa. We climbed to the highest point in the city, its restored bell tower, from where we felt we could see eternity.
By the time we had climbed back all down those steps, through beautiful narrow whitewashed streets with their shrines and hanging flowers, we were ready to sit on a bus for the three-hour journey to Caravaca de la Cruz.
On arrival at our monastery residence there late that night we were tired, emotional, and hungry, or typical of your more normal pilgrims after a long day’s journey into the infinite.
Our monastic setting was far from Spartan. Again it is a living monastery which uses funds from accommodating pilgrims to sustain its existence.
Next morning in Caravaca an excellent guide – we were very lucky with our guides on this trip – took us to a now empty convent which had been Teresa’s 12th foundation but which the nuns left in 2004 due to lack of numbers. It still contains many of the extravagant features we were becoming so familiar with.
The city is one of the few places where foundations were established by both St Teresa and St John of the Cross (hence the “de la Cruz”).
Our last visit there was to the magnificent Basilica which presides over the city and where it is claimed a splinter of the true cross is housed.
We visited its small chapel and prayed before the splinter “ . . . no more churches . . . please, no more churches.” Our prayers were answered too. We ate, and headed for the airport at Murcia.
Beginning our trip on the Trails of Santa Teresa we flew by scheduled Ryanair flight to Madrid and were taken from there by bus to Avila. We travelled to all other locations by bus over the subsequent three days until arrival at Murcia airport.
The itinerary was worked out with the Spanish Tourism Office in Dublin, (spain.info) but it can be planned in advance through the official Trails of St Teresa website huellasdeteresa.com/en/
Further details at: https://twitter.com/SpaininIreland and https://www.facebook.com/spain.info.ie