Stones and Saints, bulls, pigs and other creatures

– travel to Avila
– walking tour of Avila
– travel to Segovia
– Dinner at La Postal

We set off early this morning, but not for long. We were scheduled for a 3-hour stop at Avila.  A UNESCO world heritage site, Avila has one of the few intact surrounding medieval walls. Construction started in 1090 and there are 2,516 metres of walled defence, 3 metres thick. In some areas, the rock for the walls was cut from the stone in situ, forming the base for the impervious structure.

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Other important stone can also be found at Avila – the “toros de Guisando” (bulls on hill Guisando) and the “verracos de piedra” (pigs of stone). These ancient sculptures are Celtic (pre-Roman) dating from approximately the 2nd century BCE.   Were these stone creatures the source of inspiration for bullfighting and the bull as the national symbol of Spain?

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This explains the “Stones” part of the nickname for Aliva, and the Saints are easily answered as well.  Two saints emerged from this town in the 16th century, both Christian mystics and co-founders of the Discalced (“shoeless”) Carmelite order of priests and nuns:  St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa.  Both wrote extensively and their writing has influenced the  Catholic liturgy to this day.

St. John of the Cross wrote Dark Night of the Soul, my favourite poem from a humanities course I took at U. Vic. several years ago.  I am not religious, but the humanity of this poem resonates, and countless versions of the journey from darkness into light can be found in novels written today (a Canadian example is Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel).   The eroticism of the poem could be read in one sense as an offensive play in the Counter-Reformation.

“Songs of the soul rejoicing at having achieved the high state of perfection, the Union with God, by way of spiritual negation.

“Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and wanting, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose.

“I stayed there to forget.
There on my lover, face to face, I lay.
All ended, and I let
My cares all fall away
Forgotten in the lilies on that day.”

—St. John of the Cross,
translated by A.Z. Foreman

The full text is on a separate page at the top of the blog.

Loreena McKennitt brought the poem into the popular culture:

St. Theresa wrote the “Camino de Perfeccion” (Way to Perfection) to teach her nuns how to progress through prayer and Christian meditation. It has sage advice for life, as well:

“Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.”

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St. John                            St. Theresa

Another beautiful rendition of Theresa is found in Rome in the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittorio, Rome: Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Theresa.”

When Theresa had the first of many visions starting at age 40, she described in her autobiography the union of body and soul: “A rapture came over me, so suddenly that it almost lifted me out of myself. There was no doubt about it because it was very obvious. That was the first time that the Lord gave me the favour of a rapture. I heard these words, ‘Now I want you to speak not with men but with angels’.”

The passionate art historian, Simon Schama wrote in The Guardian of Bernini’s rendering,

“It was said that, every so often over his long career, Bernini could be found at the Cornaro Chapel, kneeling in prayer before what he called the ‘least bad thing I have ever done.’ …[When confronted with the sculpture] we stare and stare … as we stare at no other sculpture ever made. Perhaps the force of the spell comes from the realisation that Bernini has used the power of art to achieve the most difficult thing in the world: the visualisation of bliss.”


The full text of Schama’s study on the sculpture and its creator is here:

As you may have gathered by now, relics are an important feature of Catholic belief, used as “proof” that the mythology is true.  St. Theresa’s 16th century finger was on display here; fortunately for you, photographs were not allowed.

At one point during our walking tour, things took a decidedly comical twist.   Curiously, our guide said, not once, but both before the late-morning coffee break and before lunch,  “don’t worry, we will stop for a glass of wine soon.”  As it turns out, our Spanish guides had forwarded on word that “this group really likes its wine.”   Well!  The guide then ensured we stop for a glass of wine, and no-one turned it down; it came with a wonderful free tapa composed of beans and roast suckling pig, in this somewhat surprising bar:


(On the wall opposite Chrissie was also a ginormous stuffed giraffe. I wondered if Ernest Hemingway had a hand in this operation?)

Another adaptive stork family on the horizon:


Our tour included a visit to the Avila Cathedral, one of the first Gothic Cathedrals built in Spain.  Constructed in the 12th century, it had also been used as a fortress and a palace.


Rosa introduced us to Avila’s famous confection, the Yemas de San Teresa, made by nuns from egg yolks lightly cooked by the heat from a sugary syrup, and tossed with more sugar.  Yum!


From Avila, we drove on to Segovia, got settled into our rooms and headed by bus into the Spanish countryside for what was unanimously our favourite meal in Spain at the beautiful restaurant, La Postal (The Postcard).  Gorgeously set overlooking the historical town of Segovia, the restaurant, normally dark on Mondays, opened especially for us.  One of the chefs and his wife, friends of Rosa’s, spoke to us about the food and joined us for a glass of wine.

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The meal began with two velvetty soups:  gazpacho and avocado, followed by a marvellous selection of house-dried meats, and the piece de resistance, Roast Suckling Pig.  In case it wasn’t immediately obvious from your years of hearing the expression, the Suckling part may be important.  The piglets came to table in a variety of parts, here a tiny hoof, there a little ear, and in my case, delicious, meaty, succulent ribs.

On the bus back to town, the group began to explore in a dissective way the various parts of the pig each of us had eaten until I had to implore, “please do not attempt to reconstruct the baby piglets!”  It seems more palatable at the end of the day to think of it simply as pork, but I like that the Spanish acknowledge and respect their food from its source. I couldn’t help but think back to our Celtic stone pig at Avila and wonder at the origins and tradition of the pig in Spain.

Rosa not only picked the location but arranged the menu, and it was a magical evening and another day made so special by Rosa.


2 thoughts on “Stones and Saints, bulls, pigs and other creatures

  1. Another amazing account of your incredible journey.Perhaps you should consider taking groups to some of the places that you have enjoyed and generously shared with your friends and relatives.
    Sent from my iPhone


  2. And the whole experience made wonderful for your friends by your articulate descriptions punctuated with perfect pictures. But darn, I get so hungry reading about the food! Once again, Mahalo & Aloha for including me in your journey. Candy

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