THERE are three things I love to do on my travels: see breathtaking sights, learn about local history and immerse myself into the local culture.
A recent trip to visit three of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in Spain ticked all of these boxes for me, but what really amazed me was seeing how the old buildings and modern lifestyle were in harmony in these cities.
My journey began in the rustic city of Alcala de Henares, just 15km away from Madrid-Barajas Airport.
The city was the world’s first planned university city, and was considered to be “the City of God”, due to it being recognised as the city of knowledge.
Here, the University of Alcala was founded in 1499 by the Franciscan, Cardinal Cisneros, and was the first modern-age university. The city thus became a model for other education centres across Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
The city is also famous for being the birthplace of one of Spain’s most celebrated writers, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), whose work includes his novel, Don Quixote.
The house where he was born is now a museum and, while it has mostly been reconstructed, it still boasts its original 16th century basement.
Cervantes is still remembered in the city, as the Spanish king Juan Carlos I has been presenting the annual Cervantes Prize at the university to recognise contributions made to Spanish literature.
The ceremony is held every year in April to coincide with the anniversary of Cervantes’ death, and prize winners’ names are displayed on a university wall.
A visit to The Universes of Cervantes visitor centre helps to understand the importance of Cervantes.
The centre opened in 2005 in the former Church of Santa Maria la Mayor, in which Cervantes was baptised, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote’s first part-edition.
It features an exhibition hall, the baptismal font of Cervantes, and the 19th century Santa Maria Tower offering a panoramic view of the city – but first, you have to climb more than 100 steps to see it.
The next stop, almost 150km away, was the beautiful walled city of Avila – the highest city in Spain.
The old city is surrounded by a high defensive wall 1.5 miles long, which has 88 solid towers and nine official gates, each with a different function.
I also discovered that the Avila Cathedral apse serves as a turret for the wall. Behind the walls hides an enclosed city with narrow side-streets and many mansions and churches, creating the illusion that you’ve travelled back in time.
Looking a little deeper, however, you’ll find bustling food markets, cafes and restaurants.
My tour guide informed me that the wall was built in the 11th century to defend Avila and protect its people from invaders.
She added that two sections on top of the walls are open to the public, being 1.5km and 300m in length, so of course, I wanted to test them out.
We walked alongside the walls on the cobblestone pavements at night, and trekked the route on top of the walls the next morning. Both walks had breathtaking views, but the difference in lighting created completely different atmospheres.
Avila is also famous for the 16th century saint, Santa Teresa, who reformed the Carmelite Order. Best known for her writings and teachings, her relics are preserved to this day, making the city popular with pilgrims.
It’s no wonder that Avila’s deep historical background helped it to be declared a World Heritage site in 1985.
When we stopped for lunch, we shared the restaurant with a group of elderly men, who turned out to be professional cyclists enjoying an annual reunion.
We couldn’t believe our luck when we discovered that amongst them was Julio Jimenez, who finished in second place in the 1967 Tour de France.
He kindly posed for some photos and happily shared a picture from when he competed in 1965.
After we parted with the cyclists, we ventured to the final port of call, Salamanca. This university city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, and is today bustling with students.
The University of Salamanca is one of the most important buildings in the city. It’s the oldest university in Spain, having been founded in 1218, and houses the oldest library in Europe, containing 60,000 books; 500 of which are first-editions.
Salamanca is also famous for housing two adjacent cathedrals – one Romanesque, and one Gothic.
A short stroll from the cathedrals led us to the beautiful, tranquil garden, Huerto de Calixto y Melibea.
The name translates as “the Orchard of Calisto and Melibea” – two characters in the old Spanish novel, La Celestina, which has a similar storyline to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Because of this, the garden well has many signed padlocks locked on to it, left there by couples who sealed their love with them.
Salamanca also boasts the 18th century main square, Plaza Mayor, in the heart of the city. Over time, it has been used for many purposes, including for markets, bull fighting and concerts.
Today, it’s a popular meeting spot, and the buildings are mainly used as student accommodation.
An interesting place to visit in Salamanca is the Art Noveau and Art Deco Museum in Casa Lis. Once a private palace with elaborate stained glass windows, this museum now exhibits 19 collections of almost 2,500 pieces of decorative art from the late 19th and early 20th century.
The trip proved to me that there’s a lot more to Spain than sunshine and beaches.
The inland cities of Alcala de Henares, Avila and Salamanca all retain their historic buildings, and yet modern life continues within them.
Their historical and cultural contributions to Spain have truly made them the country’s treasures, and are well worth a visit.