I first saw the fortified walls of Avila back in 1982 as I sped by in a train bound for Madrid. From the moment I saw Avila I wanted to go there but by various turns of fate it wasn’t until 27 years later that I’ve had the chance to finally visit it.
Avila looks like the archetypal medieval walled city I used to fantasize about as a child.
Being an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent I’ve always felt a bit adrift in a country that I wasn’t genetically designed for and my thoughts often turned to Europe and its history. As a child I was disappointed that Australia didn’t have any castles or major battlefields.
In Australia conquest was mainly achieved with alcohol and germs. There have been a few uprisings of disgruntled convicts and miners that were all quashed with very little blood spilt. All very underwhelming for a little boy who hadn’t the slightest inkling of what a horrifically gory business medieval warfare was in reality. As in butchery of the kind that would be considered too cruel to inflict on animals but practiced on men in the name of some cause that was usually a thin excuse to steal someone else’s land.
Castles and walled cities are amazing things. Vast amounts of effort, thought and materials go into their construction and despite the fact that tourists find them so picturesque, they represent a need to be secure from the most unimaginable violence. Just about every fortification ever built has been the scene of intense carnage. I find as I look at such places, I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be either standing on the battlements looking at a sea of armed men with mal intent approaching with ladders, or being one of the poor sods carrying the ladders and trying to scale the high walls while it was raining arrows, rocks and boiling oil.
Often when I walk up and around the walls of fortified cities it almost makes me feel sick as I imagine people being pushed off the scaling ladders as they finally reached the battlements.
It’s always a long way down.
Engogirl (henceforth known as Don Rodrigo) and I sat outside of the city near the base of the wall and spent a fair bit of time talking how we would try and take the city.
Me (henceforth known as Don Pedro): “So Don Rodrigo how do you propose we get our men over these walls?”
Don Rodrigo: “We will build catapults and fling the men over the walls.”
Don Pedro: “It’s a fine and amusing idea but there are no big trees around here to build the machines of war.”
Don Rodrigo: “Yes of course you are right!”
“Perhaps we could sow discontent with spies”
Don Pedro: “There is no such thing as free speech in these times and the provocateurs will only be arrested, tortured and executed, possibly exposing our intent.”
Don Rodrigo: “We could use infiltrators and poison the water wells.”
Don Pedro: “That would surely work but then the water would be undrinkable for us when we take the city.”
Don Rodrigo: “Eureka, I’ve got it!”
We’ll attack the city a few weeks before the harvest.”
“That is when the food stocks will be lowest and we will be able to take the harvest for our own men while the defenders starve!”
Don Pedro: “I like the way how you think!”
“After a couple of months into the siege as it comes close to Christmas we could throw bread over the walls as a Christian gesture.”
Don Rodrigo: “But why would you give food to people we are trying to starve?”
Don Pedro: “Because it will be poisoned!”
Don Rodrigo: “It is a brilliant idea Don Pedro, but will not the enemy be suspicious?”
Don Pedro: “You are right my valiant friend; perhaps we could set up in infiltrator in the city with poisoned flour, months before the attack and allow the flour to be discovered six months into the siege as the common people and soldiers are beginning to starve.”
Don Rodrigo: “I think we now have a plan!”
“We must keep it a secret from our noble friends as I’m sure they would deem such warfare dishonourable and unbecoming gentleman”
So our conversation continued as the sun went down.
Soon it was too cold to be sitting on the damp grass and we walked back into the city to find a place to eat.
The Spanish are a nocturnal species. They rise late to work a few hours, only to go home again for several hours to eat and sleep, and then in the afternoon they arise to work some more until it gets dark.
Because of the way how the Spanish live it is almost impossible to get anything to eat, other than cakes and tapas until after 8 o’clock when the restaurants start to serve meals.
The streets in Spain can be deserted at 2 in the afternoon but very busy at 11 at night.