Last week I headed off to Ávila, a medieval town in central Spain, to attend the 2011 meeting of the European Ecological Federation. It was an excellent conference, and I’m really glad that I was able to attend. It was great to hear so much about on-going climate change and plant interaction research – I think these topics are going to progress a lot in the next few years.
Ávila has a long history – it has been occupied by the Romans, the Celts, the Visigoths, Arab tribes and a number of Spanish groups whose names I’ve forgotten (the conference organizers provided tours of the town for delegates). The town’s most prominent feature is its 2.5 kilometer wall, which is on average 12 m high and has 88 rather impressive towers. It was wonderful to arrive after dark, seeing these walls lit up, walking between the tall stone buildings. Our tour guide explained that the wall had been built on top of foundations laid by the Romans, and that most of the material was from old Roman buildings. If I understand correctly, the “new” wall was constructed in the early 11th century at the orders of King Alfonso VI to provide a safe enclave from which he and his army could conduct raids (but I might have misunderstood…). Some time in the mid-19th century Spain instituted a policy of removing old city walls to allow the expansion of cities – our guide told us that Ávila was too poor to pay for the destruction of the wall, and just pretended not to have heard about the new policy. Luckily for them the wall still stands, as I think the town benefits greatly from the walls now!
I stayed in Hotel Rey Niño, a fair sized hotel in the middle of the old-town. Its location is excellent and it has a decent restaurant / cafe / bar. The staff speak very little English, but were friendly. If you decide to stay there you might want to check your room’s size first – while the price of our rooms was identical, the dimensions of the rooms varied from “banquet hall” to “broom cupboard” (ok, I’m exaggerating a bit… but you’ve been warned). I was given a really small room (with the smallest bath I’ve ever seen), but that wasn’t a problem since the conference kept me busy all day, every day.
A few observations from Ávila – I can only guess if these are true across the rest of Spain (please let me know if I am wrong!)… Don’t expect that you’ll get by easily with just English – very few of the people I interacted with in the town spoke English. However, those people were all so friendly and patient that they really made an effort to understand me. The Ávilan attitude to breakfast was a bit of a surprise – a quick coffee and pastry, if anything at all! I was expecting a “typical” (i.e. English or continental) breakfast each morning at my hotel – instead I had an overdose of caffine and wheat – next time I’ll do things differently. Coming from Helsinki, prices were relatively cheap (although the locals I spoke to said that Ávila is rather expensive due to the large number of tourists passing through), and the restaurants were good value if you shopped around (for example we really enjoyed Puerta del Alcazar). I particularly enjoyed one of the local dishes – patatas revolconas – it was very different from anything I’ve had before.
On the last day of the conference I joined one of the congress field excursions, heading out into the Sierra de Gredos (a mountain range south of Ávila). We walked in the Parque Regional de la Sierra de Gredos (Wikipedia page in Spain here), a reserve originally established in the early 1900’s by King Alfonso XIII to protect the Iberian Ibex (which he apparently liked to hunt). We saw some good birds, including the Black Redstart, Short-toed Eagle and Eurasian Griffon, and one large male ibex. The reserve looks like a great place for hiking – if you’re going to be in the area it is worth checking out.
You can find some amazing photos of the area in winter here – and a 360° view along our walk in the Sierra de Gredos below:
The next EEF conference will be held in London in 2013, in association with INTECOL – that will be a massive meeting!