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Old Saints and old Cities

Leaving Madrid for the countryside feels, in many ways, like stepping out of the 20th century and back into one of those paintings you've been studying at the Prado. The features I recognize from the works of art keep reappearing in the faces of farmers and villagers we see along our drive. The ascetic aura of Madrid's masterpieces so pervades this arid region that the ascent into the mountains surrounding the capital seems not just topographical but metaphysical.

If you don't mind dressing in layers and watching your breath form flowers of frost inside the great cathedrals, December is the best time to visit the provinces. Arranged in a sort of half-circle around Madrid, the cities of Segovia, Ávila, and Toledo, covered in snow, are all sublimely illustrative of the Old Spain. One can explore several thousand years of Castilian history in these three small towns alone.

When we arrive in Segovia, just before noon on a weekday, the delightful main square is still coming sleepily to life. Our hotel, the Infanta Isabel, has the sort of low-key Victorian charm I associate with inns in provincial France. From our window, facing the square, we can see the golden morning light striking the cathedral, and the aproned waiters at La Concepción café--anticipating an unseasonably warm day--setting out tables under the arched arcade that surrounds the plaza.

As in Ávila and Toledo, the historic center of Segovia is encircled by thick, crenellated stone walls, built during the Middle Ages. To walk from one end of the city to the other is like pacing off a time line. On the eastern border is the monumental Roman aqueduct; a few minutes' walk west brings you to the jewel-like church of San Martín, then on to a magnificent Gothic cathedral. Farther west still is the Alcázar, the Disneyesque castle that is a re-creation of the 15th-century original, which was gutted by fire in 1862.

Monuments aside, the pleasure of being in Segovia derives from turning a corner to discover a hidden plaza or a building decorated with esgrafiadio, the ornately patterned plasterwork characteristic of the region, or a rain spout carved in the shape of some fantastic creature. Not only does Segovia offer all the charms and grandeur of Old Castile, but it's also said to have the best food in the province. At the Mesón de Cándido, a venerable institution overlooking the Roman aqueduct, we have the most transcendent form of the game dishes for which Castile is celebrated--quail, partridge--and roast lamb so juicy and tender you can cut it with a fork.

From Segovia, it's less than an hour to Ávila through a landscape of quaint villages, castle ruins, and intimidating black bulls grazing the rolling meadows. Unless you're the one driving, close your eyes as you approach Ávila's hideous, overbuilt outskirts and don't open them again until you're in a room with a view of the cathedral, at the Hotel Palacio Valderrábanos. Ávila is, of course, best known as the birthplace of Saint Teresa, whose ecstatic visions inspired so much Renaissance and Baroque art. Amazingly for a 16th-century woman, she took on the controversial reform of the Carmelite order, struggling to purge it of the corruption fed by an excessive ecclesiastical love of luxury and comfort.

Ávila has three museums dedicated to Teresa, all filled with relics and memorabilia: letters, embroidered linens, a saddle, the tambourines and drums she once played, the rough log that she used in lieu of a pillow. I have always loved her for her no-nonsense, ironic spirit. ("If this is how You treat your friends," she is said to have told God during one arduous journey, "no wonder You have so few of them!")

At the church of San José, you can see the grate through which Teresa received Communion; at the Convento de la Encarnación, where she lived for 30 years, a young woman admits me to the chilly, austere cell in which Teresa received her visits from God. Just outside town, on the route to Salamanca, the Four Posts mark the spot where Teresa--who, as a small child, had run away from home with her brother in the hope of being captured by Moors and cruelly martyred--was found by her uncle and summarily returned to Ávila.

The drive southeast from Ávila is demanding and scenic. Its winding roads hug the dramatic slopes of the Sierra de Gredos, then rapidly descend through the sweet-smelling forests just north of Toledo, which appears suddenly--an El Greco painting rising up out of the plains. Hilly, steep, a labyrinth of twisting alleys, Toledo is one of those cities that soon outdo the mapmaker's--and the map follower's--best efforts. First you get lost, then eventually find, quite by accident, what you were looking for. Then you get lost again.

El Greco is to Toledo what Teresa is to Ávila, but fans of the painter will find better examples of his work in the Prado than in the local museum attached to the so-called Casa de El Greco, where he may or may not have lived. What's more, it's maddening to wait on line at the church of Santo Tomé and pay a comparatively steep fee to see El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz, isolated in a specially built and clinically sterile chapel.

I find it far more satisfying to wander around the upper cloister of San Juan de los Reyes, a late-15th-century church, above the handsome garden and nearly at eye level with the fanciful gargoyles. I visit the Sinagoga del Tránsito, with its elaborate Mudejar tracery and decorative Hebrew calligraphy, and the Sephardic museum, filled with artifacts of the culture that flourished here before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. A few minutes away is Santa María la Blanca, another former synagogue, this one from 1203 and the site of a pogrom in 1391. Perhaps that explains the aura of stark desolation that haunts the building despite the lively intricacy of its plasterwork and ornamental carvings.

It's easy to feel slightly overwhelmed by Toledo--by the steepness of its streets, by the variety of its monuments, and especially by the gigantic scale of its cathedral, built in a mélange of vastly different yet somehow harmonious styles that reflect the changing tastes through the centuries (almost three) required to build it. Before we'd left for Spain, a friend who had lived there for many years sent us off with quasi-Gothic portentousness: "Something extremely strange always happens in Toledo," he said. It was not until our last night in the city that our friend's prediction came true.

It was after dinner, almost midnight. As we wound our way back to our hotel through the dark streets, we heard someone playing a trumpet, slightly off-key. Entering the main plaza, we saw a group--a flock, really--of women, all dressed in chicken costumes. Wearing fuzzy white suits, red combs, and yellow beaks, they were rehearsing a parade that was to be held in honor of the New Year; they looked very much like creatures out of a Bosch painting. The disparity between their hilarious costumes and the seriousness with which they were preparing for their roles seemed nothing less than the embodiment of the tension between the spiritual and the carnal, the penitential and the joyous--everything that is most endearing about Toledo and Madrid, Ávila and Segovia, the cities of Old Castile.

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