Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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Spanish inquisitiveness

Three side trips from Madrid

When travellers think of Spain, it’s often with thoughts of Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. Thing is, the country has a lot of secrets — places that make you feel like you’ve found a hidden gem no one else knows about. If you’re willing to make a slight detour and look beyond the main cities, you’ll find incredible glimpses at the medieval past and tales you won’t soon forget.

Easily accessible from Madrid by bus is Ávila (tel: 011-34-920-225-969;, an incredible walled city in the Castilla y León region, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though the city was initially established in the first century by Celts, the rose granite walls weren’t built until the 11th century when a French count, Raymond of Burgundy, decided that Ávila would be an ideal military stronghold. There are 88 towers and nine gates around the two-and-a-half-kilometre perimeter of the city, and, to this day, only some 6000 residents are lucky enough to claim homes inside the walls.

And the people of Ávila are particular about their town — no chain hotels are allowed to be built in the walled area. This means that numerous 16th-century palaces have been converted into equally palatial hotels. Make sure to stop for a night the Palacio de los Velada (tel: 011-34-920- 254-900; — or at least have a drink in its beautiful courtyard.

You might want to start your visit at the Museum of Ávila (tel: 011-34-920-211-003) to get a feel for the incredible amount of history housed within its walls. The city’s many identities include that of a Roman town as well as a place which Christians, Jews and Muslims called home during the Moorish reign between the ninth and 16th centuries. You can then walk along the top of the walls and see just how valuable Ávila must have been as a military fortification. It’s amazing how far the view extends.

Then, enter one of the two enormous military gates, both dating back to Roman times, and find the cathedral, itself part of the walls, with the cimorro (the head of the building) forming part of the fortification. As the most resilient turret, there are battle structures built into this fine example of Gothic architecture, but being battle-ready does not take away from the ornate altar paintings found inside.

Outside of the walls, there is still more to see and do. Less than three kilometers from the town centre is the five-star Ávila Golf Hotel (tel: 011-34-920-359-200; You know that this is quite a swanky location because, in addition to hosting a gorgeous restaurant, and even great spa treatments, this hotel is where the Real Madrid soccer team likes to take a load off — and tee off — during practice season. And when you’ve finished relaxing, right next door to the hotel is an athletic village. Enjoy the Spanish countryside and try your hand at skeet shooting or horseback riding for less than €15.

Where Columbus Bit the Dust

Another of Spain’s 33 World Heritage cities, Salamanca ( is the destination for anyone who wants to learn Spanish. Located only about 100 kilometres from Madrid, also in the province of Castilla y León, this city is reportedly renowned for being the site of the purest Spanish — known here as Castilian — in the world. Thousands of students flock to its university each year in the hopes of becoming fluent.

Since Salamanca was declared the European Capital of Culture in 2002, venues like the History of the Automobile Museum, the Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum, and the Museum of Trade and Industry have expanded the scope of things to see and do. But really, the reason to visit Salamanca is the city itself. Wandering the streets is sightseeing at its best.

The place to begin is the Plaza Mayor. Built in warm sandstone, yellowed by the sun, you will get your first taste of why Salamanca is called the Golden City. At various times throughout its near 250-year history, the Plaza Mayor has been a bull-fighting ring (the last time in 1992!), a concert hall, a market place, a book fair and a theatre, but it’s always been one of Spain’s most beautiful spaces. Take a walk around the square or sit at one of its many cafés and watch the world go by. Just off the Plaza Mayor are numerous shopping streets full of small designer boutiques, as well as larger chain stores. The immense Zara shop is located in what was once a convent.

As you continue towards the university, the fourth oldest in all of Europe, having been established in 1218, you will pass the amazing “House of Shells.” This sandstone structure is completely covered in shell decorations and stands as a 15th-century love token from Don Rodrigo Arias Maldonado to his wife. Demonstrating his connection to her, he chose the unique ornamental pattern because the shell was part of both her coat of arms as well as the motif of his own Order of St. James.

Reaching the university, you can see evidence of student revelry on the walls. Splashes of red paint can still be seen, along with bits and pieces of Gothic writing — all signs of graduation celebrations. There are 35,000 students at the university who have access to libraries full of 11th-century manuscripts, and, although the 12th-century classrooms are now only used ceremonially, it’s possible to get a sense of what it might have been like to study in the medieval period. It may be beautiful, but the seats don’t look particularly comfortable!

This university is where Christopher Columbus made an unsuccessful attempt to convince a scholarly council, appointed by King Ferdinand, to support his theory of a new route to India.

Continue onwards to the cathedrals of Salamanca. Yes, that’s right, Salamanca has not one, but two cathedrals: the old and the new. These two gorgeous buildings are attached, but each has it’s own personality and style. The medieval towers of the old cathedral, known collectively as Ieronimus, provide an amazing view across the whole of the “Golden City”.

The architecture of Salamanca is so stunning, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that this is a living, exciting city and not a relic of the past. Taking a walk through the city at night makes it possible to see another side of its personality — the one that exists after dark on streets like the Grand Vía, Bordadores and San Justo. Here you’ll find endless bars and clubs to sit and enjoy a drink, or extend your evening into the early hours of the morning.

Hot on Quixote’s Trail

Only 35 kilometres away from Madrid lies the historic city of Alcalá de Henares ( It too is a World Heritage Site and it’s also set to be the European Capital of Culture in 2016. Established in the first century, this is another city, like Ávila, in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together. The old Jewish quarter contains one of the largest covered streets in Spain — which now houses over 400 metres of fashionable shops.

Another example of the continuity of the past is the Hospital of Our Lady of Mercy. Initially opened as a hospital in 1483, it is still used as a care home for the elderly. Apparently, Rodrigo de Cervantes worked as a blood-letting surgeon at the hospital. A university was established here in 1499 in the interest of making Alcalá de Henares into the next Salamanca. The city did not become renowned for its lecture halls, but instead for the man whose statue appears in the main square — Miguel de Cervantes, the son of the blood-letter.

Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, the most translated book apart from the Bible, was baptized here in 1547. It’s possible to tour the home where he lived as a child. Now converted into a museum, the Cervantes House (tel: 011-34-91-889-9654; also provides a glimpse of what life was like in 16th-century Spain. Every April 23, the city gives out the Cervantes prize for literature and celebrates the life of one of the country’s most famous figures.

Whether in Ávila, Salamanca or Alcalá de Henares, there’s so much that each of these cities has to offer. Even if Madrid is your central destination, it’s worth exiting the hustle and bustle to take day trips — they’re all off the beaten track and allow you to see just how Spain is able to make that connection between history and the present day.

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