In Ávila: May Day! - The Seven Year Itch - CycleBlaze

May 1, 2024

In Ávila: May Day!

We’ve been in Europe nearly every spring in recent years but somehow I’m always surprised when May 1st comes around to be reminded it’s a national holiday.  The cathedral plaza that was nearly empty yesterday is crawling with folks this morning, most stores are closed, and there’s a scramble as we try to find a restaurant that will seat us this afternoon.  That pretty well shoots the morning - that, and waiting for the day to warm up from the high 30’s it’s at when the sun comes up, and continue to stew over our hacked credit and debit card situation.

As I said, we’ve been here before but without really seeing the place.  Even if it weren’t too cold to want to break out the bikes I’m glad we’re staying in Ávila long enough for a real look this time.  In our two layover days here I’ll end up mapping out possible bike rides from here for both afternoons - there are several attractive ones to choose from, and it would make a good base in warmer conditions - but both got torn up when I thought about the idea of biking into the hills on a 45 degree day.

Instead, after lunch  I took a walk along the outside of the southern half of the walls and then along the river to the near end of a small reservoir, thinking I might see a few birds.  

And I do.  A few birds only though - mostly starlings, magpies, wood pigeons, house sparrows, a falcon and a kite too far off to be worth photographing, and I come away with one crummy photo of a blackcap that I’m including because I haven’t logged it yet even though I’ve seen a few.  Maybe I’ll get a good shot eventually, but I’m tired of waiting around.

I don’t see any of the waterfowl I was hoping to see on the reservoir though; and I’m surprised at how little bird life is in evidence even though mid-afternoon isn’t the best time for birding.  As I walk I wonder if they’re affected by the periodic startlingly loud explosion I hear, like firecrackers or the sounds you’ll hear in farming country to scare off the starlings and blackbirds.   There will be a series of them, and then silence for long enough that I assume they’ve passed, when there’s another retort.  Annoying.  Maybe it’s associated with May Day, I’m thinking.

Calle San Segundo, the road below the east side of the castle walls, just past the cathedral. Remember that name, which will come up again later.
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The Mercado Grande Plaza, and San Pedro Apostol church.
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The bell tower of the 16th century church of Santiago. Those hills beyond look tempting - that’s where I’d be riding today if it weren’t so unseasonably cold and windy.
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Even though I’m in the sun at the moment the weather is pretty menacing again today. We’re looking here at the direction we biked in from yesterday. We did the right thing then, because I think we’d be pretty miserable crossing the pass out there today.
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Rounding the southeast corner.
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We’re down along the river now, standing on the medieval bridge we showed you yesterday and looking through an arch of the new bridge that parallels it.
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A look back from across the medieval bridge. Imagine what this would have looked and felt like five hundred years ago, after walking here from Valencia at about the midpoint of the pilgrimage.
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#227: Eurasian blackcap. Terrible shot, but at least this one stayed nearby long enough for this much, unlike the first few I’ve seen. It’s actually a pretty common bird, so maybe we’ll do better before we’re done.
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Looking across the reservoir. Pretty spot, but not so much if you’re birding.
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My knees are more troublesome today for some reason so I turn back sooner than I was planning.  When I’m back across the river and climbing toward the walls I’m surprised to see a few police cars on the road and some gawkers looking across the railing toward the river.  So I join them and gawk myself.  I’m surprised and charmed by what I see.  There’s a crowd assembled below in front of the entrance to the San Segundo Hermitage, surrounding a group of dancers in traditional dress, spinning around to the sound of drums and instruments.  I take several shots of them, but they’re too far off and there are too many view blockers to come away with everything worth sharing.

Merriment in front of the San Segundo Hermitage.
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As I watch though, a small Paso emerges from the hermitage, and the group starts moving my way.  It’s a procession!  I watch for several minutes as it works its way up to the road and then disappears around the bend of the town’s walls, and then proceed on.  Probably something to do with May Day, I’m thinking.

Next up, I enter the city through the Adaja Gate and find my way to an access point that lets me get up to the walkway atop the walls.  Ávila hs the best walls, but it’s not like Dubrovnik or Aigue-Morte in that you can’t walk around the entire system on top.  There’s a walkway for about half the length though, enough for a memorable experience and a chance for some excellent views along the walls and out across the countryside.  Only €2.50, and well worth it.

Along the walls. There aren’t many folks up here today, maybe because it’s so chilly and windy.
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The view south toward the mountains is dramatic with this afternoon’s conditions.
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Approaching the Carmen Gate.
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As I walk north along the walls I realize I’m starting to hear drums and music from the procession again.  Eventually I catch up with them and look down on them, still walking their way along the walls.

Still at it, taking a short break to rest the shoulders.
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They’re moving again. Ahead, rows of twirling dancers precede the small paso.
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Keith AdamsAny excuse for a parade, it seems.
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2 weeks ago
It seems like I should be able to figure out what this is. Maybe I’ll keep looking.
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As I near the cathedral I catch up with them again and get my first really good look at the dancers, gaily spinning away with their skirts whirling out wide, their scarves and tails blowing in the wind, and their castenets clapping.  It’s about here where it finally sinks in that they must be bound for the cathedral.  I quickly give Rachael a call, correctly assuming she’s probably back in the room from her own walk by now, and urge her to rush down to the Cathedral Plaza.

They’ve been out here for at least an hour now, and must be very cold in this temperature and wind. Everyone is smiling and joyous though. Its a wonderful, infectious scene to witness.
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Approaching the cathedral.
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The cathedral is a remarkable structure, and one we’ll get a better look at tomorrow. For now, just notice one of its exceptional features - its apse is part of the fortified walls.
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I make it to the cathedral and descend from the walls just in time to catch up with the procession as it enters the city through the Alcazar Gate.  I filter my way through the crowd and the gate and enter the city myself just as the dancers are paused in front of the side entrance to the cathedral, still spinning away.  They continue dancing and spinning as they round the cathedral, eventually coming to a stop as they and the musicians line up in front of the main portal and wait for the paso and dignitaries to proceed them into the cathedral.  All this while the cathedral bells are pealing loudly, there’s the musicians playing, and there’s the intermittent explosions from the cannon or whatever is producing that explosive sound.

Such an unexpected delight!  We’ve seen a number of processions and pasos now, and they’re all different.  This one is really unique though - I’ve never seen one with such a joyous air. 

One of the many things I loved about this experience is the dancer in the black outfit and wide brimmed hat. I’m almost positive that he was the greeter at our restaurant at lunch today.
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The young dancer in this group appears also in the previous photo and the videos. In every scene, even when dancing, she’s always plugging her ears.
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So what are these double reed instruments? They must be a cousin of the English horn, but look smaller and higher pitched.
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Andrea BrownThat’s called a ‘bombard’ and let me tell you, if you were indoors you’d know why. Those things are LOUD.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Andrea BrownThanks! I don’t remember hearing of the instrument under this name, although they’re descendants of the shawm. In Spain they’re apparently called the Dolçaina. And they are loud. You can hear them for a long ways away, even outdoors in a strong wind. Its no wonder that girl keeps her ears plugged.

It’s interesting to see that you rarely hear them played in isolation, because the amount of pressure and wind needed makes it difficult for the player to play for more than 10 or 12 bars at a time.
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2 weeks ago
Andrea BrownTo Scott AndersonOne of my favorite contra dance bands, Wild Asparagus, had a musician who normally played flutes and saxaphone but occasionally would pull out the bombard and turn bright red as he played it (briefly, you're right they take tremendous breath pressure). Woe to those who were in lines closest to the band when he did, although it definitely got the dancers revved up.
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2 weeks ago
The paso approches its destination for the day. We’ll have more to say about this guy tomorrow.
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Paused in front of the side entrance to the cathedral.
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Approaching the main portal, still dancing away. This is easily the most joyous procession we’ve ever witnessed. It’s very infectious.
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She’s still got her ears plugged!
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And, I’m happy to report that Rachael made it out to appreciate the experience too, and had her camera out capturing video.

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Bob KoreisOMG, the second video with the little girl is a hoot! But I'm with her. If I was that close to the band, and considering the cacophony of sounds in the first video, I'd probably have my ears plugged as well. Hope the parents know someone who managed to get a similar recording. It's just the sort of thing parents love to pull out to embarrass their adult children.

What a memorable day for the two of you.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Bob KoreisIt really was wonderful. The best of times traveling - completely unexpected, and a part of our experience purely by chance.
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2 weeks ago