Throughout history, large walls surrounded many cities to protect their citizens and leaders from siege and attack. Sadly, most of these city walls have gone either torn down by attackers, removed by cities to allow expansion or simply taken apart to provide building materials for more useful buildings.
Spain has an impressive number of cities whose complete (or near-complete) city walls (or muralla) are so significant, well preserved and impressive that they merit UNESCO World Heritage listing. All are rich in history with four of the five can be easily visited as day trips from Madrid.
Not that far from Madrid, the city of Ávila is impressively located perched on a high plain that rears sharply from the arid treeless surrounds. With a domination of churches, monasteries, convents and basilicas under the name of the ascetic Saint Teresa (whose mummified hands are in one of the churches), the pious city was subjected to battles for centuries between the Muslims and the Christians. The 12th century construction of 2.5 kilometres of superbly maintained walls, 88 towers and 9 gates eased the battles and today the exterior makes for a superb walk. At night the elegant crenellations add a regal imposing look to the city while three parts of the walls can be walked for a closer look.
Near Ávila, Segovia is an enchanting small honey-coloured city strategically perched on a rocky outcrop and encased in an 11th century wall. With history dripping around every corner of its narrow lanes, its undoubted highlights include a towering double-arched Roman aqueduct that cuts through the city, a cavernous cathedral and the fairytale Alcazar (and the world’s oldest existing industrial plant with the 1583 Mint). The Alcazar is an evocative 900 year old royal palace that emerges majestically from a rocky crag, its long narrow shape, sheer sides and witches-hat roofs being the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s residence.
Immortalised by El Greco and a former capital city, Toledo is a treasure trove of medieval buildings and cultural sights. Dating back to Roman times and ideally sited for fortification with a loop in the river protecting three sides and two imposing walls protecting the fourth, the city is jam-packed in a maze of streets with places of worship for Christians, Jews and Muslims, highlighting its wars and battles over past centuries. Toledo makes for a superb one day trip from Madrid walking the labyrinthine laneways soaking the medieval charm of so many historic structures.
Just east of Madrid and encased by deep gorges on three sides, Cuenca was purpose built for fortification. More famous than its city walls are its exceptional hanging houses (las casas colgadas) grimly clinging to the cliff sides, their balconies protruding into fresh air and highly unsuited for those uncomfortable with heights. One excellent example now serves as the Abstract Arts Museum.
In the very north-west of Spain and surrounded by over two kilometres of Roman walls built in the third and fourth centuries (yes, over 1700 years old), it is the only complete Roman wall anywhere in the world. With the wall being six metres thick and with a twenty metre wide moat around the walls, Lugo was near impregnable. Eighty-five towers rise out of the wall giving vantage points in every direction to give the city warning of any pending attack.
While there are a number of examples of walled cities throughout Europe, north Africa and Asia, Spain has an impressive concentration of them, each making for a superb one-day visit. Other Spanish cities including Girona and Badajoz also boast well preserved city walls. While all the cities have sprawled well beyond their medieval bounds, it is a chance to imagine the importance that these walls bought in protecting the city and the efforts that leaders went to maintain the city against the constant threat of attack.