The arid landscape as viewed from the train from Madrid to Toledo, Spain is flat and uninteresting. But as one approaches the UNESCO Heritage City the brown turns to green as the Tagus River nourishes the dry valley into a fertile vista. The glimmering water meanders around the hillside peak that is crowned with the fortress town of Toledo. The striking view is straight out of an El Greco painting. And that’s just the beginning. As I disembarked from the train I was enchanted by the beauty of the delicate arabesque shapes of the Neo-Mudéjar architecture that adorns the station and reflects the Arabic influence that has informed the Andalusian region. Then it got even better. The road into Toledo leads one back into time as the protective outside walls flank the thoroughfare higher into the imperial city that has been described as being “suspended between heaven and earth.” One can imagine the long ago first time visitor who like me had travelled this majestic route with the same wonderment this religious city evokes. The vertical spires of the Alcázar and the Toledo Cathedral with its soaring tower grace the skyline and dramatically lord over the red tiled roofs of the arched stone dwellings below. This enchanting vision had me whispering “Holy Toledo.”
The cobbled stoned streets wound into narrow alleys as we delved deeper into the enclosed settlement. Our apartment was located within the walls of the old city in a building dating from the sixteenth century. We had booked our accommodations through Airbnb and we were pleased with our choice. Resting shortly after our arrival through the window came the sounds of children playing on the street. The excited chatter of their Middle Eastern dialect and exotic music flowed into the room and it was magical. As I sat in the ancient building with its high beamed ceilings and original stone walls it was easy to imagine how this neighborhood must have been like at the height of its splendor as a melting pot of cultures living together, speaking different languages, and practicing distinct religions. Toledo had been an important cultural and religious center for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities during medieval times and they had coexisted practicing tolerance while maintaining peace and prosperity despite the challenges that multiculturalism had posed to regional stability. What a concept.
A sense of timelessness pervades the medieval thoroughfares as one wanders under Moorish arches and ancient buildings embellished with Jewish stars and Arabic script as the distant bells beckon the faithful to service. The black and white habits of the nuns and cassocked priests are a common sight but with a nod to modernity as backpacks accessorize their traditional clothing. The roads eventually lead to one of the most beautiful churches that I have visited, the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. This crowning glory of Toledo has been described as the “the magnum opus” of 13th century Spanish Gothic Cathedrals and it is simply stunning. I was struck by its soaring vaulted ceilings and its dazzling gilded surfaces. The amount of bling in this cathedral is staggering. The famous main alter piece is majestic and enthralls the viewer with its golden depiction of the life of Christ as he ascended to the heavens. The site had originally been a Visigothic church but after the Muslim conquest a mosque was erected in its place. After the reconquest the mosque was replaced with today’s cathedral blending some Moorish elements with the Gothic architecture and together they culminated in this Spanish masterpiece.
Toledo for many is a sacred destination that nourishes the soul but visitor be warned, it can be hazardous to your health. I recently suffered from disk problems and had finally achieved some measure of progress and to ease my tired back chose to take the trolley tour to view the city. Bad choice. As soon as we left the main town square the smooth asphalt pavement ended and the bumpy medieval cobblestone streets began. And evil they were. The trolly was essentially a metal box on wheels with no shock absorbers and the uneven surface jammed my lower vertebrae. I instantly felt my error and steadied myself in a standing position to absorb the impact with my legs as the trolly trundled on. My husband quickly hit the stop button but to no avail, the button had been disabled. We then tried to gain the attention of the driver but that too failed. So to avoid further injury when the trolley slowed we leaped off the demon vehicle and it continued on lurching up the hill minus two rattled passengers. So travelers be wary of wheel barrows disguised as Toledo trolleys.
After our harrowing ride we strolled the streets filled with numerous shops carrying a vast array of the famed Toledo swords and other themed products of the region such as marzipan rendered into El Greco paintings. We stopped for a short break at a quaint cafe and tried the warm churros that are normally not to my taste but I found surprisingly good. Revived we continued our tour that took us to the El Transito Synagogue in the old Jewish neighborhood. In earlier times there had been a thriving Jewish community here before the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the Jews in 1492 thus ending the country’s policy of religious tolerance. The Synagogue is now a museum that offers a glimpse into the Iberian Jewish Golden Age and was wonderfully restored showcasing Mozarab motifs and Hebrew inscriptions and and we came away with an appreciation for the beauty of the earlier Jewish culture.
After our morning’s excursion into the past we set our minds to contemplating the present lunch time. And our thoughts turned to yummy Iberian pork. Fortunately we happened upon an enticing facade that housed the Alfileritos 24 restaurant. And happening it was. The trendy restaurant has a lovely atrium that houses several restaurants and exudes a cool and friendly vibe. We spent an enjoyable lunch munching away on some local fare including the must have pork and various mouth watering tapas and of course sparkling Cava. What a tasty Toledo treat!
We finished our day’s meanderings with a visit to the Church of Santo Tomé to view El Greco’s renowned painting The Burial of the Conde de Orgaz. The work is captivating and relays the legend of the deceased who had bequeathed funds to the church and was reputed to be so pious and charitable that the saints descended from heaven to bury him. The painting is important historically as well as it immortalized the nobles and other notable men of Toledo thus offering us a who’s who into the society of the time and demonstrated El Greco’s talent as a great European portrait painter.
The timing of our trip could not have been better. The weather during the month of October was pleasantly warm plus there were no crowds. And as usual our time in Toledo went by too fast but nevertheless it was fascinating delving into an era of Spanish history where religious tolerance, although not perfect, had been realized. An interesting country with a fascinating history. Viva España!