Go to Spain’s original capital, Toledo…
Best day trip from Madrid? Definitely Toledo. You’re still counting the toro (bull) signs along the lush landscapes framed by grand mountains, when you realise that the 70 km have whizzed past. So freeze frame as you approach the Tagus river, because the first view of Spain’s former capital will be etched in your memory forever. 2,500 years of history are crammed into this magical town made up of sand-colored stone buildings and walls, perched on a rocky outpost protected on three sides by a natural moat. ‘Holy Toledo!’ these words WILL tumble out. Guaranteed.
Wide pan as you troop over the historic bridge from the main bus parking. Smooth slide 100 meters up in zigzag escalators, from ground level to the gate of the city walls, where Toledo’s coat of arms is proudly displayed. Modern technology merging seamlessly into the medieval heritage. This is where you enter the narrow cobblestone streets of one of Spain’s largest historic centres and a UNESCO World Heritage site boasting of over 100 monuments including churches, synagogues, mosques and fortresses…twisting streets, irregular terrain. Thankfully, colorful signs help you navigate.
Overhead, suspended canvas canopies with elaborate emblems and crests offer respite from the hot summer sun. Let your curiosity get the better of you. Pop in and out of shops. Disappear into tight pebbly alleyways. Trace your fingers over the ancient surfaces of the gold-brown brick buildings. Follow the shadows of the hanging potted plants. Make invisible outlines of the elegantly Juliet-balconies and the ceramic-tiled roofs. Think about why streets are too narrow for even the sun to break in…a natural cooling architectural feature, perhaps.
Indulge in some old-fashioned flashback to the times when Toledo was known as the ‘City of the Three Cultures’ and Christianity-Jewish-Muslim religions co-existed unrestricted. From the Romans in 192 BC to the Visigoths during the mid-6th century and the Arabs (Moors) in the 8th century, invaders were careful not to destroy hallowed ground, as Toledo was considered the holiest city in Spain in the Catholic faith. Thanks to that, the three distinct architectural styles of Moorish, Jewish and Christian Gothic, are still scattered all over these ancient streets. Lap it all up, every glorious corner you can sneak into. Interestingly, Spain’s largest Jewish population once flourished in this ‘Second Jerusalem’. Their remaining homes, museums and shopping lanes are big draws. Don’t miss the two former synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, dating from pre-Inquisition days. Lovely arches and intricate stone tracery to keep you busy for a couple of hours.
Take a low-down on the famous Greek-born artist, El Greco (‘The Greek’) or Domenikos Theotocopoulos, who had found employment in Toledo. Familiar with his unique painting style? Icon-like faces from his Greek homeland, bold colour and twisting, elongated bodily poses inspired by Italy, and mystical spirituality from Catholic Spain. Witness the purity of his art in his most famous work, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ at the moorish Chapel of Santo Tome. Salute his brilliance.
Make time to halt at Plaza del Ayuntamiento, a small square in the old center where a fountain gurgles to your right, the City Hall is behind you, and right ahead is the highlight of the town, rising high above the cramped medieval clutter. Toledo Cathedral is possibly the most Gothic and most Spanish of all cathedrals in the country. Inside, it is laden with elaborate wrought-iron work, lavish wood carvings, colourful 500-year-old stained glass windows, carved silver and wooden sculptures, gleaming gold, marble, and alabaster, and numerous chapels filled with religious art and the tombs of cardinals. You can’t help whispering ‘wow’ as you drift among the pillars, imagining a time when the light bulbs were candles, the tourists were pilgrims, and the windows provided spiritual and physical light, not photo opportunities. The spectacular altar of real gold on wood is a magnificent Gothic artwork. The sacristy is full of masterpieces by the likes of Goya, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Bellini, not to mention 18 El Grecos, including his masterpiece ‘The Disrobing of Christ’. Swoon.
Souvenir time? Stop for a tasty Moorish treat, made of sugar, honey and almond mazapán. Choose from different designs, shapes and fruity flavors, including small watermelons and banana shapes. Heavy and filling…but who counts calories on vacation. Aiming for something heavier? Toledo used to be world-renowned for high-quality steel, weapons and swords and various armies, including the Roman legion, used the Toledo swords. There are still some shops, like Mariano Zamorano Swords and Toledo Sword Shop, where craftsmen make swords. Too heavy for you?
On your way back, from the bus, watch the sunset cast its orange glow on the Alcázar Fortress towering above the tiers of colorful Spanish buildings. Royal residence of Carlos V’s, Europe’s most powerful king, turned into state prison, turned into Army Museum. The still waters of the Tagus River wrapped around the picturesque hill are flowing under the medieval bridges. The sky has darkened and yellow lights are starting to twinkle among the hundreds of buildings creating a brilliant, silent setting. There’s an old Spanish saying…“Until you’ve seen Toledo, you have not seen Spain.” Don’t you agree?
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