The Spanish city of Toledo has impressively preserved its artistic and cultural legacy in the form of churches, palaces and mosques.
It’s a panoramic sunset show with a view of red tiled roofs, tall steeples and the four towers of the Alcazar—the ancient fortress interspersed with olive groves. This is swashbuckling Don Quixote country—a heady cocktail of three cultures— Christian, Jewish and Muslim all intertwined to make a rich pastiche of architecture and cuisine. Ruled by the Romans, Visigoths and the Moors, the town looks like it was lifted straight out of the Arabian Nights. We are at the Parador de Toledo, a Moorish manor converted into a government hotel and the favoured place to get a bird’s eye view of this historic city. It was this perspective that inspired the famous painter El Greco to paint the ‘View of Toledo’ which hangs today at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Toledo was the political capital of Spain until 1561, when Philip II moved to Madrid. Our guide told us that it still remains as the spiritual and religious centre of the country. Situated on a rocky hill in an oxbow of the Tajo River, this city is a sepia portrait in stone, filled with historic churches, synagogues and castles. Swallows swoop overhead and patches of red poppies enliven the otherwise barren landscape of central Spain. 10,000 people still live within its ancient city walls.
Our Hotel Hacienda Del Cardenal is a historic 18th century cardinal’s residence with a Moorish ambience, situated by the old Alfonso VI city gate. The gardens are a replica of the ones found in Alhambra and have fountains that flow into long pools. Close by is an impressive set of public escalators and covered walkways that wind their way sinuously below ancient city walls from an underground garage.
Talk about ancient meets modern! We walk with our guide Fernando, through the City Gate which has a double-headed eagle carved on it (the symbol of the city) into leafy courtyards and serpentine alleys, lined with old aristocratic houses and geranium-filled balconies. Gilded weather vanes shine on rooftops and storks nests can be seen on bell towers. Tiled street signs and plaques outside historical monuments and old heritage properties help us to navigate the city. The Tajo River flows over weirs under ancient stone bridges.
On the other side of the river are cigarrales—historic houses of wealthy families set in orchards of figs. These have been converted into luxury lodgings. Toledo was a great Jewish settlement until Queen Isabella, in 1492,asked them to either convert to Catholicism or leave. I enjoyed the unique Mudejar architecture—a mix of Gothic and Islamic which is stunning with its arches and patterned brickwork. The Alcazar on the hill used to be a Roman fort and also the location of a two month siege during the Civil War. Today it’s a military museum.
The Cathedral, a magnum opus of Gothic style, is one of the most stunning ones that I have seen. It has pillars rising like a stone forest and gold gilt on wood. It is believed that just its bare skeletal structure took 267 years to build. I couldn’t help but press my nose on the glass cases in the Treasury while looking at a gargantuan jewel, encrusted silver monstrance weighing 430 pounds, and exquisite copies of the Bible, hand-copied by French monks. It’s not just a church. It’s sacristy is like a mini museum filled with classics by master artists such as Goya, Rubens and Caravaggio.
El Greco, the artist from Crete, who found commissions from Spanish kings reigns supreme with his famous painting, ‘Disrobing of Christ’ gracing the sacristy walls. Francisco de Quevedo, the famous writer once said, “Crete gave him life but Toledo gave him the artist´s brushes.“ We were entranced by the regal vestments showcased in glass and the portrait gallery of archbishops with its elaborately painted ceiling and murals of Biblical scenes. My favourite remains the Baroque altar with light streaming through a hole in the ceiling called ‘El Transparente’. It’s a riot of angels, clouds and cherubs and was done to illuminate the poorly-lit cathedral. It’s surreal to see dusty red tasseled hats, suspended from the ceiling to mark the spots where a cardinal is buried. The piece de resistance is the choir with its two-tiered walnut seats intricately carved with war scenes.
Legend has it that a local woman prayed to Virgin Mary for her boyfriend’s return from the war. She told her maid to stick a pin into her every time she fell asleep so that her vigil at the church would be uninterrupted. She offered this pin to the Virgin Mary as a proof of her devotion and was re-united with her boyfriend. Even today on Little Pin Street, various pin offerings crowd the window of the church! Nun-made marzipan and ornate silverware are the speciality of the town. A must try is Toledana— crumbly puff pastry filled with sugary strands of angel’s hair (which is actually pumpkin). Toledo’s most famous for its fine steel blades, swords and knives, a tradition which dates back to Hannibal and the Roman army. Fencing rapiers, sabres and cutlasses as well as knights of armour are lined up in shops.
It is believed that even the Japanese Samurai travelled here to learn the art of sword-making. Our guide told us that movies like Lord of the Rings and Gladiator used swords made in Toledo! Indians tend to find the local art (which bears witness to the craftsmanship of Muslims in Christian Spain) familiar to the Bidri work from Hyderabad. This is called damascene where black steel is ornamented with gold and silver wire to make intricate designs.
At evening, we sat in the open gardens of our hotel enjoying local manchego goat’s cheese and sangria and looked at the ancient ramparts bathed in the soft glow of sunlight. In Toledo the past is still very much alive.
How to get there:
Toledo is just 71 km from Madrid. You can take a bus or hire a car. The easiest way to get there is by the AVE high-speed train which takes just 35 minutes.
Where to stay:
Hacienda Del Cardenal is a 18th century Cardinal’s residence restored into a Best Western branded hotel. It is a historic building next to the city walls with a Moorish garden and pavilions. Twin rooms start at around 105 Euros per night. www.hostaldelcardenal.com.
What to eat:
The city is famous for its stews, roast lamb, suckling pig and broad beans.
What to buy:
Marzipan, local sweet called Toledana, Manchego cheese, embroidered cloth, local wines, knives and swords.
By Reema Bhalla