Sunday, April 15, 2012

Toledo

Toledo was on my list of day trips when I had first planned this trip. We got sidetracked though when we arrived in Madrid on our first day and had a conversation with our cabbie about Segovia. He told us that it was the finest city in Spain and so when we had the chance, we went. But Toledo remained in the back of my mind and when we were done wandering the streets of Madrid with a couple of days remaining, we took the chance.

The weather on this trip has been “unsettled.” We’ve been threatened with inundation a couple of times and actually watered once or twice; the skies of Segovia were particularly intent on teaching us a springtime lesson. As we packed up to leave for this next outing, the sky spoke volumes – big, wet gray clouds in all directions so the umbrellas were once again included. We got sprinkled on as we walked up Calle Arenal to the Sol Metro station, a portent of things to come. This being Saturday, the subway was much busier, but still nothing compared to China. And it was only 4 stations down the line to Puerta de Atocha where the line joined the train system.

Each visit here reminds me of that awful day in 2004 when al-Qaida bombers killed nearly 200 Spaniards during a weekday rush hour. Almost 8 years to the day of our first visit. A monument called Bosque del Recuerdo is located in the Bien Retiro park and consists of 192 cypress and olive trees, one for each of the victims. Today the station is once again the modern hub of rail travel for this country. After a bit of aimless wandering we found our gate (“via” in the local parlance) and boarded a half hour before departure. Somehow we drew the unlucky card and got 2 of the 8n seats that face each other at the center of the car. Those provide ample legroom if no one sits across from you or none at all if they do. I suggested that the ticket salesman had liked us and so booked these as a favor. My Lovely Wife suggested otherwise. A family of three – two adults and a bossy 20-something showed up and dashed my hopes. But they were not across from us, they wanted our seats. The young woman was insistent, first demanding that the location was theirs and then suggesting that we were in the wrong car. We showed her our tickets – Row 5, Seats 5A and B – and that’s where we were. She argued a bit more while Papa got his out and gee whiz, darned if they weren’t in the wrong place. I watched them wandering down to row 9 where they settled in. I just love how indignant people get when they think they’re right, and then how quiet they get when they’re not. I suppose one of the three got the notion that they were in 5 and never bothered to check again. We say alone until just before the departure time, thinking we had lucked out, but then a mother and her daughter showed up. I was glad for the 30 minute ride - my toes were falling asleep from that bad sitting position.

The countryside between these two cities is not worthy of a mention – industrial parks, dumps and trashy apartment blocks. Only a few vistas of neatly trimmed Olive trees made it worth looking out the window. We arrived and grabbed a cab, not knowing how far it was to the old city and while doing so, the rain materialized. We arrived at Plaza Zocodover in about 10 minutes, the last 5 of which were almost all straight uphill. It is said that all streets in Toledo lead up, and I think that sentiment is correct. We had a nice lunch of coffee and ham bocadillos and waited for the rain to stop. My first impression was that we had stumbled into the biggest tourist trap in Spain, and on a Saturday no less. The city was mobbed. We left the restaurant and started uphill, the Cathedral being our first destination. It is supposed to be the largest and grandest in Spain, and at the high point of the city. It took us a while to find it even though it dominates the skyline. The surrounding streets are so narrow and so hemmed in by tall buildings that it’s tough to get your bearings. I had map I’d ordered on line, sort of a tourist’s guide which had the unfortunate “feature” of showing not only where the sights were located, but depicting them in 3D floating above the town. This served the purpose of confusing where they actually were which did not lend much confidence in plotting a route. We finally found the place which is so large that it’s hard to believe you can’t find it, and after getting turned around at the group entrance door we made our way in.

I was pretty amazed at the church in Segovia, but this one really knocks you over. The inside is enormous and the main altar and choir areas simply put everything you’ve seen to shame. The private chapels in Segovia were by comparison much more ornate than these, but the rest of the place wins by a long shot. The collection of paintings in the Sacristy would put any museum to shame simply by the volume of works by El Greco, Rubens, Caravaggio, Titian and other Masters. The presentation wasn’t great, but the sheer number took your breath away. The rest of the place continued to amaze, and even the courtyard – a central feature in all the great churches and my personal favorite place – was amazing for its size and the frescos decorating the walls. I could probably go on for another 1000 words about this and that, but suffice it to say no other cathedral is going to knock this one off the breathtaking pedestal any time ever.

Back out into the streets and after an unexpected hail storm we went on the hunt for the oldest synagogues in the city. Toledo has been an important location since the Bronze Age, passing through the hands of the Visigoths, Romans, Arabs and Reconquistas during its 2500 year history. It was long regarded for its atmosphere of religious tolerance and there were healthy populations of Jews, Christians and Muslims living side by side until the expulsions in the late 15th century. The Sinagoga del Tránsito is one of only two surviving here. Built in 1385 it retains the beautiful simplicity of its time. It wasn’t much of a tour after the Cathedral, but a nice stop once we found it. Which wasn’t easy thanks to the town maps. From there we visited the Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes which was not on our plan but beckoned once the rain began in earnest for the third time. Sometimes you let weather be your guide and often it does a great job in that role. This place, built to house the tombs of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella turned out to be a very nice stop. We were not able to see the church – there was a wedding going on that was complete with a huge boy’s choir – but the cloisters were very nice. Again a beautiful courtyard, this one with orange trees, and gorgeous carved wooden ceilings and stone work. A good place to wait out a downpour. The King and Queen ended up buried in Granada following the final defeat of the Moors as a potent reminder that from that day on, Spain would be a Christian land. It’s a shame, because this place was so very nice.

We stopped for Chocolate and Marzipan Cake (Toledo style) and then went in search of one last place – the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz. This little chapel, built in 980 began its life as a mosque and was converted to a church in the 12th century. After some prodigious map reading and a lot of climbing and descending we found it tucked away in a quiet little neighborhood on the edge of the city walls. I think this turned out to be my very favorite place in Toledo. So tiny, simple, empty and beautiful. The main “hall” if you could it that had nine unique domes supported by arches and pillars crafted to copy the main mosque in Cordoba. Much of the material used to build the mosque is incomplete in details, as they were re-used from older Roman and Visigoth buildings. Out front a 5 meter Roman road runs past the site. A beautiful garden, typical in Islamic style, sits off to the north and behind that the top of the city walls offer a splendid view of the surrounding area including the gates to the city. Bookending this visit with the Cathedral and this small wonder was a nice way to frame Toledo. We headed down the hill and after stopping to stare at the most amazing Wisteria plantation we caught a cab back to the train station. Many of the people we’d ridden down with were there waiting to return to Madrid. Apparently we’d picked a popular combination of day trip times.

After two weeks, hunting and gathering for dinner gets a bit tiresome – especially when the offerings are so vast. I’d had my eye on a little restaurant around the block and of course, it turned out to be closed. It seems many of these little holes in the wall are a labor of love, open only when the owner feels like cooking. We chose another around the block and of course it only being early evening we were the first to arrive. The waitress (I say “the” because no one else was there) said they were not open but that we were welcome to wait. In a mix of English and Spanish we arrived at 30 minutes being the expected time. But when she pulled off her sweatshirt and started to fill the rolling bucket to mop the floor we decided it might be longer. We told her we’d come back and went off to find another place, this one on the Plaza Mayor. We sat downstairs in the vault (that smelled faintly like Mr. Clean), drank house wine, listened to a table full of college-aged women language majors carry on about their worldly experiences and enjoyed the evening. Salmon au gratin for My Lovely Wife and breaded lamp chops for me. A nice end to the day and ironically one of our fanciest yet least expensive dinners during our time here.













































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