My shins are killing me today, the legacy that is Toledo, that wonderful, maddening, beautiful former citadel of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The city sits on a knob in bend of the Río Tajo, about 30 minutes SW of Madrid. It’s an easy train ride and while a short walk into town from the station, the smart ones pay the 4€ cab fare and save their legs for the climbing inside the town, not up to it. You ask to be dropped off at Plaza Zocodover and grab a bite to eat. Or just march off into the warrens.
We began our day walking our street which was mysteriously covered in chicken feathers as though the bar crowd had held a light night pillow fight. Across Plaza Mayor and then hiking down Calle Atocha to the train station, we stopped along the way for a couple of Americanos (hot) and a napolitano. It was cold, probably 20 degrees lower than what we’d been used to in Sevilla, and the wind was blowing up the street into our faces, making it feel far more like November than the end of April. I had chosen the wrong jacket, figuring I’d walk myself into warmth but that was a misguided expectation so the first thing I did at Atocha Station was buy a scarf. You might think that you’d pay more in such a transportation hub where most of the goods are aimed at fathers who forgot to buy something for their kids on their business trip. But the scarves were the standard 1 for 3€, 2 for 5€ you see everywhere in town, including the El Rastro flea market. Apparently there is a Scarf Cartel that keeps prices fixed and thus promotes equality among sellers. I chose a nice multicolored striped one from India and put it on.
The train left on time with us on it (my kiosk ticket purchase having been successful) and off we went for our second trip down this line. On our last visit we’d tried to hit the high spots – Cathedral, Church of San Juan of Los Reyes and the wonderful little Mezquita that sits tucked away quietly in a far corner of the town. In doing so we’d missed the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, an oversight that I came to realize by eavesdropping on the photos of the girl sitting in front of me on the return train. My sole purpose for coming back was to visit this little gem.
Toledo has a long and storied history, beginning first with the Romans who used the strategically defensible site as a transportation hub. The beginning of the Jewish history are here, relocated from Italy proper to the hinterlands to act as managers and merchants. The Visigoths filled the void after the fall of Rome and in 711 they were supplanted by the Moors, who held out until 1085 when Toledo was one of the first cities to fall to the Reconquista. Many of the Moorish craftsman remained behind and they work imparted a very heavy influence on the architecture. Of all the cities we’ve visited in Spain, Toledo by far looks the most exotic. Toledo was considered the cultural and spiritual capital of Spain until Philip II moved the capital to Madrid. Some say it was a matter of geography, Madrid being easier to reach, more central and more amenable to expansion. Others say it was Philip’s desire to draw a strong line between the spiritual and the governmental. In either, Toledo fell asleep until the 19th century and the era of the Grand Tours of Europe.
Following our own advice we hied ahead of he train crowd and grabbed the first cab in line. I asked about the weather – it was threatening – and the driver launched into a long tale of which I got about 10%, most notably that it was typically over 100° in the summer and that even if it did rain we were better off being here today. I stopped at the tourist information booth and grabbed a map, knowing full well that it was by and large a waste of time because Toledo is the unmappable city. There are so many streets, sub-streets, passageways, nooks, crannies, deadends and lanes that any map that include them all would either be unreadable or 5 feet square. As I’ve said in the past, maps in these old cities are basically nothing more than guidelines and that adage is brought to full fruit here. The best you can do is count intersections and hope for the best. Even asking for directions from shopkeepers is a waste of time.
Given our location, we headed off in the direction of the Mezquita del Cristo de la Cruz, the finest remnant of the 10 mosques in the city. Dating from the 10th century, it was converted into a church in 1187 following the Reconquista and its name purportedly refers to the Cid’s horse which upon entering the city, knelt down in front of the building in honor of a Christ that was hidden in a wall and illuminated by a lamp (de la Luz.) I suppose to most people it would be an afterthought, but I think it’s very special. Tiny, sacred and abutting a garden that sits alongside a section of the city wall that offers a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. The inside is divided into 9 squares, each with a unique dome held above by four columns and four double arches, very similar to its much grander cousin in Córdoba from which it took its inspiration. Like that, it’s columns and capitals are largely reused Visigothic materials. To one side is a semi-circular apse added when the building was converted. The as yet unrestored remains of 13th, 14th and 15th century frescoes illuminate the dome of the apse. It’s a fine little place and worthy of the horrible climb up necessary to get back into the center of the old city.
The Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz
Our next goal was on the far end of town so we did the struggle up and walk down and check the map routine, stopping here and there to admire some little square or the face of some ancient building. Much of what it old in Toledo remains, repurposed for apartments or homes or shops. The Islamic and Mudejar styles predominate and every once in a while you find a house on a side lane that was probably one of the other 10 mosques, never restored. We stopped to admire a shop offering the traditional gold and steel work that Toledo is known for. I had passed on purchasing one of the little black and gold plates that are emblematic of the work of these craftsmen and have regretted it since. They’re expensive, not so much as the broadswords also for sale, but costly. But this time I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice and bought one featuring little birds in a garden scene. It helped that the proprietor, a very nice elderly gentleman, came outside and chatted me up while inviting me into his shop. He let me use the loupe on his workbench to admire the details of his work and produced a certificate that guaranteed the quality of the gold. One more of those little fun interactions with real people.
Back on the road and heading towards the Sinagoga, the maps again presented an interesting representation of the real world. We ended up zeroing in on it by going in every shrinking circles until, after one more corner we found the entrance. I remembered it from last year and our decision to skip it, because we were caught in a rain shower and decided to keep moving until we got into the Church of San Juan de Los Reyes that was just up the street. A young woman in a black suit with multiple facial piercings pointed out the fact that we’d overlooked the ticket office, through no fault of our own. The outside was pretty simple and not enhanced by the fact that it was mostly covered with scaffolding and construction scrims but once inside, I was glad I’d made the effort to return. What a gorgeous place.
Built sometime between 1200 and 1280, this was once the main synagogue for Toledo’s Jewish Quarter. Despite its obvious Islamic style, it is one of the few religious buildings in Toledo that was never a mosque, commissioned by the town Rabbi, built by Mudejar craftsmen and converted to a church in 1492 following the expulsion of the Jews, it only served two faiths during its history.
As you enter, you’re faced with 4 long rows of white columns, capped with carved stone capitols depicting pine cones (a Middle Eastern traditional element representing the unity of the People of Israel) which in turn support horseshoe shaped arches. Above them, another series of wooden arches supports the beams of the roof. At the end of each row is a small apse, topped with either a dome or a half dome in the form of a seashell. While not as shocking as the Mezquita in Córdoba, this one was ever bit as powerful in promoting a true sense of contemplation, again achieved through the beauty of the pieces and parts, not a bleeding saint. Just wandering around made me glad I’d taken the time and effort to amend my miss from our last time here.
Interior of the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca.
Now it was time for lunch, and like all lunches here finding the right place to eat is an effort in intimidation and indecision. This place being one of Spain’s premier tourist traps, even the tapas places were grossly overpriced. Just a simple lunch was going to run into the $50 range, or twice as much as what you’d pay for the same in Madrid or Sevilla. The options were weird too, either fancy restaurants with linens and wine glasses already on the tables or garish tourist joints with photographs of every meal plastered to the front. I’ll admit it, I don’t do well with these kinds of options, preferring to find something a bit more authentic but not so much so that the patrons all stop talking when you come in. So after passing on a few choices we decided to head downhill (since that was the way we eventually needed to go) and to try and escape the traps along the main thoroughfare. We finally settled on a little, not too busy place next to the El Greco museum and ordered Americanos and a lomo (sliced pork) bocadillo (sandwich.) It came fast and as the waiter arrived, he sort of yelled at My Lovely Wife “please, please, please” and grabbed he menu out of her hands, replacing it in its cradle on the table. We couldn’t quite figure out what that was about but at least we didn’t have to take it personally when he did it to the guy at the next table. We ate, paid and left deciding to head back into the tourist frenzy for desert, which here could only be Marzipan, Toledo’s tasty almond treat. Again faced with the same restaurant dilemma (most of the sweets shops were mobbed) we stopped to look in the window of a small shop. The owner stuck his head out, said “5€ for a sampler,” I said “deal” and we were once again on our way with marzipan para llevar (to go.) It turned out to be a nice little box with a dozen pieces in the shapes of snails, apples and loaves of bread.
We were now on the downside of our trip and with an hour and a half left we turned right, taking the next lane downward and towards the river. I had one last place that I wanted to see, the Puente de Alcántara, an old Roman bridge protected by a gate that was one of the first in the original city walls and the original entrance for religious pilgrims. Last year, we had come down the hill on the other side of town and started walking towards the area only to become discouraged by not really knowing how far we had to go. We hailed a taxi a very short (and embarrassing) distance from the train station and I was very disappointed to see that we’d given up just a bit too soon. So I made a solemn commitment to see these last sights this time around.
Our map showed an intriguing route, a combination bike path/hiking trail that ran along the river so we angled downwards figuring it would be a nice respite from climbing and descending on cobblestones. We found the remains of some ancient baths, either Roman or Moorish, on the banks of the river but unfortunately the informational signs were completely obliterated by graffiti. Continuing on, we opted to continue downhill in hopes of finding the hiking path. At the end of the paved rode, we found it, a nice hard dirt track that took off past an old mill and through a picnic ground. It was nice to be on dirt for the first time in weeks, having the kind of walk we have at home. The river was rushing by, birds were singing in the trees, fisherman were trying to catch lunch. Poppies and daisies in full bloom rose up to the base of the old city walls that towered above us. Every once in a while we’d come upon some old structure, a defensive tower or gate, sticking out of the side of the hill. We went on like this for perhaps a half mile until we reached a little paved square at the base of a steep cobbled lane that climbed back up into the city center. Our path ended.
Having a look at the map, the green line we’d been walking along was supposed to continue on, perhaps all the way the train station, but from here there was no way out. Our way was blocked by a house and a gated set of stairs that led down into the water. Our only option was to climb, one…more…time, back up until we found another route. So we did and after a short bit and a few dozen stairs we discovered the Ruta de Don Quixote, the path we should have been on in the first place. We’d been fooled when presented with the dirt path back by the baths, and the joker who created this map didn’t see anything wrong with drawing a green belt that was continuous when in fact it was broken in half. This path wasn’t dirt, but it had all the other amenities we’d just had – birds, flowers, trees and the sound of the river. We followed it until we hit the bridge, saw the gate, took some photos and went off in search of coffee before our train ride home.
Puente de Alcántara.
For more photos, please click on the link below to visit the gallery -
Toledo Photo Gallery