Set high on a hill above the River Tagus, Toledo’s historic centre is a melting pot of Christian, Muslim and Jewish architecture. Its effect, even across two days of grey skies, cold rain and high winds, was mesmerising.
We crossed the river on the ancient Alcantara Roman bridge that towers above the swirling waters below and set about the steep hike to the town’s centre but were pleasantly surprised (relieved!) to stumble across a series of escalators cunningly hidden in the stone rock face. It made for a gentle start to a bustling day of dodging umbrellas and elbows in the crowded and narrow streets of the historic centre.
Toledo was packed with visitors, despite the siesta hours. We wound down to the central point, the splendid cathedral. Its massive size reflects its history as the spiritual heart of the Church in Spain. Built on an earlier 7th century church it took nearly three hundred years to create from the day that work began in 1226. The timespan is reflected in its mix of styles, Gothic on the outside with Spanish Mudejar decoration inside.
We didn’t venture in, saving our euros for two other sites that we had earmarked to visit, both of which are indelibly weaved into the history of the old city.
El Greco, the Greek painter who made his home in Toledo during its glory years of the 16th century has a house and museum in the old Jewish Quarter. Disappointingly, the house was not his home, but a property purchased by a later admirer and furnished as a home typical of El Greco’s time.
It was possibly the most chaotic museum we’ve ever visited, with contradictory signage, locked doors, barging crowds of Chinese confused about to what to photograph, and burly and unhelpful guards.
We eventually found El Greco’s series of paintings ‘Christ and Apostles’ but were struck more by the likeness of each disciple to each other, rather than by their life-likeness.
We narrowed them down to being three different models. Hence Peter was Paul and Andrew, Jesus was James etc. John had an interesting cup of poison, represented by a little dragon. It was what drew most comment.
The Jewish Quarter has the city’s beautiful synagogues and the oldest and largest, Santa Maria la Blanca dates to the 12th century. Its five knaves are separated by horseshoe arches of white and gold, standing on carved stone capitals on top of a polished terracotta tiled floor. It is beautifully simple and an evocative site representing the fate of Toledo’s Jewish community.
An horrific massacre took place inside the synagogue in 1391, which marked the turning point of religious tolerance in the city. In 1492 as Columbus sailed the ocean blue with funding from the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Toledo’s community either left or remained as Catholic converts.
The synagogue became a church and was later decorated with Mudejar plaster-work and carvings by Muslim workers living under Christian rule. The combination of all its elements is both exquisite and thought provoking.
Toledo was a jewel in the crown of the Moorish caliphate from the eight to the eleventh centuries, and its mosque, Mezquita Bab al-Mardum (since called Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz) dates from around 1000 AD. Toledo fell to the crusaders in 1085 and the Knights Templar established a base in the city, although there’s little evidence today.
However, this has not stemmed a tide of shops selling souvenir medieval weaponry and an alarming number of knives in all sizes. Every corner we turned boasted a window display of replica daggers and ferociously usable hunting and carving knives. It was a relief to see some marzipan confectionery instead!
Predating Knights and Moors, the Visigoths has control of Toledo after the fall of the Roman Empire. Little remains of their city but there is a wonderful collection of replica votive crowns (similar to that of Recceswinth which we had seen at Banos de Cerrato).
Finds included jewellery, domestic pottery, stone carvings and funeral proscriptions which are kept in one of the city’s oldest churches, San Roman.
Built in the 1100s, in the style of the first Toledan Mudejars (Muslims who remained living under Christian rule after the reconquest by the crusaders), its interior is a series of horseshoe arches decorated with Romanesque wall paintings.
All of Toledo’s rich architectural history does of course sit on Roman foundations. The most evocative site is the subterranean baths at Amador de los Rios.
Passing the workers busy behind their desks at the Toledo Cultural Resources Management Centre, we headed down steep steps to the musky limestone saunas, baths and hypocaust still decorated with marble carvings and some traces of red and blue frescoes. It’s thought to have been a public baths around the time of the height of Imperial power in Hispania at the end of the first century AD.
Toledo is a truly enchanting city and a wonderful place to visit to catch a whiff of its many pasts. We eschewed chewing on one of the traditional ‘bocadillo Ibericos’, a dangerously crusty looking roll stuffed with pink finely carved and dry cured ham.
It didn’t stop the vast numbers of American tourists tucking in for €4.50. “Say, all this is missing is some Jack”, presumably a reference to the bland Monterey Jack American white cheese. Instead we had a local beer and tapas of tasty olives in a medieval brewery, close to the Visigothic museum.
With much to ponder upon, our evening quickly passed as once again, the heavens opened and poured rain indiscriminately on the Jewish Quarter, the synagogues, the mosque, the Roman bridge, the Visigoth’s museum, the colossal Cathedral, and us… camped in Bertha beneath the old town walls.