Toledo, city of three cultures

Toledo was another of the places on my “Spanish hit list”. Just one hour from Madrid, the guidebooks and photographs I had seen painted a fantastic picture of a beautiful city, full of small, cobbled streets and stuffed full of culture (and good places to eat). It is known as the city of three cultures (according to lonely planet), due to its diverse history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Everyone I had spoken to either raved about Toledo, or had heard the same great things and also wanted to go. Needless to say, I was keen. But with temperatures soaring over 35 degrees, and three young children, I could tell the family weren´t mad on the idea. So at the last minute I went out on a limb, and on Friday night asked my new friend Jose if he fancied a day trip to Toledo. Happily, he did! Hooray!

We left at 10am on Saturday morning, and the drive was a measly 1 hour to arrive in Toledo (although we did accidentally mistake a large factory for the city, and nearly took a very inconvenient detour). After parking the car at a gorgeous viewpoint, we set off for Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which is home to not only the cathedral but also the tourist office – very convenient. We quickly discovered that Toledo is cute and small enough to make it the perfect city to explore on foot. Yes, the blazing heat and the fact that that the city is extremely hilly make it slightly more challenging… but it´s just a good excuse to stop for lots of cold drinks. And that was what we did as soon as we had acquired some maps from the tourist office, with the highlights of Toledo neatly circled for our walking pleasure. Tinto de Verano makes everything SO GOOD.

As we were already there, it made sense to check out the cathedral… until we discovered it cost 8 euros. 8 EUROS. Deciding that the money could be better spent on food, and really, cathedrals tend to look pretty similar on the inside, we amused ourselves by walking round it and taking pictures. Something I thought was interesting was that the cathedral site has always been a place of worship – during Muslim rule, it was the location of the central mosque, which was later destroyed.

With the intention of checking out a proper mosque, we make our way back up to the northern part of town to visit the Mezquita (Mosque) del Cristo de la Luz. My guidebook describes the mosque as “modest but beautiful” and I feel this is being quite generous. Yes it is pretty, but the mosque is definitely small, and if I´m being honest it´s not much to write home about. Like the majority of mosques and synagogues in Toledo, it suffered the usual fate of being converted into a church with the Catholic conquest, but with some of the original architecture still intact.

By this time we were both getting hungry, so we set of on the intense mission of finding somewhere good to eat lunch. We were both very picky in that we wanted something traditional, friendly, non-touristy, cheap, and delicious. Needless to say we were walking a long time. It´s easy to lose yourself in the beautiful, narrow streets of Toledo which seem to twist in all directions, yet always leading you back to the centre somehow (so if you do get lost, don´t panic, just keep walking!). Eventually we found the perfect place and for just 10 euros each got a mountain of food – sopa de castillano, homemade meatballs and chips (plus some steak things) and ice cream, all washed down with ice cold peach juice. Bliss!

Feeling happily full and rested, we headed to Toledo´s Jewish quarter, which was once home to 11 synagogues, until the majority of the Jews were expelled in the 15th century. Periodically scattered on the ground to make the Judería were small tiles of menorahs and Hebrew symbols, which I thought was pretty cool and had to embarrass Jose by talking several pictures of the floor. Our plan was to spend the afternoon strolling around a couple of museums and other “inside activities”, to escape the hottest part of the day. We visited the Sinagoga del Transito, a beautiful synagogue that now also houses the Museo Sefardi, documenting Jewish culture and history in Spain, which made for an interesting visit.

To be even more cultured, we then made a trip to the “Casa de El Greco”. El Greco, the famous Renaissance artist came to Spain and settled in Toledo in 1577. Whilst a fantastic painter, he was apparently also a little bit arrogant, and extremely confident in his own talent (which, I suppose you could say, is fair enough). Ironically, the “house of El Greco” was not actually his house and it was all a bit of a mix-up – this was only discovered after it had been fully renovated, and must have been a bit of a bummer for the owner. Nevertheless, that hiccup was pushed to the side and it has been transformed into a beautiful exhibition of El Greco´s life and work. We left the house feeling pretty impressed, and to get a further appreciation for his paintings, we visited the Inglesia de Santo Tome where El Greco´s masterpiece (El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz) is displayed. Amusingly, El Greco added a few “special guests” to the painting, including himself. You can spot him as the man staring straight out of the picture, in a semi-creepy way.

By this time we had been walking all day, and needed a little pick me up before heading back, so it was time for one of my Spanish favourites – FROZEN YOGHURT. I´m absolutely crazy for the stuff. The shop we visited had a kiwi sauce as one of the toppings and it was sooooo good… especially when piled high with pineapple… and more kiwi pieces. Incredible. We also popped into a beautiful confectionary shop so I could buy some of Toledo´s famous marzipan (I hadn´t realize just how quite famous it is there – even the nuns have got in on the act and sell marzipan in the convents!). Then it was time to head home, both of us absolutely knackered from so much walking, but having had a fantastic day.

I seem to be saying this about every place I visit, but I can honestly say (again!) that Toledo has been one of my favourite places, and I´m so glad I was able to see it. Yes, there are a lot of tourists, and the guidebooks warn that if you go as a “day trip”, you will miss all the charm of the city and be swallowed up in a swarm of tour groups. I think this is a bit of an exaggeration. I´m sure that it would be fantastic to stay for a few nights, and wander through the streets when the throngs of day-trippers have gone home, to enjoy the quiet mystic of the city. It´s definitely something I will try to do my next time in Spain. But if you only have one day, don´t pass up the chance to see Toledo – you will still see a lot, and get an understanding of what the city is all about. Hills, cobbled streets, SO MUCH SUN, and culture with a cherry on top!!

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