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The inside story on Toledo

The inside story on Toledo

Georges Rouzeau - 2009-11-18

The former capital of Spain, Toledo is situated on a headland surrounded by a ravine chiselled by the Tagus river. In its maze of narrow streets, you'll stumble across a variety of churches, palaces, convents and mosques, all forming a centuries-old harmonious combination.

 
As you approach Toledo on the Madrid road, you'll see an unforgettable panoramic view of the town. Imagine a town built on top of a granite rock, surrounded by a ravine carved by the swirling green waters of the Tagus river; imagine a reddish-brown and ochre mass of Gothic houses, churches, convents and ancient Arabic palaces, crisscrossed by dark and narrow pebbled alleys!
 
On your first evening, you must go for a drive around this magnificent town. Take the Avenida de la Cava to the Toledo bypass (Carretera de Circunvalación) and drive up to the terrace in front of the Parador de Toledo. Dusk is the perfect time as Toledo and its surroundings become breathtakingly beautiful: the sky changes from vermillion red to orange, then pale lemon and finally turquoise blue. In front of you, clear and still, Toledo and its old monuments can be clearly seen several miles away. The Alcazar dominates the town with its heavy silhouette while the cathedral pierces the sky with its enormous spire and the Church of San Juan de Los Reyes completes the scene. The harshness of the Mancha scenery adds an almost African touch to the setting. Other spots along this road offer splendid views: the Virgen del Valle Hermitage and the Virgen de la Cabeza Hermitage.
 
This is the route El Greco walked every evening as he did the rounds of the cigarrales. These large country mansions surrounded by olive, orange and chestnut groves were built facing Toledo like the villas facing Florence, following the fashionable "return to nature" advocated by the Renaissance. Every evening the painter came here to enjoy the company of talented Toledanos, such as the playwright Tirso de Molina, Lope de Vega, the priest who wrote witty cloak and dagger comedies, the moralist Baltasar Gracián, the poet Góngora and, of course, the greatest of all, Cervantès.

Then return to the old town, a melting pot of Christian, Arabic and Jewish cultures which makes Toledo so special. Throughout this ancient fortified Roman town, you'll see traces of the Arabic and Jewish cultures barely hidden by Catholicism. You'll learn to distinguish between Mozarabic art—that of Christians living in Islamic areas after the invasion of 711, and Mudejar art—that of Muslims continuing to work according to their traditions for Christians. Mudejar art can be seen in palace decorations (Taller del Moro) and synagogues (Tránsito and Santa María la Blanca) as well as in the architecture of churches and their towers evoking minarets, like that of Santo Tomé. The Jews, for their part, probably arrived in AD 70, after the second destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, transforming Toledo into the most important town in Hebrew Spain, renowned for its translators' school.
El Greco, the Toledo painter
 
For more than thirty years, Toledo was home to an artist as famous as any of those in Renaissance Italy. From Casa de El Greco to Museo de Santa Cruz and the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, you'll have an opportunity to discover his paintings, his house, or his crypt (uncertain authenticity). Universally cherished as an artist, and tourist treasure, he is nevertheless a painter whose disturbing art was greatly criticised during his life and who fell into oblivion after his death. Much later, at the beginning of the 20th century, collectors and aesthetes made him the prototype of the mystical and tormented artist, the best example of a dark and painful Spanish spirituality. However, this native Greek, trained in Venice by Titian, was greatly indebted to Italian painting and culture. Highly aware of his artistic standing, El Greco lived in Toledo like a rich Renaissance lord, surrounded by servants and musicians who serenaded him while he dined. On his death he left nothing but debts and 200 unfinished paintings!
The great classics
 
The cathedral
Magnificent from afar, the cathedral blends in with the surrounding buildings that even when you're close, you can see only the south facade. While the outside is relatively plain, the inside overflows with stalactite-like decoration. You won't grow weary of wandering through the chapels of this imposing church, currently under restoration.
 
Santo Tomé Church
This high yellowish brick tower is decorated with Arabic arcatures and glazed columns—pure Mudejar art while inside, is El Greco's masterpiece, The Burial of Count Orgaz. Visit in the morning at opening time (10 am) before the crowds arrive.
 
El Greco's House and Museum
Strictly speaking, this is not the house where El Greco was born, but it is a fine example of a 16th century Toledo house presenting the rich collection of Marquis de Vega Inclán. Closes at 9 pm.
Sinagoga del Tránsito (Sephardic museum)
Welcome to Spain's biggest Spanish-Jewish monument, the only surviving synagogue (apart from Santa María la Blanca) of the ten Toledo boasted! Its 700 year old walls feature marvellous Mudejar decoration and annexes house an excellent Sephardic museum. Avoid the crowds by going late in the evening (closes at 9 pm).
 
Santa María la Blanca
The main 12th century Jewish temple in Toledo, it was transformed into a church but has kept the appearance of an Almohade-style mosque with a beautiful interior of 24 octagonal pillars. Full marks for anyone who can find the only Star of David decorating the building!
 
San Juan de los Reyes Monastery
Built for the Catholic Kings, this Franciscan monastery is a typical example of the Isabeline style (a mixture of flamboyant Gothic, Mudejar and Renaissance design). Outside, the chains hanging on the facade are those of the Christian prisoners freed from the Moors in Andalusia.
 
Santa Cruz Museum
Behind the magnificent Plateresque portal completed by the architect Covarrubias, you'll discover a first-rate collection of paintings. Superb patio and staircase.
 
Secret Toledo...
 
Our best advice on how to explore Toledo after seeing the classics? Turn left, turn right and get lost! Toledo isn't the type of town where you find what you were looking for but a place where you stumble upon unexpected treasures. In the maze of narrow, pebbled, winding streets, sometimes stepped, wander aimlessly to capture the spirit of the town. You'll see church after church, convents, huge walls built with unimpressive materials, bricks and stones set randomly in mortar; few windows and always barred; small squares invaded by weeds. On the massive door panels, admire the magnificent decoration formed by large-headed nails.

Take the time to stroll through the convents' district (Santa Clara, Carmelitas), close to the Mezquito Cristo de la Luz and above Puerta del Sol. Here, the passageways, covered to protect you from the burning sun, bring to mind the East as much as the West. In the middle of Calle Algibes, don't miss the little wooden sign topped by a cross, offering water—a precious nectar here—to the nuns of the convents.

Another enjoyable and quiet walk is following, along with a few ducks, the banks of the legendary Tagus at the foot of the town's rocky headland.
 
A bit more time to spare?
 
The city gates
Puerta antigua or nueva de Bisagra, Puerta del Sol, Puerta de Alcántara: Arabic or Christian, they liven up the ramparts and feature coats of arms and sculptures relating to the town's history.
 
Mezquito Cristo de la Luz
This name has to be translated to fully appreciate this monument: "Christ of Light Mosque". How did it come into existence? Take the remains of a Visigothic temple, add a mosque built in AD 1000 and finish off with a Mudejar church! There is a magnificent view from the adjoining garden.
 
Plaza Zocodover
The main square, at the centre of the town's shopping district, is just around the corner from the Cathedral and the Alcazar (closed for restoration). The location of the Casa Ruja Bank is a former café where Luis Buñuel shot a few scenes of Tristana.
 
Hospital de Tavera
Located outside the ramparts, this hospice is worth a detour—see its arcaded patio typical of the Florentine Renaissance, the realistic tomb of Cardinal de Tavera, a crypt with amazing acoustic properties and a remarkable private collection of paintings including the legendary Ribera masterpiece, The Bearded Lady…
 
Gourmand Toledo
 
Toledo's speciality is marzipan, a delicious mixture of almond paste, sugar and honey. This old Mediterranean recipe, dating back to Roman times, is delicious from Confitería Santo Tomé, run by the same family since 1856. Today, Ines Garate ensures that the right products are used—almonds from Valencia, thousand flowers honey, fresh farm eggs and pine kernels from Avila—and that traditions are respected—a long resting time for the marzipan and cooking in wooden dishes which add a subtle roasted taste. Try the Delicias de Mazapan - these small almond paste crescents filled and coated with egg yolk, are the personification of supreme quality marzipan.
 
Any gastronomic discovery of Toledo begins at Casa Aurelio, run by José Antonio, son of the founder, who employs Benito Abal as chef. Close to the cathedral, this typical restaurant, with its old beams and hams hanging from the ceiling, serves traditional Toledo cuisine that is constantly renewed to suit changing tastes. This cuisine is based on local produce like game (partridge and venison), saffron, olive oil and vegetables from the mainly agricultural hinterland. People come for the braised Toledo-style partridge with onions, aromatic herbs, saffron and olive oil. As for the venison, it is sliced into medallions, cooked and served with various garnishes, such as a puree of apples and figs. Benito Abal also attracts clients with his fresh fish which he personally selects at MercaMadrid, the biggest fish market in the world after Tokyo. With summer approaching, he intends to single out a typical product of Castilla-La Mancha, melon, in all its forms—soup, dessert, sorbet...
At Casa del Temple, a young Andalusian cook, Angel Leon Gonzales, combines the three major religions in his dishes. The restaurant lends itself particularly to this approach it is situated in an 11th century Arabic palace (impressive beams decorated with verses from the Koran), transformed later into a supply store for the Templars. Magnanimous, the valiant knights merely engraved "Amen" into the stucco. Angel and his Japanese accomplice Marcelo have a wide range of gastronomic and cultural talents, combining fish and meat, raw and cooked produce, salty and sweet food, spices and sweet flavours. A mere epicure's dream? It appears that cultures coming together works perfectly in Toledo...
 
Practical information
 
Confiteria Santo Tomé
Calle Santo Tomé, 6.
 
Casa Aurelio
Calle Sinagoga, 6.
Tel.: 925 22 20 97

Casa del Temple
Calle Soledad, 2.
Tel.: 902 19 88 44
 

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