It is Sunday morning and fishermen are lined up on the banks of the Tagus River below the old city of Toledo, Spain. High above them, the old city seems to be a mass of structures haphazardly heaped on top of a rocky mound that is surrounded on three sides by water.
As I stand on the edge of a roadside pullout taking in the view, I am impressed with how formidable the city looks in the morning light — it is little wonder the Romans selected this site in 192 BC to build a fortress.
It is not until I hear the chimes of church bells announcing the Sunday service that I remember that Toledo is also considered the spiritual capital of Spain.
Despite the fact that Toledo is an important religious city, the old saying “Holy Toledo” doesn’t seem to be in the local vernacular. Some locals have never even heard the saying, but they are aware that Toledo has a long history as a religious centre.
In the eighth century, Toledo was controlled by the Moors and its residents enjoyed a time of incredible prosperity and religious tolerance. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in peace and practised their religions freely in the many churches, synagogues and mosques that were prevalent in the city.
Although the peace did not last, the buildings survived and Toledo is today richly endowed with religious structures. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo is considered by many to be the magnum opus of Gothic-style cathedrals in Spain and is the seat of the Cardinal Archbishop of the nation.
Getting into the Old City today is much easier than it once was. A series of escalators takes visitors up the steep hillside and into the heart of Toledo’s old quarter. At the top of the escalators, I can’t help noticing a tribute to El Greco, one of the great Spanish artists who lived and died in Toledo. You can find his works throughout the city.
As I wander along the narrow winding streets, I can see the Moorish influence in the architecture. The Moors believed that the beauty from within was more important than what was displayed on the surface, so the city streets form a winding maze that makes it difficult to get a good street view of even the most important structures. While most Spanish cities are built of stone, Toledo has many brick buildings that were built during Moorish times.
Steelwork is one of the historic industries in Toledo and swords and knives are displayed in many shop windows. Toledo steel was said to be exceptionally strong and craftsmen in the city have been producing swords since about 500 BC. It is possible that many of the swords used to fight the Christian crusades were crafted in Toledo and that could be another reason the term “Holy Toledo” caught on.
It is very easy to get lost while navigating the steep maze of winding streets and this combined with the fact that I am a travel writer with no sense of direction results in my spending a good deal of time not really knowing where I am. Fortunately, the old town is rather compact, so it is not too hard to get back on track if you get turned around on a side street.
Wandering around is half the fun of visiting this place — at least that’s what I tell myself.
I only have one day to see old town Toledo and it doesn’t take long to realize that I should have allotted more time to see this UNESCO World Heritage site.
The city is a popular daytrip from the capital city of Madrid, but to really see it at its best and get a feel for the memorable sites of this historic city, you should plan to spend at least one night.
Toledo is one of Spain’s great cities and even though the locals may not understand the term “Holy Toledo,” as I prepare to depart, the old saying makes more sense to me than it ever has before.
Toledo’s top sites
l Cathedral of Toledo: Built on top of a Moorish mosque between 1227 and 1493 AD, this cathedral is one of the finest gothic-style cathedrals in Spain. Highlights of the structure include its hand carved wooden choir, the Treasury, the Monstance and 750 stained glass windows dating between the 14th and the 16th centuries. Although the cathedral is the second largest in Spain, it is considered the most important church in the nation, because the most important Catholic prelates have resided in Toledo over the ages.
• Church of San Tome: El Greco’s most famous painting is housed in this church and it is worth a brief visit if only to see the painting. Painted in 1586, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is considered a national treasure.
• Museum of Santa Cruz: Toledo is a UNESCO world heritage site and the Santa Cruz museum helps tell the story of this great city. You’ll also find some great works of art including El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin.
• Real Fundacion de Toledo: This museum houses most of the El Greco paintings in Toledo (about 20 in all).
• The Alcazar: This big stone fort and palace sits on the highest point in the old city. The Alcazar was built over a third century Roman palace in the 1500s. It became famous in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War when Republicans laid siege to it for 70 days. Although it was largely destroyed during the siege, it was rebuilt in 1940.
• Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes: Built by Queen Isabella, one of the most interesting features of this monastery are the chains that hang on the exterior walls. The chains were hung in 1494 to symbolize the triumph of Christianity and to represent the many Christian prisoners who were freed in the campaign to conquer Granada.
• Cristo de la Luz Mosque: Built in 980, this mosque survived because it was converted into a Catholic church in the 12th century and remodelled for Christian worship. Many of the Moorish inscriptions and decorations survived and today the building is the most important example of Islamic art in the city.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.