Toledo

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Toledo

The uninspiring journey from Madrid takes about 1 hour and is all the way south on the N401 (45 miles). You pass the police and prison town of Getafe; you see numerous desguaces or junkyards; you cross into Castilla-La Mancha at Illescas; and about 5 or 6 miles before Toledo, the splendid skyline of Spain's ancient capital begins to appear. During the tour in Toledo there are no opportunities for a bathroom break, so you may want to stop for 20 minutes a couple of miles before the town at a roadside ceramicist and tourist shop called Galán, always crowded with coaches. There's a possible purchase here, but the main virtue is the bathroom and the bar. Toledo itself is spectacular. In terms of cultural and historical riches, its picturesque qualities and its amazing site, it is almost without equal in Europe. Invariably, Toledo is a highlight of a trip to Spain. The entire city is a national monument and high on the list of UNESCO-declared World Heritage Sites. Indeed, the entire panorama of Spanish history is embedded in Toledo's streets, churches, synagogues, mosques, mansions and fortifications. The only potential disappointments are the lack of time, the huge crowds (particularly at Santo Tomé where they are oppressive due to the constrictions of space) and the lack of opportunities for the group to shop on their own. You need to warn the group in advance about the walking. There is a lot of walking involved, through narrow, cobbled and normally very crowded streets. The old city is surrounded on three sides by the River Tagus (río Tajo), which cuts a deep gorge out of the encircling mountains. Its medieval houses huddle together on a small rise, dominated by the huge square construction of the Alcázar and the cathedral spires. It's easy to see why this naturally fortified site was chosen for building a city, and also easy to see why the city was not suited to expand into the main metropolis of a great empire. The new C20 city lies across the river. The current population is about 65,000.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Toledo was founded by the Romans, who named it Toletum, and it quickly became a great trading centre. Later, the Visigoths made it their capital. Under the Moors it was incorporated into the Emirate of Córdoba. With its large Jewish population, it came to flourish as the epitome of Spain's society of three cultures, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Reconquered in 1085 with the assistance of El Cid, Toledo soon became the capital of Christian Spain once again. The Muslim tradition of religious tolerance continued under the Christians, at least until the early C15 (to vanish altogether by the end of the century under the Reyes Católicos). The Middle Ages, both Moorish and Christian, were Toledo's days of glory. As an intellectual centre especially, it was world renowned. With the reconquest of Granada in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella rather lost interest in Toledo and focused their attention on their new southern possessions. This was the beginning of the end for the city. Under Carlos V, Toledo's supremacy fell further, soon to be superseded by Madrid. Only in the field of religion did the city continue to reign supreme. Toledo, which first became an archbishopric under the Visigoths, is still the spiritual centre of the country, and the seat of the Catholic Primate of All Spain. The city disappears from the history books for about 400 years, to re-emerge briefly during the Spanish Civil War (the story is told at the end of this section). Cast that aside and cast aside the suffocating plethora of tourist shops, and you can feel as you walk through the town's medieval streets that you are walking through a unique treasurehouse of Spanish history, culture and society.

CITY SIGHTSEEING

The guided tour in Toledo takes in the cathedral, the Church of Santo Tomé (El Greco's Burial of the Count of Orgaz) and the synagogue of Sta. María la Blanca. You'll probably start with a panoramic photo stop at a viewpoint across the río Tajo from which El Greco—you can't avoid this man in this city—painted a famous view of the city (hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.). The tour ends at a damasquinado factory where you get a commission. Sometimes, lunch is included in Toledo at a big group restaurant near the factory. You may be picking up the guide in Toledo (meet by the tourist office at the Puerta de Bisagra) or you may be taking a guide with you from Madrid. The tour is done primarily on foot. It's easy to get lost in the maze of narrow streets, in the haze of a million tourists and with a billion souvenir shops competing for your gaze. Once at the city gates you continue in the bus for a couple of minutes past the main square, the Plaza Zocodover. This was the old Moorish souk and is nowadays lined with restaurants (McDonald's is here), cafes and tourist shops. The bus drops you off on the hill opposite the Alcázar. N.B. The bus can't park here so you need to make a rendezvous with your driver for about 2 hours later. He'll be waiting on the far side of the Puente San Martín. Make sure everyone knows that name, in case someone gets separated from the group.

The Cathedral  This vast cathedral (second to Seville in size) took almost 300 years to build, completed in 1493. It's a mixture of all phases of Spanish gothic. The mid-C15 polychrome reredos, depicting scenes from the life of Christ, is particularly eye-catching. It also has additions from later "improvers," notably the extraordinary (some would say extraordinarily ugly) baroque Transparente in the ambulatory. As well as the main body of the cathedral, you'll visit the Choir, the Sacristy and the Treasury. The choir contains superb choirstalls from the C15 and C16; the Sacristy has a magnificent collection by El Greco and others inc. Titian, Goya and van Dyck; the treasury contains the richest display of gold and silver vessels in Spain, outstanding among them the C16 silver monstrance, 10 feet high, still paraded through the streets during Corpus Christi.

Santo Tomé  The church itself is of no touristic interest (apart from its attractive Mudéjar tower) and is not visited. In a side-chapel, however, is El Greco's masterpiece, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz). It honours a Spanish nobleman who became popular with the people for his generosity and charitable deeds. His dead body is depicted being raised to heaven by Sts. Stephen and Augustine. The painting is a fresco done in 1586 which remains in its original site. Its blend of realistic and allegorical features is masterful. The faces of the men are El Greco's contemporaries. He himself appears, the sixth figure from the left, as does his young son. Though it's been cleaned a number of times, it has never needed restoration.

Santa María la Blanca  Dating back to the C12, this was Toledo's oldest and largest synagogue. In the C15, it became a church of the Knights of the Order of Calatrava, hence its very Christian name. It has a simple understated beauty formed by a rhythmic succession of horseshoe arches with ornately carved stone capitals and surmounted by decorative plasterwork in geometrical patterns. The work is Mudéjar. Only one Star of David among the plasterwork reveals the Jewish commission. Where the Torah scrolls once stood is a Plateresque altarpiece dating to its Christian phase. At the time of writing, there is a plan to return the synagogue to a working place of prayer for Toledo's small Jewish population.

Swords and Damasquinado  For many groups, the highlight of the visit to Toledo is the damasquinado factory where the group is given a brief explanation in the art of damasquinado and the manufacture of Toledo blades before being herded into the outlet shop to buy. Prices are OK, comparable with the many retail outlets in town (sight of which most guides try studiously to avoid). They can buy work of primary quality, which is expensive, or cheaper stuff.

Damasquinado is a jewellery technique imported, naturally, from Damascus in the time of the Moors. It uses black steel inlaid with gold, silver and copper thread. It is very fine filigree work which at its best can be really beautiful and at its worst just vulgar and over-ornate. Throughout the Middle Ages, Toledo was famous for its weaponry. Steel from the north, principally the Basque Country, was tempered in the waters of the Tagus, producing some of the toughest blades available on the European continent. Reproductions of many of the most famous designs are also manufactured here, including, for example, El Cid's trusty blade Tizona. The factory will accept payment in USD or just about any other currency you can think of.

FREE TIME

You're unlikely to have any free time in Toledo unless you're doing a customised tour which overnights there. If you do, the principal attraction for most groups is the irresistible lure of the identikit tourist shops that line the city, selling damasquinado, swords, postcards, guidebooks, ceramics and mazapanes (marzipan, for which Toledo is famous and which is thoroughly delicious). Other than this, the city offers a wealth of cultural attractions, principal among them being the Museo de Santa Cruz (what a surprise, more works by El Greco!), the Hospital de Tavera (works by El Greco, obviously), the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes (beautiful Plateresque monastery, originally intended as the burial place of Ferdinand and Isabella) and the Alcázar (built by Carlos V, restored after its destruction in the Spanish Civil War, and containing a fascinating, if highly politically incorrect, museum about the Nationalist siege of 1936). The other surviving synagogue, the C14 Sinagoga del Tránsito, continas the loveliest and most intricate Mudéjar decoration in the city and is well worth seeing. The Casa y Museo de El Greco is not really his house and is not really worth a visit.

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