There were two surprises in store for me when we set off for Toledo. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve ever really wondered how the expression ‘Holy Toledo’ became part of my vocabulary, but now that I have travelled to this amazing city in Spain, I understand that there is a logical reason behind the ‘Holy’ adjective. Secondly, I learned that I had to change my pronunciation from ‘Toe-lee-doh’ to ‘Toe-lay-doh’. I don’t know if I can change back now, and I’ll probably annoy people back in North America every time I mention my favorite city in Spain.
Before I go any further, a little history lesson. Crossing over from North Africa, the first peoples in Spain settled about 8,000 years ago. Much later, Celtic tribes, Phoenician traders, Greeks and Carthaginians arrived. The Romans arrived in 3 B.C. but it took them two hundred years to conquer the peninsula. By A.D. 419, the Christian Visigoths were in control and their kingdom lasted until A.D. 711. Within three years, Muslim armies occupied almost the entire peninsula and their dominion lasted almost eight hundred years.
Al-Andalus, as Muslim Spain was known, flourished. New agricultural techniques were introduced; the arts and sciences prospered and palaces, mosques, schools, gardens and public baths were built. However, the Christians were determined to re-conquer Spain and in 1085, Alfonso VI, the king of Castilla y Leon, took Toledo, in what was the first victory in the effort to wrest control from the Muslims. By the mid-13th century, the Christians had taken all of the Iberian Peninsula except for the state of Granada in the south.
Conquering Toledo was no easy task. The city sits on a hill and is surrounded on three sides by the Tajo River. A high wall fortified the remaining side. Toledo is crammed with monuments from the waves of peoples that have lived and prospered here. At one time, Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities lived side by side in peace, demonstrating that all Toledo’s history was not violent by any means. The buildings are so well preserved that Toledo in now one of Spain’s most popular tourist sights. The churches, synagogues and mosques attest to the strong religious beliefs of generations of inhabitants, and thus the apt nickname, ‘Holy’ Toledo.
So amazing, and yet we almost didn’t visit the city. We were struggling with developing a plan of attack on Spain ourselves and learned that because of their close proximity to Madrid, Toledo and Segovia are popular day-trips from the capital. We wanted to see both cities; but Segovia is north and Toledo south. Once we decided on touring southern Spain, Toledo made sense, but Segovia didn’t. Anil and I weren’t too overly concerned because we will fly back to Canada in May 2010 and can see more of Spain, including Segovia, after crossing over from Morocco and completing our ‘Circle The Mediterranean’ tour.
There are several options for getting around Spain, but we decided to use the trains for the most part. They are modern and fast and we were a little pressed because of Donna’s limited vacation time. However, we did want to see some of Madrid’s surrounding countryside, so we chose to travel to Toledo by local bus, a journey of only one and a half hours. The bus goes in and out of the small towns along the way and would give us a sense of the Spanish villages, after spending our first few days in a sprawling city. Besides, the bus would take us right into the heart of old Toledo from there we could walk to find a hotel for two nights.
We selected a hotel from those recommended in the Lonely Planet, and as luck would have it, they had a lovely triple room available for us. Before we knew it, we were out on the streets of this ancient fortified city. First stop, something to eat. Again we consulted our guidebook and learned that there was a Middle Eastern restaurant nearby and I was craving falafels and hummus. Well fortified, we set out on the walking tour outlined in our book, gotta love the Lonely Bible, as our daughter Adia sometimes refers to it.
As we passed through one of the ancient gateways to the city, we encountered a statue of Cervantes. He is a very much-revered son of the province of Castilla y Leon and Anil posed for a photo with the creator of Don Quixote, The Man of La Mancha. Words cannot adequately describe the beauty of Toledo. For the most part, I will let the photos I took tell the story of the beautiful buildings we walked past and explored inside.
We walked around all afternoon, enjoying the changing light as the sun began to set and especially enjoying the fact that the bulk of the visitors come only for the day. By late afternoon, we were almost alone in many of the small streets; only the locals were left to go about their business. In the evening we settled into a café in the main plaza to try ‘paella’ for the first time. We were thrilled that they made a vegetarian version and not just the one loaded with seafood.
We had launched ourselves into the Spanish countryside, and all had gone well. Our tummies were full, we had a place to sleep and we had seen some stunning architecture. All was right with the world. We made plans for the following day. We would complete the self-guided walking tour, visit the Jewish synagogue and climb the bell tower of a church at the highest point in the town, in order to get some more photos at sunset.
I have to admit; we were more than a little taken by the craftsmanship of the people of Toledo. They are famous for inlay work, known locally as ‘damasquinado’ because the craft originated in Damascus. This is the city in Spain that is famous for making swords and other weapons; in fact, the swords used in ‘The Lord Of The Rings” were made right here in Toledo. If you are not in the market for a sword, you can purchase jewellery and other items covered with the fine inlay work in silver or in gold. Donna selected a lovely bracelet as a memento.
Saffron and marzipan two other hugely popular items produced in the region. Shops were filled with dozens of varieties of sweet confections and even small replicas of buildings made from this almond paste. I thought of my friend Alaka Kembhavi and her passion for marzipan. I will have to encourage her to make a trip to Spain, if only to Toledo.
Alas, it was time to leave this remarkable city; one that I was convinced could not be surpassed in my affections. We decided to take the fast train back into Madrid (it only takes thirty minutes) where we could connect to the super-fast train to Cordoba at the very same station. Though it seemed strange to head north to Madrid in order to travel south again, this made the most sense, as Toledo is not on the main rail line.
We awoke to the first grey skies of our trip and light rain was falling. What happened to that famous adage ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain’? Anil held on to me as we walked along the steep, slippery, stone streets. I didn’t want to fall and break my wrist for the third time in my life. He couldn’t help me and help Donna at the same time. She had fallen earlier in the spring and broken her ankle. Luckily, no one fell at all, and we were on our way to exciting destination.