A day in Toledo, nexus of three cultures

Our traveling band of three set off from Fuente de Neptuno at the corner of the Prado in the pre-dawn darkness Friday morning at 8:15, bound for Toledo, the city of three cultures. The sun does not rise at this latitude until after 8:30, so we boarded the bus in barely the first light of day.

The Fountain of Neptune in early dawn.

The tour bus stopped a few times around town to pick up passengers, then pulled up at Plaza Espana, where we were herded off our first bus and on to another one for the trip to Toledo, 70 kilometers away.

As soon as our bus left the city center, the fog settled over the hills and started to thicken. My visions of expansive, blue-skied vistas of this city was vanishing in the leaden skies. Our only hope would be that rain would stay away. (It did.)

Halfway through the trip, the bus made a potty stop that just happened to be conveniently located at a souvenir store, sort of the Stuckey’s of Spain. While the girls waited patiently in line for the WC, I sought out a bottle of water, carefully wading past the refrigerator magnets, ceramic trivets, replica swords and assorted authentic treasures of Spain generously offered here.

Who needs to see Toledo when you can have all the souvenirs just a few miles outside of Madrid?

Finally we arrived in Toledo itself but not before we stopped at a photo op vantage point conveniently located at a souvenir stand. The route from the road below to the main town of Toledo requires a few steps–six flights of escalator, unless you prefer to use the stairs. Having just spent the previous week in Alfama climbing up and down hundreds of steps, we chose the mechanical advantage.

One of six escalator flights up to the main city of Toledo. Yo are welcome to climb the stairs if you prefer.

Our excellent tour guide Anna took us throughout the old city of Toledo. The city is famous as the meeting point of three cultures. Actually, well before our current Western history, the Romans called it Toletum in the third century B.C., and it had been a working settlement long before then. Toledo later became the capital of the Visigoths, before being conquered by the Muslims in early 8th century A.D. The Christians took it back in 1085, and Toledo become the capital of Spain for the next five centuries.

Toledo from across the Tagus River, the same stream that ends at Lisbon.

Thus its cathedral.

One of the side entrances to the Toledo Cathedral. Notice the Muslim woman taking a selfie at the site.

What a splendor. Toledo’s cathedral ranks with the greats of Europe. Construction began in 1226 and was officially completed in 1493. (It takes almost that long to fix streets in New Orleans, so who is counting?) Toledo’s is one of three high Gothic cathedrals in Spain and widely considered the most distinguished. It sports two mammoth organs facing each other in the choir, which is oddly located right in the middle of the nave. The peeps sitting in the back rows behind the choir can’t see the altar.

Don’t get too excited–this is merely a side altar. That’s our energetic and informative guide Anna explaining this modest element of Toledo’s cathedral.

Which is spectacular, though sadly behind a large gilded fence, so it is impossible to get any sort of photo.

But beyond the architecture, which rivals St. Denis in Paris; beyond the spectacular rose window, which rivals Notre Dame; beyond the massive scale, which rivals the largest churches in Europe, the Toledo cathedral holds a stunning treasury of paintings and religious objects. The cloister’s collection includes perhaps a score of El Greco paintings, plus a few Titians and a Raphael for good measure.

Just another El Greco in the front. Another dozen or so by El Greco are on display all over the side walls. The Raphael and the Titians hang in the side rooms. The ceiling is not the Sistine Chapel, because Michaelangelo was not available at the time.

The primary monstrance is at least ten feet tall, and actually consist of two parts. The entire massive work of gold and precious stones is paraded on the streets of Toledo each year on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

No altar boy will carry this monstrance.

Bedazzled by the glories of the cathedral, our tour then moved on the more modest synagogue in Toledo’s Jewish quarter. The synagogue represents all of European conflicted religious history–designed by Muslims hired by the Jewish community, then seized by the Christians years later and converted to a Catholic church. So now you have a former synagogue that looks like a mosque with images of the Virgin Mary and angels frescoed on the ceilings of the front domes.

How ecumenical–designed by Muslims as a synagogue for the Jews, then seized by the Catholics to serve as a church. The quintessential reason Toledo is renowned as the city of three cultures.

Our tour then marched on to the much more modest mosque that remained from pre-Christian conquerors, built on top of a Roman well. That was all of a ten-minute visit. The Toledo Alcazar is not exactly the equivalent of Granada or Sevilla on the scale of Islamic gardens.

The Toledo mosque is much more modest, as is its garden.

Our lunch in Toledo deserves some mention. While the majority of the full-day tourists went off to an “authentic” Toledo lunch with the tour guide, we opted out to search for our own cuisine. We found it at a restaurant named Coleccion Catedral (guess where?) that is part of a group in the city owned by a restaurant entrepreneur named Adolfo. (Relative of the Brennans, perhaps?)

We scored.

Lynn and Candy enjoyed the house pork and vegetable stew, filled with tender morsels of meat in a savory sauce. I ordered the deer stew after some translation exchange with the eager young waiter working on his English. The English menu clearly stated “deer stew,” but when I pointed it out as my choice, the waiter thought I was asking what that meant. He did not know the English word “deer,” so wiggled his fingers over his head, antler-style, to explain. We finally communicated. The deer stew was fabulous: rich and slightly gamey with just the perfect flavor of venison.

The hour-long ride back was quiet and sleepy. We disembarked our tour bus at Plaza Callao, which was absolutely rocking with people celebrating Friday night and the end of the work week. The scene resembled Times Square, except without weird painted people walking around naked and asking for money.

We alighted at Gramabar just off Plaza Callao for a couple of drinks before finding El Asador de Aranda, an old-fashioned Spanish restaurant where we ordered a mix of tapas, some excellent, some regrettable and some not finished. It’s easy to over-order when you are picking from a lot of items on the menu.

By now, we were exhausted from touring, walking, eating, drinking and just being awake since 6:00 a.m., so we parted ways and found our way back to our respective lodgings.

When we arrived at Plaza Lavapies, we stepped into a huge street celebration of young people enjoying Friday night, more densely packed than Plaza Callao and Plaza Mayor earlier in the evening. Obviously, Plaza Lavapies is a happening place on Friday nights.

A block away, up our Calle del Amparo, it was a different world. All quiet on a Friday night. As tired as we were, it was tempting to head back down the hill to the party. Lynn and prudence dictated otherwise.



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