In a country full of ancient and distinguished urban centres, this small Castilian city 70 kilometres (42 miles) south of Madrid still manages to stand out as extraordinary for a number of key reasons. Perhaps first and foremost is Toledo‘s onetime status as “City of the Three Cultures“, a unique locus of learning, culture, and tolerance from which we in these troubled times could well stand to draw inspiration.
This bluff around which winds the Tagus River (Río Tajo) has been settled by humans since the Bronze Age, and conquered by the Romans (who named it Toletum), Visigoths, and Moors, under whom the aforementioned three-cultures golden age blossomed in the 10th and 11th centuries and even for a time after the Christian reconquest, during which Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted and turned the city into a major cultural and intellectual capital that helped spread knowledge to Europe and fuel the Renaissance following the Dark Ages – a development for which all of us can be thankful.
This heritage, combined with an economic decline that had the unintended effect of limiting new development and preserving much of the city as a “living museum” (though there are outlying suburban areas that are indeed more modern) makes visiting Toledo a singular time machine of an experience indeed.
The city’s has two main landmarks. One is the Alcázar, a great hulk of a fortress founded as a Moorish citadel, given much of its current silhouette during the Renaissance, and housing an army museum with a good deal of history of the fortress’ dramatic role during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. The other is the mostly 13th-century cathedral, one of Spain’s most impressive, with architectural details and/or artwork by Covarrubias, Cimabue, and Toledo’s iconic painter, El Greco.
El Greco was, in fact, Greek – one Domenikos Theotokopoulos from the island of Crete who in the late 16th century came to define the image of Toledo for those who saw his unique, Mannerist paintings. Besides the cathedral, other places to see El Greco works include the Church of Santo Tomé, famous for its painting The Burial of the Count Orgaz; the Tavera Hospital (The Baptism of Christ); and the 12th-century Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo (several altarpieces); and of course the Museo del Greco, a house of that period with exhibitions about the artist and his work. It’s also a particularly big year for El Greco hereabouts, as it marks the 450th anniversary of his death, and as I wrote earlier this year, the local cultural poobahs are pulling out all the stops with ElGreco2014, including various special exhibitions, programmes, and events.
Toledo is perhaps Spain’s foremost centre of Jewish history, as well, once counting no fewer than ten synagogues and five Talmudic schools. Today, the two that remain (after having been converted to churches) are the 14th-century Sinagoga del Tránsito (which includes a Sephardic museum) and the very Moorish-flavoured 12th-century Santa María La Blanca (thought to be the oldest synagogue still standing in Europe).
One of El Greco’s classic themes was A View of Toledo (like the one above), and in order to get a view along those lines, I’d suggest heading across the river to the Parador de Toledo, on Cerro del Emperador, part of a chain of state-owned inns usually in heritage buildings, which runs a fine restaurant serving local fare including pheasant, marinated venison, and fried breadcrumbs with pork to go along with the impressive panorama. Just to show that this venerable city can impress the palate as much as the eyes and the mind.
- Toledo has just over 84,000 residents.
- The climate is semi-arid, with mild winters and hot, dry summers. Temperatures average 15 to 33 degrees Celsius (59-92° Fahrenheit) in summer and 2-14°C (35-57°F) in winter.
- More information in English: Toledo-Turismo.com.