Toledo is a Spanish city about 70km south of Madrid, but only half an hour away on the fast AVE (costs about 20 euro per person). Most people just go for a day trip from Madrid but we decided to spend a little more time and so booked an Air B’n’b for Saturday night. We arrived at Atocha Station half an hour before our train only to discover that it was fully booked … so we booked the next one and went for lunch in Madrid. Toledo tip: book your AVE in advance!
On arriving there were no taxis at the station so we just walked up into town. We walked up around the side of town but there is also an escalator taking you directly into the centre so the whole walk would only take about 10 minutes.
The city is on a hill above the River Tajo, and was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1986 – it is famous for the co-existence of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the city and for a long time was the capital of Spain, before Philip II moved his court to Madrid. The buildings are all so old! It has been populated by the Bronze Age and its first Jewish inhabitants settled there around 5BC. It was an important Roman city and became an important Visigothic city after the fall of the Roman empire.
We stumbled into a Visigothic church, just by getting lost in the tiny streets, and were astounded. It was stunningly beautiful. And around the sides of the church were really interesting exhibitions (all in Spanish I am afraid) about the history of the Visigoths in Spain, something I knew very little about.
It was the Visigothic empire that took steps towards politically unifying the Iberian peninsula – they managed to conquer pretty much the whole thing and put laws into place to govern and consolidate the peninsular. The museum cost 1 euro, but as the machine wasn’t working, entry was free! Well worth a visit.
From the Visigothic period, Toledo was then captured by the Moors as part of their conquest of the whole peninsula in the early 8th century. It took the Moors 2 years to conquer Iberia, it had taken the Romans 200 years…. it was then to take 700 years for the Catholics to reconquer the peninsula. That’s quite incredible – Spain was a Muslim country for longer than the period between now and the expulsion of the Moors.
So we also visited a Mosque – the mezquita del Cristo de la Luz. The outside was very pretty with some nice gardens but inside it was nothing special – it is tiny, with an apse added to one side which takes away from the effect of the Moorish columns and vaults.
Moorish Spain was amazing in that it was incredibly tolerant of different religions. Indeed, many of the Jewish people in Spain were really pleased with the Moorish conquest as they no longer suffered persecution from the Christians. Toledo was known as the “city of three cultures” due to the coexistence of Jews, Muslims and Christians within the city.
One of the main tourist attractions in the city is the Synagogue of El Transito, which also has a Sephardic museum in it. I’d never been to a synagogue before. This one was really interesting and incredibly beautiful – it actually reminded me a bit of parts of the Alhambra in Granada. And I was very interested in the women’s gallery – as women weren’t allowed to worship with men but were able to watch them from above. Why are all religions so awful towards women?!
It’s not currently a synagogue in use, however. After the overthrow of the Moors, Catholic Spain became increasingly anti-semitic and anti-islam, seeing the Jews especially as a “fifth column” within Spain. They were expelled from Spain a couple of months after the fall of Granada, in 1492. The synagogue was eventually converted into a church, and then into the museum that it is today.
Back to Christianity – Toledo Cathedral is absolutely incredible. We went into it about half an hour before close which I think was the best time as it was almost empty. It wouldn’t be the same with hundreds of people in tour groups wandering around. It’s quiet and cool, peaceful and beautiful. It’s a gothic-style cathedral with some beautiful art in one of the chapels.
Talking of art – Philip II eventually moved the court of Spain from Toledo to Madrid, meaning that the city lost its economic importance – but art gained from this! One of the city’s most famous artists is El Greco and a house in the Jewish area of town has been converted into a museum, meant to be a representation of the house El Greco lived in in the city. Lots of great art and a beautiful building.
All the culture done, we got totally lost in Toledo’s tiny, winding, cobbled streets, stumbling on ridiculously beautiful buildings hidden away on quiet corners. We had drinks and tapas in tiny bars all over the town, and then went to Locum for dinner on a recommendation from a friend. It was quite a couple-y restaurant but we were happy enough and had an incredible meal. We shared a starter, which was a degustación – the chef’s choice of three dishes. So we had tuna tartare, a chickpea soup (where the liquid was poured into the dish at the table) and scallops. The food was delicious and I’d really recommend it if you go to Toledo.
On Sunday it was alternatively beautifully sunny and hot, or torrential rain. The rain meant we went into the Alcazar fortress, now a military museum, which we might not normally have gone into … but it had some Roman ruins, stunning views over the river, and hosted a ginormous exhibition on all of Spain’s military history.
Just one weekend, but one jam-packed, chock-full of culture and food weekend. It was fantastic. We caught the AVE back on Sunday afternoon, tired, sleepy and very very happy.
Accomodation: “Casa roja en casco historico” – for £74 a night. The cleaning fee was quite high for this place compared to the actual cost but it was beautifully clean, well decorated, very close to the centre of town, and the owner was extremely friendly and helpful. Would definitely recommend staying here. It had one room with a double bed, and in the living room there was a day-bed that became a single bed, and a sofa that became a double bed.
Transport: the AVE – €20, 30 minutes, super-fast, super-easy.
Food: Dinner at Locum