Toledo, La Ciudad Imperial

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We are here in Toledo because John once owned a Triumph Herald in the 70’s, but secretly lusted after a Triumph Toledo and because our friends who have travelled extensively in Spain have told us it’s their favourite Spanish city. Toledo, ‘La Ciudad Imperial’, the strategic and geographical crossroads of the Iberian peninsula, a melting pot of Roman, Visigothic, Jewish, and Muslim history and the heart of Catholic Spain, glows on the distant hill top beyond the plains of Castilla-La Mancha, as we share una botella de vino tinto and a lovely meal at Camping El Greco.

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Sunset view of Toledo from our campsite

Toledo’s history is rich and dates to when Toletum became an important way station in Roman Hispania. By the 6th century the Visiogoths, (I had to look them up…they were a Germanic tribe who were key in the sacking of Rome and later established kingdoms across Spain and Gaul) moved the capital of Spain from Seville to Toledo, but in 711 the Moors conquered the city after crossing the straits of Gibraltar. Toledo rapidly became the most important city of Central Muslim Spain, unrivalled by any other at that time as a centre of learning and arts. The reign of the Moors in Toledo was overturned in 1085 when Alfonso the VI marched on the city during the Reconquista.  Not long after Toledo became the seat of the Vatican in Spain and the residence of the Spanish monarchy. During this early Christian era the city’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities coexisted and tolerated each other well. However, after the final victory of Spain over the Moors in 1492, tragedy ensued, and Toledo’s Jewish and Muslim communities were forced to convert to Christianity or flee.

Toledo’s historic centre today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where its glorious past greets you at every turn. The old city is a cross-fertilisation of Jewish, Islamic and Christian cultures and bursts with an intriguing mosaic of architecture. There is an essence here of The Medina of Damascus grafted onto Gothic Catholic Spain.

We have a few days to scratch the surface of this amazing city. Below are a few of the places we decide to visit.

Plaza de Zocodover

A bustle of activity and the meeting place for the city’s Walking tours (sadly there were none available in English on the days we visited), Zocodover has been the city’s nerve centre for many centuries. In Moorish times there was a horse market and later a general market right up to the mid-20th century. The plaza has a dark side too as the Auto-da-fé (the burning of a heretic) was enacted here during the inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. I try not to imagine the horrors as I sip my tea.

As we didn’t manage to tag along on a walking tour, we take the Zocotren, a 50-minute train trip around the city with a multilingual audio guide. On our way we stop at the Mirador del Valle, which hugs the rim of the bluffs above the River Tagus, showcasing a fabulous vista of the city in all its glory.

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Plaza de Zocodover

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Mirador del Valle

Next, we visit the

Cathedral de Toledo

Experts will tell you that the Cathedral is the best example of High Gothic architecture in Spain, non-experts, like me, will tell you that it’s a must see in the city. Like many other Christian buildings across Spain it was originally built (1226 – 1493) on the site of a Mosque, which itself had been built on a 6th-century Visiogothic church. What goes around comes around as they say! The Nave of the Cathedral is huge reminds me of Meenaskshi Amman Temple in Madurai, southern India, in scale and atmosphere. There are 15 chapels tucked into the transepts, each themselves works of art. The Sacristy contains a valuable collection of paintings by Luca Giordano, Van Dyck, Goya and El Greco, the most famous of which is El Greco’s masterpiece, El Expolio (The disrobing of Christ) …. wow! The choir stalls are a banquet of Renaissance and Gothic sculpture and wooden carvings and behind the main alter lies the mesmerising Transparente,

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Transparente,Cathedral de Toledo

a Spanish Baroque masterpiece with 18th century embellishment……amazing. It took my breath away.

 The Nave, Chapel alter and El Expolio, Cathedral de Toledo

After the Cathedral, I was interested in seeing more of El Greco’s work. We are staying at his campsite after all.

El Greco House Museum

The fabled 16th-century artist El Greco, was Cretan, not Spanish, but spent most of his adult life in Toledo and remains one of the city’s most important historical residents. Although El Greco never actually lived in the house, the museum accommodates many paintings by the master who developed his own unique style of elongated figures, most often of Christ and the Apostles, with dream like pigmentation.

On our second day we first visit;

Santa Cruz Museum

Originally a hospital founded by Cardinal Mendoza (the first Cardinal of Toledo Cathedral), it houses major archaeological finds and fine arts depicting the history of Toledo and Spain through the 16th and 17th century. So many Kings, so many wars, so many throne overthrowings!

So, for some peace and quiet we visit;

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

I loved this Isabelline style monastery which was commissioned by the first Catholic Monarchs of united Spain. Light filled cloisters, amazing granite stonework and a beautiful inner garden filled me with peace and tranquillity…. the choral cello music also helped. Isabella I and Ferdinand II had the monastery built to celebrate the birth of their son, commemorate winning the Battle of Toro and to serve as their Dynastic Mausoleum. They later changed their minds and were buried in the Capilla Real de Granada.

                      Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

We continue walking through what was once The Jewish quarter of the city, narrow alleyways, small artisan shops and cool cosy cafes. There’s a ‘lost in’ feel here. We decide to visit one of the city’s old synagogues.

Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Built in the early 13th century the architecture is a blend of Mudejar and Nazari styles (a meeting of Christian and Islam) and is characterised by horseshoe arches delineating its 5 naves. The Synagogue is the oldest still standing in Spain, but no longer used for worship and is incredibly beautiful. Built with white walls and golden detail, it is one of the best examples of the cooperation between 3 cultures that exist in Toledo. It was built for the Jewish, by Islamic architects, under the agreement of the Christian Kingdom. The way the light fell on its walls and ceilings was beautiful. Another must see.

                      Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Before I leave, I am keen to visit a Mosque to complete the triad of Abrahamic religions of Toledo. I set off to the old Muslim neighbourhood of Arrabal de Francos to visit the Mosque of the Tornerias. Desacralized by the Catholic Monarchs in 1505 is now used as the ‘Center Foundation of Promotion of the Crafts’. I didn’t know this at the time so on arrival there was no obvious Mosque on show, although I’m pretty sure I was standing over the spot!

20190927_174630 The site of the old Mosque of the Tornerias  

Spending time in Toledo immersed in its complex history has got me thinking about how so many countries across the world have been conquered and divided, come and gone, borders drawn and redrawn, cultures and religions integrated and segregated, following centuries of war. According to Yuval Noah Harari (in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind in The history of Homo sapiens) we are now living in the most peaceful era in history. International wars have dropped to an all-time low and with a few exceptions of course, since 1945 countries have no longer invaded and conquered each other on a regular basis. The time of the empire has gone, and Harari suggests that this is because war has become more implausible – it costs too much and its profits are down!

I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 where ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Inner Party’ use war to perpetuate a state of subservience in its citizens. It’s certainly a grim place to be. I prefer Harari’s vision, but as he has also said “It takes a lot of wise people in order to make peace. But it is sometimes enough to have just one fool in order to start a war.” (Yuval Noah Harari).

All the people we have met over this past year (without exception) from different nations, cultures and religions have been friendly, helpful and good. After all people are people, wherever they are. We are all living together on this planet, which is threatened by our own actions, whether it be war or climate change. So, although our national identities define where we come from, I believe that now more than ever we need global cooperation to make a difference (and possibly to save) our planet. My knowledge of world history was patchy at best before starting this trip, but I have tried to understand more about the history and culture of the countries we have visited to widen my horizons. Now I see that our future is not inevitable, and there are many possibilities before us. We just have to try and stay wise and look out for the fools……if only it was that simple!

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