Toledo: UNESCO World Heritage Site

In my antiquated guide book, the city of Toledo, in central Spain, is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, five stars and a ‘must-see’. We obey willingly.

We reached Toledo in a mere half an hour on an extremely comfortable high speed train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. (Quick aside: find the leafy interior atrium and check out the pond full of turtles.)

The Toledo railway station is unexpectedly beautiful. It provided our first sight of the Moorish arches, mosaics and multi-coloured, inlaid ’tile rugs’ on the floor. Unusually for us, we choose to jump on board a double decker tourist bus, rather than leg it up the hill on foot. It is a good decision, despite a somewhat second-grade commentary, as the heat is already energy quenching, and the views we get from the top of the bus as we skirt the city walls are superb. I have no idea how the driver manages to steer that large bus around  roads that twist and twin around the outer edge of  the city like wisteria, or how he squeezes the bus between the buildings within the walls of Toledo.  We remember JK Rowling’s triple-decker, purple, Knight Bus and smile – it is the only possible explanation for such successful navigation.

Originally established as a fortified city by the Romans, the Visigoths made Toledo their capital in the 6th century. It remained the capital of the Spanish Empire until the 15th century, when the Royal Court moved north-east to Madrid, designated as the central point of the country.

Toledo is perched high on the cliffs above the Tagus River, surrounded by buttery yellow walls. This beautiful, fairy tale hill town is a jumble of buildings pressed intimately together, narrow cobbled streets shouldering a miniscule gap between them. From the lookout across the river, only the fortress of Alcázar with its four square towers and the huge dome of the Cathedral stand out above tight cluster of roof tops.

The present Cathedral of Toledo took 250 years to build, from 1226–1493, but the site of the Toledo cathedral was originally a Visigoth church and later a Muslim mosque, before it was rebuilt as a Catholic Cathedral. The presence of synagogues, mosques and churches throughout the city is a symbolic nod to generations of peaceful cohabitation of Christian, Jew and Muslim.  This tolerance sadly came to a gruesome end during the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century, when the avid persecution of Jews and Muslims re-established Catholicism as the primary religion on the Iberian Peninsula.

Our guide, James, is easy to spot in his bright green trousers – coloured jeans are all the rage in southern Europe this summer. We accompany him off the bus and down past the Alcázar to the Plaza de Zocodover, once an Arabic souk, now a central meeting point for locals and tourists who gather in the various restaurants around the broad square. The narrow but popular shopping street Calle del comercio takes us through the centre of the town to the beautiful Gothic Cathedral.

At the rear of the cathedral, we squeeze into the San Ildefonso and El Sagrario chapel with a hundred other sight-seers, to gaze in awe at the vast,  intricately carved Processional Monstrance. Made of gold and silver, it is 2.5 metres high, weighs over 160 kilos, and is decorated with 260 images.

In the centre of the nave, opposite the main altar, are the most glorious choir stalls, carved with animals and mythological figures. Music is still an important part of local worship, but the choir stalls are no longer as tightly packed with priests singing to the glory of God as they once were.

Eventually we say farewell to the cool air in the Cathedral, and to James, and wander off on our own for a late lunch in a tiny family restaurant in a little plaza we find after getting a little mislaid…

Gastronomically, Toledo’s cuisine is like its architecture: a combination of Moorish, Jewish and Christian influences. A popular region for game hunting, menus in Toledo boast specialties that included partridge, quails, wild boar and venison, served roasted or  in bean stews.

Our host attempts, in halting English, to explain that he will present us with four vegetable dishes and we may choose three more from a selection of lamb, pork and venison, for which he doesn’t know the English word. So he describes it for us, hands portraying antlers, and eventually emerges with the name ‘Bambi’.

Service is quick, and we tuck in eagerly – well, it is almost 2.30pm. The local gazpacho is a rich, creamy, tomato based cold soup, heavily flavoured with onions that I find irresistible, and fail to share. The boys make short work of the stuffed peppers, the vegetable paella and a large dish of vegetable noodles. We have chosen a lamb stew, a platter of ‘Bambi’ fillets and carcamusa: a tasty local specialty of tomato and fried pork, all washed down with a huge jug of Sangria. As we drain the last drops of wine, it becomes apparent that our hosts would like us to leave so they can have a siesta before the evening session.

 We stagger across the plaza – it’s the heat that hits us between the eyes, not the Sangria! The narrow lanes kept us in the shadows, but the walls and the stones beneath our feet are as fiery as a dragon’s breath.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Toledo blacksmiths had a worldwide reputation for producing top class steel for swords, knives and daggers. Even Japanese Samuri had their katana and wakizashi swords made here. Although no longer the great industry it once was, souvenir shops are still full of steel armour, highly decorative swords and scimitars.

While the boys become temporarily distracted by the joys of war games, I become devoutly religious in the search for a place to cool my head. I am ushered into a small convent chapel by an extremely elderly nun… and find myself on the set of a horror movie. The tragic eyes of multiple bloodied martyrs gaze pleadingly down at me from life-sized, all-too-realistic paintings on the walls. I peer, aghast, into a glass cabinet of holy relics: bones of said martyrs, framed or inlaid into ornaments; a Child of Prague looking like Elvis Presley complete with pompadour quiff. A second darkened chapel behind the main chapel houses candle-lit shadows and shapes I don’t care to examine too closely. In the meantime, the boys had found a small shop full of marzipan – another rather less nerve-racking occupation of the local nuns.

We then plod to the top of town where we find a lemonade icy pole, a low wall, a light breeze and a view. A vain search for synagogues, following signposts that suddenly disappear, leads us to a quieter side of town. The locals have all headed home for siesta and most tourists have sensibly retreated to their hotels.

 The simple church we find instead is cool and quiet: far more restful to the senses than the Cathedral, that had overloaded the senses with art, gold, grandeur and sight-seers. We meander through shady cloisters whose pillars sprout mythological creatures and fairy tale characters, and on up a curving staircase to a second level overlooking a garden quilted with box hedges, yew, citrus and loquat trees, and an antiquated wrought-iron well.

At last, defeated by the heat – at 7.30pm it felt no cooler than at midday – we catch a blissfully air-conditioned bus out of the ancient city, and end up lazily sipping beers and nibbling tapas with the locals, in an unassuming little bar opposite the railway station, as we wait for the train back to the turtles, and home.

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