Toledo: Medieval atmosphere, fairytale castles and cultural treasures in the jewel town of Spain


The place that connected his name with the great creator, Dominikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco)

Looking at the Spanish map, one realizes that Toledo is located right in the center of the country. But the fairytale “City of Walls”, as its name implies, was also the center of the kingdom of the Visigoths and the Catholic Spaniards many centuries later, but also the religious and cultural center of the country for many years.

It is a fortress city, built on a large, rocky ledge, three sides of which are bathed by the river Tagus. The former Spanish capital is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an amalgam of three different cultures, a crossroads where diverse cultures coexist and where its Moorish, Jewish and Christian history is still perfectly preserved. As visitors enthusiastically note, it looks like a living medieval fairy tale, a place full of admirable architectural monuments and artistic treasures, inviting you to immerse yourself in its history and get lost in its winding streets.

The flourishing of Toledo, the current capital of the community of Castilla-La Mancha, began in the 6th century, when the Visigoths invaded the Iberian Peninsula, making it the capital and religious center of their kingdom. Earlier, however, the city was part of the Roman Empire, with still visible traces such as the Puente de Alcántara bridge and the aqueduct. Passing into the hands of the Moors in the early 8th century, the city acquired splendid monuments in the typical Mudechar style shared by all the Arab possessions in Spain, such as mosques and gates to the city, some preserved intact and others incorporated into later, Christian. And if the name Toledo has Latin roots, the name of the spectacular fortress Alcázar comes from the Arabic word al-qasr which means fortress. The same fortress was to house the royal court when King Alfonso the Brave conquered Spain in 1085, crowning Toledo the royal capital, a title it retained until the 16th century. This glamorous past of the city unfolds generously to visitors in every picturesque medieval corner, in every spectacular attraction, on every hill they stand to admire this unique city-jewel.

Cathedral, the magnum opus of Gothic Spanish architecture

A medieval symbol of the city since its completion in 1493, the Catedral Primada occupies the site of a former Visigothic church and the later Grand Arabian Mosque and impresses with its rich decoration of the façade, full of sculptures and reliefs on white limestone. As you pass one of its three main spectacular gates, you will find that the perfection of the exterior Spanish Gothic style gives way to the French Gothic interior, which reaches an impressive length of 120 meters. However, remnants of the Moorish style are evident everywhere, from the chapel of Santa Lusia to the ornate intersecting arched arches of the choir, composing the unique character of a monumental temple. In addition to the successive chapels, one more spectacular than the other, decorated with colorful frescoes and full of movement marble and alabaster compositions of angels and cherubs and the Museum of Treasures where a rare silver breadbasket is exhibited, impresses the Goya, Tiziano, Raffaello, Van Dyck and Bellini. Outside, to the left of the temple, a silent witness to the former Moorish mosque, the impressive Gothic belfry incorporates Arabic elements and reaches 92m. in height, making the cathedral of the city, distinct from every point of its horizon.

Alcázar, the fortress-symbol of the city

Overlooking Toledo from its highest point at 550 meters, the fortress built by the Arab conquerors as the main vehicle of the city, is located on the site where the Roman ruler lived centuries ago and is the most recognizable attraction of the city. Its current imposing, renaissance form and its almost square shape with its four characteristic turrets, is due to the alterations ordered by the Spanish king Alfonso VI, utilizing it as a royal residence. Other changes followed and so today the four sides show slight differences, reflecting the style of each era.

Visit it not only for the magnificent view of the Tagus and the city walls, but also to see the Military Museum that operates here, with a rich collection of weapons, medals, uniforms and of course the famous swords of Toledo. You will reach the fortress from the bustling, triangular Plaza de Zacodover, the heart of the city’s social life. The horse market and outdoor stalls that once occupied the area have been replaced by a plethora of cafes, ideal for a stop after your visit to the Alcázar. Alternatively, a great café for a sightseeing break is housed in one of the tower’s towers, from where you can enjoy some more beautiful city views.

Museo de Santa Cruz, all the architecture and history of Toledo in one building

The city’s most important museum is located at its northeastern end and is housed in the former Santa Cruz Hospital. It is an amazing palace of the 16th century, which combines the elegance of the Renaissance and the uniqueness of the Moorish style with the rich decoration of the purely Spanish style Plateresco. Thus the facade impresses the visitor with the detailed carvings and the embossed ornaments that frame the arched gate and the windows, while the elegant double peristyle leads inside with the monumental staircase of the Spanish architect Covarrubias and the impressively decorated’s.

Apart from the building itself, the collections of the museum, which can be seen in the Gallery, the Archaeological Department and the Decorative Arts, are of great interest. In the spacious halls of the gallery, which attracts the main interest of visitors, a series of works of the Toledo school between the 16th and 17th centuries are exhibited, with the prominent work “La Anunciación de la Virgen” by El Greco. The extensive collection of archeology covers the period from prehistory to the 21st century, with exhibits from the Roman period, the Visigothic kingdom, Arab rule and Catholic monarchs. Do not miss the extremely interesting collection of decorative arts, which pays tribute to the folk arts that flourished in Toledo, from Moorish pottery and glass to textiles and the huge tradition of forged swords and silversmithing.

In the footsteps of El Greco

Part of the rich cultural heritage of the city, is due to the fact that the great painter Dominikos Theotokopoulos associated his name with Toledo. After Venice, where he apprenticed with Tiziano and a passage from Madrid, the great representative of Mannerism from Crete, spent almost 40 years in Toledo, until his death in 1614, creating some of his leading works. In addition to the Cathedral, which exhibits the 1579 work “The Division of Jesus’ Clothes”, you will admire a large collection of works by El Greco in his house that functions as a museum. In Casa de El Greco, which consists of two simple houses with a common courtyard, the visitor comes in contact with the last artistic period of Theotokopoulos and some of the most important works he created, perfecting his characteristic personal style. Here are the Apostles, a series of portraits of the disciples of Christ, painted between 1610-1614, a view of Toledo from the same period and the depiction of San Bernardino for the Holy Table of the church of the same name.

However, his most important work in Toledo and one of the most indicative of his style, is found in the church of Santo Tome and specifically in the chapel of the Virgin. It is none other than the famous “Burial of the Earl of Orgaz” – El entierro del conde de Orgaz – created by El Greco between 1586-1588 – commissioned by the pastor of the church. The monumental, full of emotional charge and movement depiction, consists of two scenes. At the bottom of the painting, among the people mourning for the philanthropic earl, Theotokopoulos himself can be seen, the only one who looks directly at the viewer, while from above, the spirit of the dead is welcomed in the heavens by Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Do not be surprised if you find the church crowded with visitors coming to admire this top work. Also notice the Moorish bell tower, with its combination of brick and stone and the double row of narrow, arched windows, one of the finest examples of Arabic architecture in Toledo.

Exploring the picturesque Jewish quarter

Locating the traces of El Greco we reach the western end of the city, where a labyrinth of beautiful alleys takes us to the Jewish Toledo of medieval times. It is one of the most picturesque parts of the city, the part where Jews lived in harmony with the Christian and Muslim communities. Here the visitor meets some of the most beautiful and oldest synagogues in Europe, surrounded by fascinating museums, splendid palaces, attractive markets and public baths. The ideal starting point to get to know the area is a visit to the Museo Sefardí de Toledo, which opens a window into the history of the Sephardic Jews of the city, who in 1492 were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella II. of Castile. The museum is housed in the Samuel ha-Leví Synagogue, also known as the El Tránsito Synagogue, a stunning Spanish-Jewish building built near the Tagus on the site of an Arab bath complex, which impresses with its Moorish architecture. The rich interior decoration with the intricate carvings and the colorful arabesques of geometric or floral motifs, is considered equal to the palaces of Granada and Seville. A few minutes walk north will take you to Europe’s oldest Jewish temple, the Synagogue Santa María de la Blanca, which dates back to the 12th century. Here, too, the stunning Mudejar architecture, highlighted by the all-white arches, makes it one of Toledo’s most important architectural monuments, and is considered a symbol of the three cultures and religions that left their mark on the city as it was built in the Christian kingdom. by Arab Architects for the Jewish Community.

A third, equally impressive attraction of the area is the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, the monastery and church that the above kings who expelled the Jews, intended as a place of rest. It is a harmonious combination of Gothic and Moorish architecture, with domes, rows of statues, sharp carvings and grotesque gutters that compose a unique complex. The medieval image of the area is complemented by the arched Puente de San Martín, which when built in the late 14th century provided access to the old town from the west, as did the Puente de Alcantara in the east. Walking there, you will not only admire the ornate construction with the 5 arches and the stone towers, but also another beautiful view of the river.

The Jewish Quarter is certainly not the only authentic side of the city. Every alley and square in Toledo, every monument and covered gallery overflows with picturesqueness and brings to mind stories and myths. From the Cervantes monument with its much-photographed statue, to the legends of witches and necromancers meeting secretly in the streets of Callejón del Diablo and Callejón del Infierno, truth and myth are intertwined and coexist for centuries. Look for them as you wander through the city, as you cross the monumental gates of Puerta del Sol and Puerta de Bisagra to enter walled Toledo as the knights once did.

Watch the creation of unique handicrafts in one of the pottery, embroidery or metallurgy workshops that are scattered in the city, try your own skills and then take a seat in a traditional taberna where you will taste the local specialties. From the most typical dishes try Tortilla a la magra a rich omelette with pork fillet, Carcamusas with pork or beef cooked in tomato sauce with peas, Garlic Soup flavored with paprika and accompanied by jamon serrano, while especially here the roast lamb and pork. The sweets are dominated by almonds in every form, with the characteristics of Mazapanes and Turrones – macaroons, macaroons and thin almond pies – flavored with liqueur, enriched with honey or chocolate and sold in every patisserie.

And for a unique view of Toledo at sunset, ask a taxi to take you directly to the opposite bank of the Tagus for a drink on the rooftop of El Parador Hotel. You will have the most enchanting image of the whole illuminated city unfolding in front of you and the ideal way to end a day full of sights, culture and history.

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