Travels in Spain before Covid: Toledo Day 3

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October 28th 2020
Published: October 28th 2020
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TOLEDO, 10/22/19

After our last amazing breakfast in Madrid we were on the bus by 8:30am and headed to the city of Toledo in Castilla-La Mancha, an hour south of Madrid, passing large old homes and almond and olive groves. As we approached the first vista of Toledo, our bus had to jockey into position among the numerous other tourist buses so we might get out and get our first glimpse of ancient Toledo across from the Tajo River. This “first glimpse of Toledo” is the same view of Toledo painted by El Greco, which is why every tour bus was in line to stop here. Its natural moat explains why Toledo, which means top of the hill, was the first capital city of Spain before the capital was moved to Madrid in 1652. Under cloudy skies that threatened rain we ran to get spots that were perfect for our first photo op of the day. Despite the damp chill it was an impressive vista.

To enter Toledo we crossed the medieval Puente de San Martin or St Martin’s Bridge, spanning the Tagus (Tajo) River into the old city that was built by Romans and completed by Arabs, becoming one of the most powerful cities in Europe during the Middle Ages. At 2,500 years old, the city of Toledo is remarkably well preserved, perhaps because Spain declared it a national monument. There is a legend that the bridge’s architect had made a perilous miscalculation in the construction of the bridge that would cause it to collapse with him on it, disgracing the architect. He went home and told his wife about his mistake and in the middle of the night she started a fire that destroyed the bridge, allowing her husband to rebuild the bridge and save face. Again, the woman behind the man.

Toledo, we discovered, is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site founded by the Romans, and influenced by the the Moors and Jews who came later. Cultural diversity seems embedded in the very stones it is built upon clearly visible in its blend of Moorish-Mudejar-Jewish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. The uniquely harmonious co-existence made it is easy to understand why Toledo is known as the “City of Three Cultures”.

We began our walking tour through a maze of ancient narrow streets and up a steep hill that ended in the large Plaza de Zocodover, also known as Plaza Mayor, where we could catch our breath, be tempted by Toledo’s famous “mazapan” and imagine what it was like here when the bullfights took place. I have enjoyed the delicious almond sweets called marzipan in Italy, Estonia and Germany but here the mazapan, is made with almonds, sugar, eggs and honey. I think the honey brings on a new flavor stuffed inside sweet pastry dough, but to me it was not as sweet. We learned that mazapan is made and eaten year-round in Toledo as compared to other regions in Spain and Europe where marzipan is mostly eaten around the Christmas or Easter holidays. Dave and I went to Santo Tome on the plaza and bought some of their small mazapan and a larger fish pastry stuffed with the sweet stuff for later. I did see some of the more familiar colored marzipan in shapes that resemble fruits but we did not try those. I wish I had because I prefer the intense flavor of the marzipan rather than having it diluted by dough.

We wound our way into the history of Toledo’s medieval past through a mire of narrow and confusing streets, that without a map, I became totally confused. In the days before the Inquisition, Catholic Christians, Iberian Jews and Moorish Muslims lived together in mutual respect and harmony and as the narrow cobbled paths took us past ancient churches, synagogues, palaces, mosques and fortresses I felt thrilled to be walking on these historic stones thinking of a time when people coexisted in harmony. We passed the Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador, a twelfth century church built on an eleventh century Taifa mosque that turned into a Visigothic building. The current church is still oriented south-east in the direction of Mecca. From here our guided pointed to the Church of San Miguel, a Mudejar church founded by the Knights Templar, closer to the Tajo River.

The13th Century gothic Cathedral of Toledo seemed most severe and a bit imposing to me on this chilly and overcast day. At approximately 390’ by 194’ and 146’ high, it is the considered the largest gothic cathedral in all of Spain. Its main facade, occupies a part of the Plaza de Ayunteamiento and sits adjacent to the Archbishop’s Palace. There were three austere sounding names of the portals entering the Cathedral: in the main facade, the Portal of Forgiveness, on another side the Portal of the Last Judgement and finally, the Portal of Hell. The Portal of Hell is used for the procession of the palms on Palm Sunday. The bell tower was being repaired but we had a clear view of the Gothic iconography that covered the facade. The imperial double headed eagle, Toledo’s coat of arms, a grant of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The bronze figures dating back to the 14th century, sit atop each of the double portal doors.

We left the cathedral following the ancient Pasadizo del Ayuntamiento or the old City’s Passageway, winding through the historic narrow streets where I was able to photograph unique old doors and arches and examples of gothic art. The old passageway joins Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the social and administrative epicenter of Toledo, with Santo Tome. This area has been used as a backdrop for several movies and in the evenings there are often concerts held in this plaza.

We stopped briefly in Santo Tome Church to see El Greco’s famous 16th century masterpiece, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz. Don Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo was former mayor of Orgaz and died in 1312. He was descended from the noble Palaiologos family and posthumously received the title of Count. According to legend, at the time Don Gonzalo Ruiz was murdered, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine descended from heaven and buried him with their own hands. His crypt lies below Greco’s famous painting (no photos were allowed). The bell tower that soars above this church is inlaid with glazed ceramics from the church.

18 is a lucky Jewish number so as we walked into the Jewish Center we looked for signs of good luck. There are 500 small colorful ceramic tiles throughout this section representing Jewish traditional symbols. We had so little time I was able to only find a few. Once into the heart of the Jewish Quarter we saw the stunning Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue with its Moorish architecture. This is one of the oldest synagogues left in western Europe. It was built in the Mudejar period sometime in the late twelfth century, possibly a reconstruction of an existing building on the same plot. Santa Maria la Blanca was constructed in Christian territory, the Kingdom of Castile, by Islamic builders, for Jewish use. It was converted into a church in the 15th century. Today it is considered a symbol of the cooperation of the three cultures who populated Spain in the Middle Ages. In 2013 the Jewish community of Toledo asked the Roman Catholic church to transfer ownership and custodianship of the building to them. It is now a museum and not used for religious ceremonies. For me, the synagogue brought a welcoming sense of peace and warmth.

We continued our walk through the tangle of cobbled streets in La Juderia or the Jewry where at one time Jews had enjoyed a life that could celebrate their own culture. Throughout the old Jewish neighborhood, streets were marked with colorful symbols such as a menorah to lead the way, in addition, along these very narrow streets we saw homes marked with more Jewish symbols, that notes a Jew once lived here. On a corner wall I found a sign that read Ruta de Don Quijote. I later found that this is only a small portion of a 2,500 km route that is a network of historic paths, creeks and trails through 148 towns throughout Castilian La Mancha. What a fun walk that would be!

Vera suggested Cafe Del Fin for lunch, a local eatery in the center of the historic district of Toledo on Calle Taller del Moro. Dave had the traditional Spanish ham, fresh tomato and garlic on toasted bread while I chose a wonderful Rioja wine and the Tenderloin of pork, Roquefort sauce and sweet caramelized onions, also on toasted bread. I always try to taste unique dishes but should have gone for the traditional ham, tomato and garlic, Dave’s was much better.

After lunch we toured Paniagua Serrano of Toledo, a local artisan shop around the corner from Cafe Del Fin, I believe on Calle Sta. Ursula, where they have been creating works of art for over 1,000 years. I was particularly interested watching how the ancient Moorish craft of Damascene was made. We watched artisans create their works of art scoring stainless steel into intricate designs, then carefully inlaying threads of 24kt yellow gold, 18kt green gold, and silver, stainless steel with a needle like tool to form the historic designs unique to this region. Once the designs are hammered into the steel the “blueing” begins where the piece is fired oxidizing the steel to become intense black which sets off the brilliant designs. The chiseling bas-relief in gold leaf is followed by burnishing the gold thread with a buring. These designs are made into decorative objects such as plates and jewelry. Each piece is handmade and unique but represents hundreds of years of oriental-style craft work in Damascus and Syria (the name Damascene is a reference to Damascus.) The Arabs (or Moors) who lived in this region perfected the skill and like so many other trades and crafts, influenced the art and architecture of Spain. I hadn’t expected to like this style of art but after seeing the production and the historic beauty I found myself buying a bracelet with intricate designs that will remind me of the amazing ancient traditions of Toledo’s beautiful Moorish Spain.

Jewelry was not the only craft imported from Damascus, the production of swords, knives and other metal works made from Damascus steel imported by merchants from Syria, became highly profitable as the ancient technique developed in Toledo. As Toledo’s production of these items grew, Toledo became known as the metal capital of Spain. There are as many shops featuring elaborate swords as there are those specializing in unique metal jewelry and although the knives intrigued me, jewelry was a safer and more beautiful investment, especially considering boarding a ship or a plane with a knife.

Our tour of Toledo and its marvelous Jewish quarters was over before we knew it. Our bus was waiting at the far side of the Bridge of San Martin over the Tagus river. On our way to the bridge we passed the stately Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes with numerous statues of saints standing guard. I wish I had been able to go inside to see the courtyard gardens but alas, another trip.

I slowly followed the progression of our group crossing the medieval Puente de San Martin or Bridge of San Martin, that spanned the Tagus River, to find our bus. The bridge was constructed in the late 14th century by archbishop Pedro Tenorio to provide access to the town of Toledo from the west. I took my time grabbing as many last shots to best remember this ancient multicultural hilltop city.

With great expectations of tilting at windmills we left Toledo for Andalusia, the land of La Mancha, via highway A-4 passing through the mostly flat, dry farmland into the mountainous region of Andalucia with its hills of olive and almond trees divides the regions. On the road towards Andalucia we could see in the distance, the windmills of Consuella perched next to a castle on top of a hill.

We arrived at the very tiny settlement of Puerto Lapice, in the province of Ciudad Real, Castile-La Mancha under threatening overcast skies. This town as well as other similar small towns had inns but after the war bombed much of the inns and houses.

Our bus parked in a lot adjacent to a touristy building that sported large billboard style reliefs of Don Quixote and his side kick Sancho Panza who “stood” atop the roof. That touristy building had a sign that advertised Gastronomy, Crafts and Souvenirs, and by the way, water for .50euros and toilets. There was a large replica of a white windmill at the rear of the building but only for show. I had hoped to see some of the legendary windmills but was told you would have to drive a long way to see the real windmills and there are only a few left. I crossed the street to Venta Del Quijote, a former inn, and enjoyed walking through their traditional Spanish courtyard to a museum/tourist shop to see the display on Cervantes and his Man of La Mancha. In their gift shop I bought some saffron which is produced in this area and considered a specialty, then called it a day.

Once on the bus I did crane my neck out the windows to watch for windmills. Far in the distance I could make out three authentic white windmills perched on a hill, then a nice cluster of windmills spaced atop another hill. Would it have been worth the long drive and back just to see them? Maybe another day. I very much enjoyed watching the rolling farmlands, now flat and golden, sparkling in the sun after their harvest. Intermittent lush green groves of olive trees, small settlements and other beautiful distant vistas went sailing by on our way to Cordoba.

We did stop for gas and a rest stop at an Autogrill that had a good selection of olive oils and Spanish gifts. Across the street from the station I found a charming old farmhouse to photograph so I spent my time poking around the area by myself trying to get a feel for what it would be like to live in a rural outpost like this where, I was told, there is little infrastructure and very limited internet making earning a living challenging. But it was quiet and charming for a nice temporary getaway.

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