A September 1999 trip
to Toledo by actonsteve
Quote: Toledo is closer to the Spanish heart then probably any other city. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlook the Rio Tajo - this city still looks the way it did at the time of Cervantes. If you want to see the Spain of power and intrigue - come here.....
You will be entranced by the narrow streets where even on the hottest day the sun doesn't penetrate, and don't worry, you will get lost in the maze-like streets of Toledo.
This is the heart of Spain and was its capital long before Madrid. It is a city built by Moors and Visigoths and its architecture contains mosques, towers and cathedrals. The Cathedral is the home of the primate of all Spain and is very important in the national consciousness. But the highlight will always be wandering the streets and exploring the narrow passageways and alleys of this beautiful city.
The best way to see the city is to walk as you can poke your nose into all its nooks and crannies and see it at its very best.
Toledo station itself is a magnificent neo-mudejar building but is set underneath the city. At the end of the day train services are more infrequent and you may want to catch a bus back to Madrid. The bus station is not far away, just a few hundred metres along the Paseo de Roseo.
Reaching the city of Toledo means crossing the Tajo on a bridge and then a twenty minute climb from there. Or you can catch a bus from the station up to Plaza Zocovodar in the heart of the city. Whatever way you choose will be a stunning introduction to this most atmospheric of cities.
To reach the city takes a strenous effort. Unless you get the bus from the station to Plaza Zocovodar a tough walk is called for at a great angle. This is the more authentic way to enter the city and one can imagine donkeys laden with baggage winding their way up the trail. It is also the quickest way from the train station, though I would not advise it to anyone who is unfit. Across from the busy Paseo is the banks of the Rio Tajo, and spanning the rocky cliffs of the gorge into the city as it has done for a thousand years is the Fuente de Alcantar. This cream coloured bridge with its high gatetower gives fantastic views of the gorge and the start of the trail into Toledo. Cars growl up steep gradients and the trail seems to go up and up until you finally spill into Museo Santa Cruz on Plaza Zocovodar.
From here the city spreads around you and the mazelike streets begin. You may have focus to your wandering, and I would suggest the Alcazar and Catedral as unmissable, but the fun is ducking into these little passageways to see where they would take you. Some of the alleys were so narrow I could touch them with outstretched hands (see photo)and every turning I took was lined with latticed brown buildings and hot cobbles. Cars have an especially rough time in Toledo. And every once in a while I would have to duck into a doorway as one would try and squeeze by. The narrow passageways showed no sign of life behind their shuttered doorways but once in a while but once in a while I could see a tiled courtyard or medieval balcony. Eventually you will blunder out onto a sight, because with every twist and turn Toledo offers something new.
I found the mezquita. Of all the peoples to inhabit Toledo the Moors were the ones who made it look the way it does today. They lived in the city until the reconquista of 1492 where they were expelled from Spain. Up to then they had been living side by side with their Christian and Jewish neighbours. The remains of the mosque could be seen, and it was still possible to see the oriental decoration and carved pillars. Then it was out onto the ramparts of the city for sweeping views of the Rio Tajo and the Castilean plain beyond. The atmosphere was so Spanish that you could almost hear the guitar strings of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" float above the rooftops. I fell in love with the place there and then.....
To coin a phrase, the catedral is a devil to find. Like all great medieval churches it is hidden by the surrounding buildings and only the brown-spire is visible from a distance. This always adds, in my mind, to the medieval atmosphere when you suddenly blunder out into the facade the surprise is more stark because it was so unexpected. Entrance is 500 pesetas and this also gives you access to the sacristy, capellas and treasury. I usually prevaricate about paying admission to a church but on this occasion I was justified and you must remember this is a working church just like San Pietro in Rome or Canterbury in England it is not just a tourist attraction. The number of priests and nuns going about their business will convince you of that.
Whatever you think about the exterior - the interior is stunning - and I swear it is the highest ceiling I have ever seen in a cathedral, over 150ft tall. The ceiling carvings were incredible with delicate gothic lines which meets with carved brown baroque ornamentation underneath.Most of the catedral was in darkness and this made colourful stain-glassed windows all the more extraordinary. The powerful Castilean sun cast strong colours on the dark floor. While I was there, the coro (choir) was open, and I stood in the two levels of intricately carved stalls. But the pride of the Catedral was the famous Capilla Mayor, which was a gargantuan altarpiece stretching from floor to ceiling covered in shiny gilt. The story goes that the priests were still covering it in black paint when Napoleonic troops burst in in 1808.
The nearby sacrista showed off the churches impressive accumulation of wealth. This was the church that had the silver and gold aquisitions from Peru and Mexico to play with and could afford to indulge its tastes. There were several portraits by Velasquez and El Greco (The Greek himself lived in Toledo, down by the eastern ramparts). And each Catholic primate had his own portrait on the wall in a long gallery of dour looking churchman.
With priests evident in the shadows, and with a good guidebook, it is still evident to get a taste of the religious Toledo of yore. Come here for high mass when they are chanting and lighting candles and you will be transported back to the time of Phillip II. And you will agree that this splendid, colossal church is the heart and soul of Spain.
The four-cornered Renaissance Alcazar de Toledo is the pride of Spain. Originally built by the powerful Charles V, this served as a military garrison in a conservative town for hundreds of years but its great moment of fame came in the 20th century. When the Spanish civil war broke out most of Castile plumped for the republicans, however the military garrison at Toledo, headed by General Moscardo, threw in with the Franco's fascist nationalists and were forced to retreat to the Alcazar. The siege lasted three months with the republicans hurling everything at the building in an attempt to get the nationalists out. Franco had to divert an army to relieve the nationalists, which in turn gave Madrid enough time to put up the barricades and stay republican until the end of the war. But the siege became a symbol of the Franco regime and it was embellished and made into a legend. Even the National newspaper changed its name to Alcazar in its honour.
Although visible from most places in Toledo the Alcazar is still hard work to find due to the narrow winding streets. Once you have climbed the horseramp, now used by jeeps and military vehicles, you can pay your money and step inside. The Alcazar is still owned by the military and contains the Ejerito (Army) museum. You can wander around the rooms and see models and photos of the Alcazar after the siege and Franco greeting General Moscardo amongst the rubble. Upstairs was a room left in exactly the same state as it was on the last day of the siege - the ceiling was shredded, the walls peppered and along one wall was the famous telephone used by General Moscardo. The republicans had hold of his son and threatened to shoot him if he did not surrender the Alcazar. His reply was;
"I love you son, but die like a man for the glory of Spain..."
History is written by the victors and this incident gave a powerful propaganda tool to the eventual winners - the nationalists. Most of the musuem does date from the 1940's, and could probably do with an overhaul, but half the fascination is the way it was used to serve the Franco regime. As you continued to wander around in glass cases there were home-made grenades, huge books shredded by bullets, crude knives and a gruesome-looking operating table. The cellars of the Alcazar were left as they were, as barracks, civilian quarters and hospitals, and the sacks that people slept on were still kept on the floor. I noticed alot of grandfathers showing their grandchildren around the Alcazar. Whatever you think of the politics, it must have been a harrowing ordeal.
Needless to say, we came away from the Alcazar impressed and very thoughtful. If you come to Toledo, even for the day, you must visit to the Alcazar....
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