In a country that boasts some breathtaking cathedrals the seat of the primate of all Spain has to be something special - and it is! Toledo Catedral ranks with Salamanca, Sevilla and the incomparable Santiago de Compostella as one of the greatest churches in Spain. This was where the great war-engine of Spanish christendom issued its edicts and spread its priests around the globe when the empire was at its height. The religious intrigues were so intense in this rocky city that Phillip II moved the capital away from here to start it anew at Madrid. If you want to get a feel for the heart and soul of Spain, then come here.
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.