A Hill and a River
The Tajo is a thousand-kilometer river that flows through Spain and Portugal. Near the center of Spain, it makes a horse shoe shaped detour around a hill. For thousands of years, nations have recognized that as a fine place to make a stand against those who threaten them. The Carpetani, Roman Empire, Visigoths, Umayyad Caliphate, and the Christian kingdoms that would eventually become Spain all used this place. In modern times, it was used as a fortress again when the Nationalists held it against the Republicans in the Spanish civil war.
Do You Like Castles?
The whole city looks like a castle. Let me qualify that; I was raised in California. There are a few Spanish missions left over from a couple hundred years ago, but mostly cities in California were built so that it is easy to move goods around on trucks. Toledo was built with something else in mind; it was built to keep jerks with spears and arrows away. So there are battlements, towers, bridges, moats — all the things that symbolize castles to a guy whose childhood exposure to castles was fiction books and movies.
So for me, walking down a street barely wide enough for a single car, looking up at stonework shaped by the needs of a bygone era, this place is magical.
Strata of Human Conviction
Amongst the defensive works, there are numerous holy places. The largest is the Cathedral of Toledo. The surfaces inside are marked floor to ceiling with centuries of craftsmanship. The amount of artistic effort that has been poured into these stones is breathtaking.
Inside the chambers around the nave are objects that each have their own histories and significance. The one that struck me most was the monstrance. It is an enormous complexity of gold with gems. It is said that it contains the first gold brought to Europe from the New World. I have mixed feelings about that; the monstrance is a beautiful and great thing, but built on conquest. That makes it symbolic of Toledo in general; the place is great, and its history is that of the strong taking what they can.
The cathedral was built on the same spot as the mosque used by the Umayyads. There are interior walls in this cathedral that are believed to be left over from that mosque. They carry the abstract designs you’d expect from a mosque, instead of the human figures represented in the later Christian carvings.
Also in the cathedral is marked the spot where the Visigoth church was, before it was knocked down to make room for the mosque.
I wonder what was knocked down by the Visigoths to make room for their church.
There was a sizeable Jewish population here, once. I stayed in the Jewish Quarter, and saw small blue tiles with Jewish symbols hidden amongst the cobbles outside many buildings.
Built To Last
When I first walked into Toledo, I made a point of going by the Roman bridge over the Tajo. It was enhanced by later kings who added towers at either end of the bridge. I don’t know what maintenance the past 2,000 years have required, but it is a special thing to walk across a man-made thing that is so old. They did it without gas engines to bring the stone and lift the cranes. I don’t envy them the effort it took, but I’m impressed by what they did.
The Alcazar is the square fort built atop the hill by the Umayyads. Alcazar is the Arabic word for palace / castle, after it’s translated through a couple different languages. Now it’s a military museum, packed with swords, and rifles, and cannons, and plenty of reading material in multiple languages. There’s an American military uniform on display from the time when America and Spain were at war.
There’s an officer’s room that has been kept as-is after it was riddled with bullets in the Spanish civil war. It was a peculiar experience to stand by the holes, and sight out the window, and see the street corner where the Republican besiegers set up their gun.
I spent many hours in that museum, and I felt like I was only skimming the information available.
A Pleasant Place To Be
You don’t have to be a history nut to enjoy Toledo. It is a novel place for a walk, if you don’t mind lots of hills. There are plenty of gift shops with swords and damascene crafts. Plus, there are churros with chocolate for breakfast!
There were a lot of Spanish tourists there — it is conveniently located half an hour train ride from Madrid. There were plenty of foreigners other than me there, but things will be a lot easier if at least one of your party members speaks some Spanish.
The “main” (but still very narrow!) streets tend to get very crowded, but if you step into one of the many side alleys, you can walk for blocks without seeing anyone. “Blocks” may be the wrong word there. The town is like a maze with no 90 degree corners. The street map looks like something M. C. Escher would come up with.
If you get tired of the narrow streets, take a walk down the hill to the river’s edge. There is a well-maintained but quiet trail there. It’s a peaceful place, with birds going about their business the same way they did before humans got fancy ideas about this hill.