Our plan for today – Wednesday 5 – was to take our one side-trip out of Madrid to Toledo. The other option was a shorter trip to El Escorial – a former monastery and alternative palace for kings – but we decided that we would prefer to experience a small town with a history of art and see what we could discover. We left home at 8.30am in plenty of time and caught our first Metro (Underground) from Grande Via (outside our front door) to the central station, Atocha Renfe. However this morning we experienced one of those traps for young players.
9.30am Sitting at the Madrid Train Station
We missed the train to Toledo! Having arrived at the right station from where the fast Avant trains all leave for all parts of Spain, we then had to buy a ticket to Toledo, and therein lay the problem. Our only alternative was a machine that was not clear about seat selection so it took a long time to crack. On top of that, on these trains they have ‘airport’ style security checks, and as a consequence we missed the 9.20am train we had booked. We discovered that in Spain if you miss your train you have no choice but to buy another ticket. So – 25 euros down the drain! We weathered it, although we needed to recover over a coffee. The trains in Spain are fast and before long we were on the 10.20 and in Toledo in 30 minutes.
Well – Toledo is an amazing town! We find ourselves saying – why have we waited till we are nearly 80 to come to Toledo, let alone Spain? It is a place which is quite different from anywhere we have been before, and of central importance to all Christian and post Christian countries.
A bus took us from the train station to the old city on the hill, just 10 minutes – not sure how far up it is, but higher than you need to climb if you want to have energy for the rest of the day. So we landed in Plaza de Zocodover as did hoards more day trippers. It is the taking off point for exploring all parts of the old city and used to be a market place and a place for bullfights. It also witnessed burning at the stake during the Inquisition. Toledo reminded us a lot of hill top villages in Italy. We largely followed the walk suggested in the Spain Lonely Planet which we have online on our devices. Really that was too much for a day but we made a good fist of it. If you had the time, two days in Toledo would be well worthwhile.
A little history first.
Toledo was a pre-Roman settlement, became a Roman garrison, and then became capital of the post-Roman Visigothic kingdom. It was taken by the Moors in 711AD after which it became the capital of a small Arab kingdom, and the centre of learning and arts in Spain. Shortly after Alfonso VI took Toledo in 1085, the Vatican recognised Toledo as the seat of the Spanish church. For a long time the Jews, Muslims and Christians existed side by side, until in the 15th Century the church became forceful about conversion and the multi faith aspects mostly disappeared. Toledo declined when Felipe II chose Madrid as the capital in the mid-16th century. Felipe II, incidentally, was the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella who among other things were responsible for the Spanish Inquisition. However, as is very clear, despite Felipe’s move of the seat of the throne, the Toledo Cathedral remained – and still remains – very powerful. (Most of that potted history is thanks to the Lonely Planet. As we moved around during the day it was reinforced by our visit).
Museo de Santa Cruz
Our first stop was the 16th century Museo de Santa Cruz. The museum is a superb building and has some great art including a number of El Grecos, and a Goya. There is also a beautiful 15th century tapestry, Tapestry of the Astrolabes, in terrific condition. We spent a fair bit of time reading the documentation around the room, providing a very good history, illustrated by the paintings.
The Alcazar – for views
The Alcazar is at the highest point in the city. We did not go in but we read it has a very good historical section. For the rest it is these days a military museum. Given the time we lost earlier we decided to give it a miss – it is apparently very large, and to do it properly takes a great deal of time. Next time!! There is an enormous flat area in front and the views of the old town are stunning.
The highlight of our visit was definitely the cathedral. We each used the audio guide that came with our entry ticket – without it we would have been completely lost. It is huge for a start, and every part of the cathedral has a great history. It is said to be the largest and most extravagant cathedral in Spain. We both felt that in terms of interest and breath taking viewing, it surpassed any cathedral we have been in – including St Peter’s in Rome, and the Cologne Cathedral. It’s overall size is overwhelming for a start, divided into 5 naves, and throughout covered by an amazing ceiling. There are many side chapels, all very extravagant as well. It is hard to single out any particular part of the cathedral – perhaps the sacristy and the choir were the most mind-blowing. The sacristy has a gallery with some superb paintings by El Greco, Titian, Raphael, Velazquez and a Caravaggio.
The site was a worship place during the Visigothic times and then until 1085 during Moslem rule it was the site of the town’s central mosque. (At the same time there were 9 others). It was fascinating to hear that even today the Visigothic influence continues with a 6th century liturgy held each day in one of the chapels, the Capilla Mozarabe.
By the time we had spent 2 hours in the Cathedral we were famished, and weak at the knees. We kept up our practice of looking for a Menu de Dia, and this was a great success. The waiter explained that two of the dishes were typical Toledo ones, and the wine which was very good was from the area. It was all beautiful.
The Jewish Quarter
We did not finish lunch till after 4pm so there was little time left to explore the rest of the town. We did a quick trip to the Jewish area and one of its synagogues – Sinagoga del Transito. Toledo once had 10 synagogues until the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. It is now a museum in a magnificent building. The main prayer hall is very large and beautifully restored with its traditional walls and ceiling. We looked very quickly at some of the exhibits – it would have been good to stay longer and get a better idea about the history of Jewish culture in Spain.
A quick walk up the hill again to catch the bus back to the station for our 6.25pm train. We were not running any risks so had a 30 minute sit on the platform – surrounded by enthusiastic Spaniards – before the speedy trip home.