Toledo, Spanish Splendour

Toledo, Spanish Splendour

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How does it feel to step into a sepia portrait? You will find out if you visit Toledo, Iberia’s Rome, Damascus and Cairo, all rolled into one. Just an hour away from Madrid, Toledo’s labyrinthine alleys and cobbled streets may also remind you of Stockholm’s Gamla Stan or Warsaw’s Stare Miasto, but make no mistake, Toledo’s architecture is truly polyglot – a delightful blend of Moorish, Gothic, Jewish, Christian and much else. And the sepia tint comes from its sandstone buildings and colour co-ordinated roof-tiles. Thanks to UNESCO, which declared the entire city a World Heritage Site, you’re spared the chrome and concrete eyesores. Toledo had been an imperial city – of the Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and Christians – and still has plenty to show for it.

At noontime on one of the hottest days in July this year, our bus dropped us off at the unpronounceable Zocodover Plaza, the city square, from where we had to lug our bulging trolleys through some very hilly, very cobbled and very narrow streets, looking for our hotel which we had booked through the Internet. Eureka, shouted Rekha, my travel companion, pointing to a signboard which said Santo Tome – that was the name of our hotel. We huffed and puffed and dragged ourselves along, secure in the knowledge that we were almost there. We were indeed “there” but it turned out to be a patisserie. The next Santo Tome was a churreria selling churros, a sort of Spanish doughnut. The third Santo Tome was a souvenir shop selling picture postcards and key chains and the fourth, a street cafe. And the next one, to be sure, was the church itself, which had lent its name to the hotel and every business establishment in its extended vicinity. Map in hand, we bravely plodded on and after many false hopes, finally managed to locate our hotel in a blind turn. It was a family-run place in an old Spanish mansion, with a shop on the ground floor. Our room was on the fourth from where we were promised a magnificent view of Toledo from the windows. Or at least that’s what we understood, from our limited acquaintance with the Spanish language.

Heritage Everywhere

Too exhausted to argue, we snatched the keys and headed towards the elevator, which, curiously, began on the first floor and ended on the third. If you think this was bad, wait until you see the elevator, which, like Toldeo, was a heritage contraption. And it was so tiny it could take either one human or two suitcases at a time. If you had read the story of how a clever boatman managed to safely ferry a tiger, goat and a bundle of grass across the river, you’d know how we managed to reach our room with our luggage!Zocodover is like any other European plaza – a cobbled square abutted by cafes and teeming with tourists. It’s not hard to imagine that this used to be an Arab souk dealing in livestock trade. The name Zocodover is a corruption of Souq-al-dawab or livestock market. It has seen worse than tourists and livestock though – burnings at the stake for instance, during the Inquisition and bullfights too. We wandered around aimlessly and ate marzipan, the typical almond pastry that is a specialty of this town.

And then we goofed up again. We went and bought a ticket on the toy train that would give us a city tour. Blithely we had assumed that it would be an air-conditioned coach, which would enthral us with rectangular frames of Toledo from the cool comfort of our seats. But instead, when the Zocotren did arrive, it was a string of open tin boxes – very decorative no doubt – that had already reached melting point, thanks to its many peregrinations through the streets of Toledo that day. Even as our backsides were toasted by the unpadded tin seats, hot winds blowing from the valley attended to the torso and face. At the end of the journey, we resembled broiled chicken and were none the wiser about the orientation of the city. Next morning we stumbled along towards that beacon, the Alcazar ( al qasr in Arab, meaning the castle) which dominates the Toledo skyline with its four majestic turrets. The monument is visible for miles, since it is situated on a hillock. It is now a military establishment out of bounds for visitors. Abd-ar-Rahman III, the Moorish monarch, had built the al qasr in the 10th century. Later, when the Christians recaptured Toledo, they converted it into a palace for Carlos I, but the court moved to Madrid and thus began the neglect and ruin of the castle. We did a circumambulation of the Alcazar to walk along the ramparts of the old Arab city wall. The reward was a stunning view of the river Tejo, still dotted with islands of Roman ruins and Toledo’s pink rooftops. The city’s imposing city gates – Puerta Nueva de Bisagra – with its green-tiled twin turrets bowled us over.Toledo is El Greco city. The Iglesia Santo Tome houses his masterpiece, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz. Among the onlookers in the painting, are El Greco himself and the other famous Toledano, Cervantes. Toledo is the capital of Castille La Mancha province and needless to say that La Manchas and Don Quixotes of all sizes stare at you from virtually every shop window.

Interesting History

The Toledo Cathedral, which beckons to you from every gully and corner, has an interesting history going back to ancient times. First it was a Visigothic church. During Muslim rule, it metamorphosed into a mosque only to be destroyed and rebuilt after Christian reconquest. No wonder its architecture is a meld of different styles, with Mudejar predominant. We wrapped up our visit with a peek at the dazzling Jewish Synagogue, and the quaint Muslim quarter with its delightful grapevine-draped lanes and leafy patios. However, our lasting memories of Toledo are of the Zocotren ride!