Toledo is just 70km South of Madrid and makes for an easy day trip – as we found out today. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is packed with monuments, museums, and historical sites to visit. Toledo’s wealth of cultural monuments harks back to Medieval times when it became known as the “City of 3 Cultures” thanks to the communities of Christians, Arabs and Jews that lived side-by-side within its walls. To this day the city contains a unique legacy from this time in the form of churches, palaces, fortresses, mosques, and synagogues.
Toledo became a fortified city during the years of Roman occupation – its location on a rocky outcropping surrounded on 3 sides by the River Tajo made it highly defensible and well located for trade. It quickly grew in wealth and importance, and when the Visigoths conquered the Iberian peninsula they named Toledo their capital. The city retained its importance under Moorish occupation, becoming a frontier town protecting the Northern border of the Emirate of Cordoba. When the Spanish armies regained control of the city in 1085, it became the official residence of the Spanish kings and queens until the 16th century. With an illustrious history like that, no wonder there is so much to see in Toledo!
We arrived in Toledo by train*, and our approach to the hill top town took us over Puente de San Martín (i.e.: St Martin’s Bridge), a Medieval bridge built in the 14th century to cross the River Tagus to provide access to the city from the West. Both sides of the bridge were heavily fortified with towers, and the views of Toledo from the bridge were quite intimidating.
*One of the rare times during our stay in Spain that the trains have been running. Today there were trains, tomorrow – who knows?
Dominating the hill top was the great fortress – the Alcazar of Toledo. This grand stone fortification was originally built by the Romans in the 3rd century, and was occupied in turn by the Visigoths, Moors, and Spanish. It was rebuilt in the 15th century and stands today as a mighty testament to the military heritage of Toledo.
Currently Toledo’s Alcazar houses a war museum that contains artefacts from all periods of history and all parts of the globe, all with an underlying theme of warfare and battle.
We found the museum interesting enough but since warfare isn’t really a passion of ours, we moved past the displays pretty quickly. The best part of the Alcazar for us was the structure itself – it really is a very imposing building!
The views we got over Toledo and the surrounding countryside from the terraces of the Alcazar were pretty spectacular as well.
Just outside the Alcazar we stumbled across more of Toledo’s military history: swords made of Toledo steel for sale in a souvenir shop. Toledo has been a sword-making centre since about 500BC but its steel only gained widespread fame when Hannibal’s army used weapons made of Toledo steel against the Romans. So impressed were the Romans with the swords that soon all the weapons of the Romans Legions were made of Toledo steel.
The reputation of Toledo steel continued to flourish during the Middle Ages, rivalled only by metal wrought in Damascus. Still today swords, daggers, and knives made in Toledo are highly prized.
Besides its history as a fortified city and sword-making centre, Toledo was also a centre of culture and learning the likes of which had never been in seen before in Spain. For centuries Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived, worked, and studied side-by-side here. Each faith had its own places of worship and today some of the greatest attractions in Toledo are its Medieval religious sites. Foremost amongst these is the splendid cathedral of Toledo.
Like many churches in Spain the cathedral was actually built on top of a Muslim mosque and consequently covers a huge area. The construction of this monumental building, with its basilica floor plan and 5 naves, began in 1226 and took more than 250 years to complete. This is reflected in the mixture of architectural styles found in the building, from Gothic to Renaissance.
Built from white limestone from the quarries of Olihuelas, near Toledo, the interior of the church was beautiful, especially its stained glass windows (many of which are original Medieval glass).
The alter piece was uniquely illuminated by a large decorated skylight cut very high up into the thick wall behind the high altar which allowed shafts of sunlight to strike the tabernacle. All very dramatic!
There were 15 chapels around the edges of the cathedral, the grandest of which was richly decorated in gold plating.
Also impressive was the Treasury, with its collection of art work and its painted ceiling.
There is no doubt that Toledo’s cathedral is one of the best we’ve seen in Spain (which is saying something as we have seen A LOT of churches in our month-long sojourn here). Less impressive in terms of size and grandeur, but no less fascinating, was the synagogue of El Tránsito. Built in 1357 this simple temple boasts one of the best mudejar decorated ceilings in Spain. Its walls were also richly decorated with geometrical designs, botanical motifs, and Hebrew inscriptions. The Sinagoga del Tránsito was once an important house of worship for Toledo’s large Jewish population and the attached museum houses some interesting artefacts related to the lives of Toledo’s Jewish population.
Outside the synagogue lay the maze of streets that once made up Toledo’s juderia*. Hidden in amongst the narrow streets of this old Jewish district we came across some wonderful old buildings and scenic little laneways.
*Whilst Christians, Muslims, and Jews all lived within Toledo’s city walls they each had their own districts with little to know cross-over or mixing.
It was a pleasure to roam the Jewish district and explore its corners; the other parts of Toledo’s old town were also lovely. We really had a great time losing ourselves in Toledo’s old town and would definitely rate this as one of our favourite towns to visit in Spain.
Vibrant and steeped in history, Toledo is terrific. We could have filled days with all there was to see in Toledo, but having even one day to visit this amazing Spanish city was great!