Although there’s still many things to see and do in Madrid, we decided to go further afield to Toledo. The trip is only 30 minutes by a fast train and the town is an easy twenty minutes walk – if you count going uphill easy.
Like most medieval town, Toledo was built on a steep hill that gave its citizens a surrounding view of the countryside and the Tagus River below, and guarded against invasions. Toledo, like many old European cities, was influenced by three cultures: Christians, Muslims and Jews, although you can also find remnants of the Romans and the Visigoths, who also resided on that hill, throughout the town. Once the Romans were installed, it was taken over by the Visigoth, and conquered by the Moors in 711 AD. To this day, Roman wells, baths and pipes are still used in the town and Mujédan (Muslims who did not convert to Catholicism and still lived within the walls) architecture is visible in many of the churches and synagogues.
Toledo was the capital of Spain until it was moved to Madrid. In the 17th Century, Toledo was a centre for literacy and writing and many illustrious citizens had their libraries there. After Alfonso VI of Castile conquered it from the Moors, Toledo remained a centre for learning and culture. Many members of the Jewish and Muslim communities translated texts for the Spanish from their own language into Castilian, which meant that all the knowledge contained in the Toledo libraries was made available to the Europe of the time. The painter El Greco was born and died there.
Toledo’s history is extensive and colourful, and the result is a labyrinthine city punctuated with Gothic churches, Jewish synagogues and many museums, convents and monasteries.
One of the most resplendent of these monuments is the Cathedral in the centre of town, rising above the rooftops surrounding it. It was built on the site of a 7th Century Visigoth church and the city Synagogue, and one of the reasons for its strange shape (a cross with many sprawling chapels sprouting from it). It took almost 300 years to build, and certainly spanned three centuries: the construction began in 1226 and was completed in 1493. Because of that span in time, many architectural styles fight for supremacy. The exterior is French Gothic while Gothic, Mujédar and Baroque styles adorn the interior.
I have never seen such a church before (you’ll have to excuse the superlatives that will follow). Purported to be the largest in Europe and the Spanish “opus magnum,”, it goes on forever in all directions. It measures 120 metres (390 ft) long by 59 metres (146 ft) wide. There are at least four massive organs some of their pipes jutting horizontally and forward as if to mimic the trumpets the angels used to warn of the sacred as they descended to Earth. At the centre of the church are two imposing “rooms” facing each other. They are each encased in a magnificent screen of stone, which act as gates.
In one, the Chapel of the Sepulchre has a monumental, five-storey high “reredos” (an altarpiece behind the altar that sits on the floor and rises toward the ceiling.) It is an extremely florid, gilded, piece that recounts, in vivid colours in separate niches, the life of Christ. All around are delicate filigrees of balusters, spires, and other things I don’t know the name of, by Joan Peti. This masterwork of five continuous panels took 17 years to create and required the cooperation of architects, gilding masters, sculptors and painters.
In the other “room” is the Choir, if not as impressive as the chapel, at least of jaw-dropping complexity. Carved saints line three sides of the choir above the benches for the singing monks. Every seat has a different wooden sculpted underseat and the armrests are also carved from a nearly-black wood.
Outside the Chapel at the back of the reredos, and strikingly different with its Baroque ornamentation, is an altarpiece by Narciso Tomé. Opposite it and in the dome you find an oculus with saints and angels looking down on the sculpture.
In the Sacristy are other treasures: fifteen paintings by El Greco, including one of his last, The Assumption, painted in 1613 and still in its original altarpiece.
We spent so much time in the Cathedral, we barely had time to see anything else. We got lost –and found, and lost again– among the streets, alleys and lanes that could barely fit a donkey and often ended in stairs. For some reason, we always ended going up them rather than down. We did find a local restaurant serving delicious tapas away from the tourist throng. I guess there are advantages to getting lost.
If we ever come back to Spain we intend to visit Toledo again to steep in the Medieval atmosphere and to marvel at the geniuses of the time who were able to create such magnificence.