Inhabited since the Bronze Age, Toledo was mentioned by ancient Roman historian Titus Livius as early as the first century BC. Beginning as a Roman fortification, then as capital of the Visigoth Kingdom, after that as a fortress of the Moorish Emirate of Cordoba, still later an outpost of the Christian kingdoms that fought to oust the Moors and, then in the 16th century capital of Spain under Charles V from the Gothic epoch until 1560, Toledo has seen more than 2,000 years as the “City of Three Cultures”, having been shaped by the historical co-existence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish influences.
Its strategic position on a hill, surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River, together with its massive defensive walls, Toledo has been physically protected over the centuries. However, considered a holy city in the Catholic faith, invaders were careful to avoid destruction of sacred sites, so it survived invasions by the Moors and Visigoths, and the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Only one hour from Madrid’s Atocha Train Station, we arrived early, knowing there was much to see before our return later in the day. As the train pulled into the beautiful Toledo Railway Station, opened in 1920, we were captivated by the Neo-Mudéjar style architecture. From there we took a bus to the city center and then walked towards the cathedral, stopping first for a café con leche and pasteles.
On the way to the cathedral we made another stop at the beautiful Santa María la Blanca (St. Mary the White), originally known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue, a museum and former synagogue built in 1180. Considered the oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing, it is now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church. It was constructed under a Christian king by Islamic architects for Jewish use, and represents the cooperation that existed among the three cultures that populated Spain in the early Middle Ages.
Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo or the Toledo Cathedral is considered one of the great Gothic structures of Europe. It was built from 1226 to 1493, and reflects 2½ centuries of different styles. Inside, the cathedral contains important masterpieces including a spectacular baroque high altar and two paintings by El Greco.
Though the Toledo Cathedral drew on French Gothic forms for inspiration, it has been described as a “peculiarly Spanish synthesis”. As many of the craftsmen that worked on the cathedral were Moors, bits of Mudéjar influences can be seen here and there, especially in the cloister.
Standing in the main chapel, the Gothic altarpiece is overwhelming. It is five stories high and filled with paintings and delicately crafted sculpture. The Choir is particularly rich in detail carved into the wooden choir stalls, where the clergy of the Cathedral sit, stand or kneel during Mass.
The many chapels that branch off from the main sanctuary are repositories of many great works of art and treasures, including the masterpiece by El Greco, “El Expolio” (The Disrobing of Christ) painted on the site in 1587. There are many other paintings from masters such as Caravaggio, Titian, van Dyck, Orrente, Tristán, and Goya.
After a few hours at the Toledo Cathedral, we had one additional art related stop to make before lunch: “El entierro del Conde de Orgaz” (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) by El Greco. It is on display in the Iglesia De Santo Tomé, a 12th century church famous primarily for housing this painting. Count Orgaz died in 1312, leaving substantial funds to the Church. He was a religious man, and legend has it that Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen attended his burial to lay him to rest. A painting depicting this legend was commissioned for the chapel and El Greco was chosen. The work is remarkable and filled with much symbolism. It was well worth the time to see.
Lunch was on our minds, so off we went to find La Abadia a local place we had scouted out earlier that was purported to have good Toledan food. Located in a sixteenth century building, its original architecture of caves and cisterns make for interesting dining spaces. After a delicious meal we took off to further explore the city.
As we rode the bus into town from the train station earlier we crossed the modern bridge, and just down-river I spotted the Puente de Alcántara (Alcántara Bridge), a beautiful Roman-era bridge. If we didn’t visit any other thing while here I wanted to visit it. But since it was relatively close to the train station we wandered other parts of the compact old city making sure to reserve enough time.
We first went to the impressive Puente de San Martín (St Martin’s Bridge), built in the late 14th century. Heavily fortified on both ends, it was built with five arches the longest span being 40 m (131 ft). While there, several tourists got their thrills riding the zip-line from one side of the river to the other.
Since the city is protected on three sides by a natural moat, the Tagus River, the north side required fortification. The Romans had originally built the northern wall in 674 AD, and it was later reconstructed by the Visigoth king Wamba. Though there are remains of the original Roman wall, the majority of the structure is of Muslim origin. There is a nice walk atop the wall from the Puente de San Martín to one of the city gates, the 16th century Puerta de Cambrón where we reentered the old city.
There are several other rather interesting and ancient gates into the city we encountered:
- Puerta de Bisagra Nueva or the new gate, is of Moorish origin, but the main part was built in 1559;
- Puerta del Sol was built by the Knights Hospitallers in the 14th century in the Mudejar style;
- Puerta Bab al-Mardum was built in the 10th century;
- Puerta de Alfonso VI, 9th century gate.
It was getting time to return to the rain station by way of the old Roman bridge, Puente de Alcántara. Built between 104 and 106 AD by an order of the Roman emperor Trajan, this beautiful bridge was the only gate for the pilgrims to use to enter the city in the middle ages. Hostilities and war have been more unkind to the bridge than the elements over the centuries, but it has always been repaired lending some truth to the boast in the inscription “Pontem perpetui mansurum in saecula (I have built a bridge which will last forever)”.
Strolling back along the river towards the train station, we realized how much of Toledo we were unable to see. But that is how it is no matter where you go or how long you have. It is just how it is; however, what we did see we saw very well.