It’s a panoramic sunset show with a view of red tiled roofs, tall steeples and the four towers of the Alcazar- the ancient fortress interspersed with olive groves. This is swashbuckling Don Quixote country- a heady cocktail of three cultures- Christian, Jewish and Muslim all intertwined to make a rich pastiche of architecture and cuisine. Ruled by the Romans, Visigoths and the Moors, the town looks like it was lifted straight out of the Arabian nights. We are at the Parador de Toledo- a Moorish manor converted into a government hotel and the favoured place to get a bird’s eye view of this historic city. It was this perspective that inspired the famous painter El Greco to paint the ‘View of Toledo’ which hangs today at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Toledo was the political capital of Spain until 1561, when Philip II moved to Madrid. Our guide tells us that it still remains as the spiritual and religious centre of the country. Situated on a rocky hill in an oxbow of the Tajo River, this city is a sepia portrait in stone filled with historic churches, synagogues and castles. Swallows swoop overhead and patches of red poppies enliven the otherwise barren landscape of central Spain. 10,000 people still live within the ancient city walls.
Our Hotel Hacienda Del Cardenal is a historic 18th century cardinal’s residence with a Moorish ambience, situated by the old Alfonso VI city gate. The gardens are a replica of the ones found in Alhambra and have fountains that flow into long pools. Close by is the amazing set of public escalators and covered walkways that wind their way sinuously below ancient city walls from an underground garage. Talk about ancient meets modern! We walk with our guide Fernando, through the City Gate with a double headed eagle carved on it (the symbol of the city) into leafy courtyards and serpentine alleys, lined with old aristocratic houses and geranium filled balconies. Gilded weather vanes shine on rooftops and storks make their nests in bell towers. Tiled street signs and plaques outside historical monuments and old heritage properties help us to navigate the city. The Tajo River flows over weirs under ancient stone bridges. On the other side of the river are cigarrales- historic houses of wealthy families set in orchards of figs, which have been converted into luxury lodgings. Once Toledo was a great Jewish settlement until Queen Isabella in 1492 asked them to either convert to Catholicism or leave. I enjoy the unique Mudejar architecture- a mix of Gothic and Islamic which is stunning with its arches and patterned brickwork. The Alcazar on the hill used to be a Roman fort and then the scene of a two month siege during the Civil War. Today it’s a military museum.
The Cathedral, a magnum opus of Gothic style, is one of the most stunning ones that I have seen with pillars rising like a stone forest and gold gilt on wood. They say that just the bare skeletal structure took 267 years to build. I press my nose to the glass cases in the Treasury looking at a gargantuan jewel- encrusted silver monstrance weighing 430 pounds and exquisite copies of the Bible, hand -copied by French monks. It’s not just a church- its sacristy is like a mini -museum filled with classics by master artists like Goya, Rubens and Caravaggio. El Greco, the artist from Crete, who found commissions from Spanish kings and made this his home is the rock star with his famous painting, ‘Disrobing of Christ’ gracing the sacristy walls. Francisco de Quevedo the famous writer once said: “Crete gave him life but Toledo gave him the artist´s brushes “.We gaze entranced at regal vestments behind glass and a portrait gallery of archbishops with an elaborately painted ceiling and murals of Biblical scenes. My favourite is the Baroque altar with light streaming through the hole in the ceiling called ‘El Transparente’. It’s a riot of angels, clouds and angelic cherubs and was done to illuminate the poorly lit cathedral. It’s surreal to see dusty red tasseled hats, suspended from the ceiling to mark the spots where a cardinal is buried. The piece de resistance is the choir with its two- tiered intricately carved walnut seats with scenes of the wars between the Moors and the Christians and the misericords- small seats against which, the tired worshippers could lean while they stood.
Fernando tells us a legend about a local woman who prayed to the Virgin Mary for her boyfriend’s return from the war. She told her maid to stick a pin into her every time she fell asleep, so that her vigil at the church would be uninterrupted. She offered this pin to the Virgin Mary as a proof of her devotion and was re-united with her boyfriend. Even today on Little Pin Street, various pin offerings crowd the window of the church! Nun- made marzipan seems to be the speciality of the town alongside ornate silverware. All over town Toledana- crumbly puff pastry filled with sugary strands of angel’s hair (which is actually pumpkin) is sold in boxes. Toledo’s most famous for its fine steel blades, swords and knives, a tradition which dates back to Hannibal and the Roman army. We see fencing rapiers, sabres and cutlasses as well as knights of armour lined up in shops. They say that even the Japanese Samurai travelled here to learn the art of sword making. Our guide tells us that movies like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Gladiator’ have used swords made in Toledo! To the Indian eye the local art (which bears witness to the craftsmanship of Muslims in Christian Spain) is familiar, reminiscent of Bidri work from Hyderabad. This is called damascene where black steel is worked with gold and silver wire to make intricate designs.
Come evening, we sit in the open gardens of our hotel over some local manchego goat’s cheese and sangria and look at the ancient ramparts bathed in the soft glow of light. In Toledo the past is still very much alive.
Published in Discover India, 2012