It is the dream tourists dream of when thinking of old Europe. Toledo conjures up images of ringing steel, of sabres flashing in a rakish manner. However, there is a lot more to the place....
While Toledo invariably conjures up images of ringing steel, of sabres flashing in a rakish manner, there is a lot more to the place. Then again, one cannot gainsay this old Spanish town's formidable reputation for producing the finest, hand-crafted swords in the world. This is indeed, a piece of history.
Spanish swords made in this World Heritage town have dated back to the time when Hannibal used the same sabres on the Roman army. Later, the steel flashed in D'Artagnan and the Musketeers' hands. Early Japanese samurai are reported to have travelled to Toledo to take a close look at the forging process. El Cid used a native sword, but of course.
And today, Toledo manufactures and exports swords, knives and surgical instruments to the world every year. And every minute, one expects to go around a cobble-stoned corner and come face-to-face with a masked adventurer, naked rapier gleaming at his wasp-thin waist.
Alas, I didn't come across one. And, the men manning the fires and forges at the sword-making factory in town were sadly, of a certain age, and given to prosperity around the waist. But, a girl can dream.
A view to remember
Let's talk about visual impact first. Toledo is the dream tourists dream of when thinking of old Europe. Perched gracefully by the river Tagus, the first impression is a cluster of a walled city, of ancient buildings with turrets, ramparts, moats, surrounded by the ubiquitous olive groves. There are swallows wheeling in the pale sky , and by the banks of the Rio Tagus are lots of blood-red poppies, a startling if pleasing sight. To one side of the walled gate is a lock in the river that reminds me of Bath in England. And, inside the sprawling fortress that is essentially Toledo, we come upon banks of roses, lemon and fig trees, cypress alleys….all that is needed is a small crowd, some fish and some loaves!
This is La Mancha territory and so, the Don Quixote trail starts from here. This is also the place the Greek painter El Greco lived and worked in, so his artworks can be found in monuments all over the city, including in a hospital! Visitors are invariably taken to the Iglesias de Santo Tome to view his Burial of the Count of Orgaz, a striking work, which includes a self-portrait of the artist as well as his son, both imbued with haunting eyes.
The Moors ruled these parts till 1085 so traces of Islamic art and architecture are visible and celebrated, as are Roman ruins (this was the Roman city of Toletum, in fact). Toledo was the Spanish Empire's capital until 1560, and a sterling example of religious tolerance, till the Inquisition. Today, the Islamic, Jewish and Christian influences, all preserved beautifully, all form a harmonious meld. Toledo has an impressive cathedral, the Catedral Primada. This Gothic structure has Baroque, Neo-classical and Islamic influences in the altarpiece, ceiling, sacristy as well as an awe-inspiring collection of art by Greco, Titian, Goya and van Dyck.
Just a stone's throw from the cathedral is the Mezquita Christo de la Luz, a mosque turned into a church. And no visit to Toledo is complete without a visit to the synagogue, the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca. The interiors of this temple are testimony to how it was before its conversion to a church in the late 15th Century.
There is the Alcazar, as is inevitable in most major Spanish cities which have known Moorish rule. This palace dates back to the era of El Cid himself, and is indeed a work of art. Close by is the Plaza Zodocover (zuk-al-dawad or the best market in Arabic) with its narrow lanes of shops and patisseries.
If you are stopping for a coffee, do taste the local cheese, the Manchego, made from Manchega sheep milk; it's sharp yes, but tasty. Die-hard non-vegetarians can snack on rabbit and pigeon stew, too. Sweet-lovers alert: Toledo's marzipan is justly world-famous. Shops abound in this heritage town and tourists flock to buy up ceramic, steel and damascene souvenirs; the last is black enamel work inlaid with gold, silver and copper wire, and somewhat familiar to us in India).
And yes, a Toledo sword, too. I didn't buy one, though; I was still looking out for that dashing sword-wielder.
Toledo lies 72 km south of Spain's capital Madrid.
There are regular bus tours to the town from Madrid.
Wear sturdy shoes, this town is best explored on foot.