Picture Perfect Toledo Spain Embraces its Medieval Past

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I needed a rest from the sensory overload of a big city, and craved a little quiet time. That's why I was at Madrid's Atoche station at nine in the morning and about to board the high speed express to picture perfect Toledo, 55 miles to the southwest. I had done my homework. I knew Toledo was a UNESCO World Heritage site. I knew it had been visited by a host of invaders over two millennia, Romans, Visagoths, Muslims and finally Christians and I knew they had all left their mark, incorporating elements of each other's culture into the common thread. That was its appeal.

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An Incomparable Vista

Toledo's train station, decked out Neo-Mujedar style, an eclectic mix of Moorish and Gothic architecture, welcomed me with open arms and funneled me through a phalanx of local bus companies hawking their tours. I surrendered (I know, a whim of iron) to a bright green double-decker which took a leisurely and circuitous route into town. The first stop served up a spectacular view of the city. Toledo sits atop a granite hill surrounded by a river on three sides, the Rio Tajo, and dominated by the Alcazar, a Moorish fort that now houses a military museum. The spire of the city's cathedral, Santa Iglesia Catedral Primeda, also pierced the skyline.

Old Town is a Pedestrian's Dream

The bus dropped me off at Plaza de Zocodover, the central hub from which everything radiates. It was easy to find the Catedral. It's old town's tallest building. Walking the narrow, cobblestone streets, barely wide enough to accommodate a car immediately transported me into the past. And yes, it was relaxing in an odd sort of way. I felt like I was getting a glimpse into medieval life in a small Spanish town. The Gothic face of the cathedral completed the illusion. Paintings by Caravaggio, Goya and Titian lit up the interior. Toledo's City Hall, also in the Gothic style, and adjacent to the church filled out the second of Toledo's many plazas.

From Church to Synagogue

From the Catedral, I walked into the Jewish Quarter, home to Toledo's Jewish community prior to its expulsion in 1492. There used to be 12 synagogues in the Quarter; now there are two. Nevertheless there are still large homes, gardens and impressive views in the area that occupies the northeastern section of old town.

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I stopped off at a cafe for light lunch while watching scores of tourists stream past me. If Spain were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, I thought to myself, you wouldn't know it from this crowd. It was mid September and the place was alive with people. Granted this was a tourist town but I noticed it all across Spain. There were no outward signs of the country's economic woes. Here in Toledo, the shops were full of local staples for which the town was famous, blades of every description -- swords, daggers and knives made of Toledo steel -- as well as damascene plates and jewelry made of hammered black steel with gold inlay. Marzepan, a sugar and almond confection, was prominent too.

I continued navigating the maze of narrow streets on my way to El Greco's house. The crowds had thinned out and it was quiet. Serene. Peaceful. Suddenly a yellow Audi careened around a corner. Toledo, I had to remind myself, wasn't just a theme park; people lived here too.

El Greco's House

I'm a big fan of El Greco so another Toledo attraction, Museo El Greco, attracted my eye. The Greek-born painter lived a large part of his life in Toledo and won many important commissions while stationed here. His Vista de Toledo which he painted in 1596 commands an entire wall. It offers a bird's eye view of medieval Toledo with the artist's son, some believe, inserted into the right hand corner. But he also faced hardship and had to eke out a living by painting portraits of local politicians, teachers and judges just to put food on the table. Located at the western edge of the Jewish Quarter, the house is a two storey structure with a rudimentary kitchen and period bedrooms. Except this wasn't El Greco's house at all but a 16 th century domicile purchased and refurbished a hundred years ago by a wealthy El Greco fan who mistakenly thought he was buying the painter's home. The plaque on the wall said it all. This is the kind of structure the painter would have lived in at the time, it said. No matter, it was nice to see his lesser works, and to get a sense of home life in medieval Spain.

Across the Rio Tajo

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Having washed away my big city tensions, I followed yet another cobblestone road to the city's old wall, originally Roman but rebuilt by the Visagoths and refortified by successive conquerors. I crossed the Rio Tajo at the beautiful Puente de Alcantara and from there it was a leisurely walk to Toledo's Mujedar train station. It was a popular route. Lots of other visitors were doing the same thing, no doubt reflecting, like me, on their quiet day in medieval Toledo.

If You Go

Ten high speed AVANT trains a day leave Madrid's Atoche station for Toledo and back. Fast and punctual, trains are a popular way to reach the city but Toledo is also accessible by car and bus. If travelling by car, be aware that parking is virtually impossible in old town and it's best to leave the vehicle outside the city walls. I didn't stay over -- it was a day trip -- but visitors planning an extended visit should log onto Toledo Tourism for details.

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John Thomson is a former television news and current affairs producer from Vancouver, British Columbia and a member of TMAC, the Travel Media Association of Canada. Thanks to the networks, h e has traveled extensively throughout North America . The rest of the world has been on his own dime. His Spanish stories are part of an ongoing series of international dispatches.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: May 14th, 2015

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