Toledo, Spain ~ Of Medieval architecture, narrow streets and birdlife

We fly from Israel to Madrid to take the train to discover Toledo, (where we have a home exchange secured) reputed to be a jewel of Medieval architecture.  
Aerial view – coming into Madrid

Toledo distinguishes itself by its multi-cultural roots.

Just as Fort Galle, Sri Lanka, came across as a rare case of Muslim/Christian peaceful co-habitation, so does Toledo turn out to have been built on three cultures: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  We arrive in Toledo a few days before Hannukah, and the city boasts of its Jewish heritage with street decorations and an upcoming Music and light street fest.  The importance of Toledo during the Christian Crusades is reinforced by several of its museums and the role of Islam is clear through multiple architectural gems left behind by the Moors, whose empire had stretched from North Africa into Spain, north of Madrid.

Several bridges link the old town of Toledo to its surrounding towns

We arrive at night, met by our home exchange host.  He takes us through the narrow street maze and we arrive at a charming small apartment that is literally steps away from the magnificent Toledo cathedral.
 Every day, we walk by the Cathedral. Every walk and every minute change in the micro-climate which yields a different backdrop for the cathedral…  From crisp bright blue, to hazy grey when the clouds that ring the city in early morning haven’t risen yet…
The town of Toledo is a veritable maze.  When we step out of our apartment, the city seems to geometrically realign.  We get lost every day.   Cafes we spotted or had a tea at yesterday are suddenly “gone.”
The walls on either side of narrow streets are high, and therefore light is limited, and warmth, well, rare, unless the sun is positioned JUST right… so we let ourselves be guided by patches of sun…
Pausing during the steep climb back up that we do every day after our  visit to the river.
Beautiful “plazas” dot the town, but hard to be found again, except by inexplicable chance…
A sliver of sunshine is something one learns to appreciate in Toledo.
If the sun pierces through the narrow street – grab it! We are definitely not used to the cold after 7 years in tropical climate.
Following the blue sky and sun toward the green belt around the river

All this walking around the medieval townis grand,  but we are also eager to discover what nature avails itself within walking distance.  We are thrilled to discover a vibrant ecosystem of plants and birds all around the Toledo architectural gem.

The sounds of nature abound. The air is fresh.  The grandeur of Toledo the town is matched by the beauty of Toledo’s environment.
The town of Toledo is perched on a peak… below, a river winds itself around the base, creating almost an island… A perfect destination for nature walks… There is a “green trail” which goes around the river, around the city.
On the “Green trail” which is alongside the river. Under one of the main entrance bridges.

Ducks are the tamer species that inhabit these parts.  On daily walks by the river, we see  large groups of cormoran-like black birds, and HUGE quantities of wild pigeons that dart in and out of tiny crevasses in the vertical stone cliffs.
Picnic in nature – always a favourite with us!
But if picnicking by the river, a girl’s gotta share her bounty!
These beautifully adorned mallards are sentient beings.  They feel pain, fear, loss of kin, happiness, hunger etc.
Will Peta’s emotive series of paintings “Stray Dogs of Nicaragua”  give way to the “Wild Ducks of Toledo”?
Getting all our ducks in a row!
After reading up on the fact that ducks are sentient animals (of course), Ben relents: there will be an attempt on a moratorium on duck eating! (sorry Adam!)
And off they go…
The perfect spot between the bullrushes – no wind, lots of sun and a cliff home to hundreds of birds which occasionally fly out of their hideaways en masse into the space in front of us.  What a sight! what a site!
We come back daily – combining the architecture of Toledo with infusion of nature

The steep walk up and down from the town’s highest point, where we live, to the green eco-path along the river, is lined with imposing 3 or 4 floor stone buildings.  Guarding the entries are imposing and impressive large wooden doors.

Yes, it’s “been done”.  The doors of Provence, of Venice, of Granada… such a common theme.  And yet, it is impossible to resist capturing just a few of the many, many gorgeous doors that line the narrow streets, opening into grand courtyards.  Some of our favourite doors:

Being such a historically important town, Toledo boasts an impressive collection of museums.  As is our style, we don’t aim to cover all, but rather step in as we encounter museums along our paths…  Here are a few noteworthy peeks into Toledo’s history…

Toledo was an important military posts in what is now the region of Castilla – La Mancha (the birthplace of Spanish Literature’s perhaps best known books, published in 1600 by Cervantes, about the adventures of Don Quixote and his exploits to demonstrate chivalry).  As a result of its extraordinary geography, perched on a peak, encircled by a natural moat, the town of Toledo has always played a key role in the back and forth of military history.

Toledo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage and historical co-existence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures.  In 1085, the city fell from Moor control to Alfonso VI of Castille, as the first major city of the Christian Reconquista, a military campaign designed to push back the Moors, who had extended their emprire from North Africa well into Spain.

Long before the Moors, who invaded Spain from Africa in the year 711 AD, and who ruled over Spain for over 800 years (!!), and long before the Crusades (between 1096 and 1155), which sent young European Christian men into battle in the far off lands of the Near East to reclaim Jerusalem from muslims, Spain experienced conquests from Visigoths.  Who? Visigoths where Germanic nomadic troops who spread out across Europe conquering all on their paths.

One museum depicts the advances of Visigoths around 400 AD through Spain.  It is the building itself, excavated only in the 19th Century, that we enjoy – it offers perfectly preserved mosaics and frescoed wall murals.

Note the graceful arches with painted figures under the curves.
Angel and flying mythical creature grace a wall
We continue our strolls through town in the direction of the Toledo Synagogue.  No longer used by a nearly inexistant Jewish community, the Synagogue was once thriving part of the Jewish community.  Spanish Jews once constituted one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities under Muslim and Christian rule, before they, together with resident Muslims, were forced to convert to Catholicism, be expelled, or be killed when Spain became united under Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
But long before that, under the Visigoths’ rule of Spain – “conquering Barbarians” as Visigoths were called, Jews experienced multiple rounds of attempts at extermination.  The Visigoth rule from 500 to 711 AD (until successful invasion by the Moors), became fixated on the “Jewish problem” and multiple attempts were orchestrated to bring Jews into the Catholic faith.  In 653, the Council of Toledo tackled the issue of Jews within the realm. Further measures at this time included the forbidding of all Jewish rites (including circumcision  and the observation of the Shabbat), and all converted Jews had to promise to put to death, either by burning or by stoning, any of their brethren known to have relapsed to Judaism.
The synagogue of Toledo: no longer in use – the rows of arches are impressive.

We visit the Military Museum that is housed in the Alcazar, the Toledo fortress.  Today, Toledo is still famous for its swords and knife-making traditions.

Many store windows of swords and shields – replicas of swords used during the Crusades
Numerous stores sell kitchen and hunting knives
A beautiful collection of antique guns and rifles is worth noting
Rooms of antique armor.  Steel plated clothing for the militarily inclined.  Even horses had their own steel armor.
Painting of military clashes between Christians and the Moors
There are many paths back up the (arduous climb up the) hill.  One path leads to this attractive roof top view.

We would be remiss to not address the curiosity of our foodie readers.  So what about gastronomy in Toledo?

Bottom line: it’s about the pig – sausages, saucisson, raw and cured ham… Vegetarians beware – this town will either reinforce or challenge your commitment to vegetarianism. One is unlikely to remain neutral on the topic of pork in Toledo. Luckily there is a market with greens and fruit and as well small cafes which have salads and some other local specialties.

The size of “legs” from which thin slices of raw ham are cut super thin, is disconcerting.  But then, we see the photograph of the pigs… no wonder, these are almost the size of small cows!
Simplest expression of a Toledo “snack” – fresh bread + cured ham: what else could one ask for?
This peculiar “cauliflower” catches our eye at the market.  It is an almost sweet variant on standard white cauliflower. Delicious!

As is sometimes the case with home-exchanges, we develop a “what would life be like if we lived here” routine —  waking up, searching for yesterday’s perfect cafe that no longer is there, because we must have turned down the wrong street, making our way through the gorgeous narrow streets down to the river… feeding the ducks, feeding ourselves with improvised picnics, and back up the steep hills for more discovery of the town.  Inevitably, the clouds envelope Toledo once more and we return back to our cosy abode, awaiting the next ray of sunshine.

We are both really enjoying speaking Spanish again…  Even though the accent is of course different from our Nicaraguan Spanish, it is great fun to be be back in a Spanish speaking country.   The comfort from the language makes it feel like “home”…

7 thoughts on “Toledo, Spain ~ Of Medieval architecture, narrow streets and birdlife

  1. halperart

    Another fascinating post Peta! I love the history lessons and am excited to know a bit about Toldeo, a city I had heard of but about which I knew very little. Looks beautiful. Will have to add it to my wishlist.

    1. Peta Kaplan and Ben Sandzer-Bell

      Thanks! Ben had a whole lot more history in there, which got abbreviated (i.e. abbreviating a 2000 year history into a couple of paragraphs is an interesting challenge). What is most fascinating about Toledo is the central role it has played throughout the years as a military stronghold. While tiny, it is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Rightfully so.

    1. Peta Kaplan and Ben Sandzer-Bell

      Hate to disappoint you. We tried the marzipan a few times but didn’t make an impression on us. Yes Toledo is famous for its marzipan, but it was not a hit. (Maybe this is because we just came in from Turkey and Israel, both of which had insanely delicious honey-based baklava, and the marzipan just didn’t measure up!) The sandwiches with raw ham on the other hand, now THAT”s something to write home about!

  2. Brook Skillman

    If I could get lost in any concrete jungle, it would be this one. Beautiful. The pigs? Well, I am now 120% vegetarian… You look cold Peta!

    1. Petaneb Post author

      Yup, at least this stone “jungle” is surrounded by green hills, river and abundant birds!
      Ham is a predominant food in Spain. Careful searching yields green salads in markets and on less traditional menus thankfully.
      Very cold for us after years in Nicargua’s tropical climate, followed by Asian tropical heat!

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