The better Toledo.

I hadn’t planned to visit Toledo when I arrived in Spain.

That’s mostly because I didn’t know where it was. Turns out, Toledo is super close to Madrid. As in: a half-hour ride by train. This came as awesome news to me! And it left me full of questions:

  • What’s in Toledo?
  • Is it a nice city?
  • Was it important?
  • What should I do when I’m there?
  • Is it worth going?

Basically, what all this should tell you is that I am profoundly ignorant of a lot of things in this amazing and beautiful country I’ve come to visit. My closest association with Toledo has been with it’s namesake in Ohio, a city about forty minutes south of my home town in Michigan, and the chief point of conflict during the Toledo War of 1835—proof that Michigan’s feud with Ohio has roots far deeper than football.

With a population of not quite 300,000, Toledo, Ohio is a reasonably sized midwestern town, good for its minor league baseball team and the occasional roaming Broadway performance. Somehow I expected its Spanish namesake to be much larger, but in reality, Spanish Toledo‘s historical consequence is far greater than it’s size might suggest. With a population wavering at the 84,000 mark, it feels almost diminutive. But oh boy, does it pack one heck of a historical wallop.

In short, it’s played host to a succession of rulers, from the Romans, to the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. That makes the art and culture of the place a fascinating blend of Arabic and European, which—I am coming to realize—is somewhat characteristic of Spain more broadly.

This became readily apparent almost as soon as I stepped off the train. The moment I walked into the station, I (and half the other passengers) paused to gawk at the stunning distinctive arches and stunning tile work on display.

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Inside the Toledo train station.

Only, to be honest, it wasn’t actually on display. It was just there. Casually hanging out like it was no big deal. Honestly, Toledo: way to make a first impression.

Being, as usual, unprepared, I hadn’t made any particular plan for getting in to the city. Would I have to take a bus? Could I walk? I checked Google Maps, and the answer was yes: I could walk. I headed off in the appropriate direction, and a few hundred feet down the road the city came into view.

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Why yes, that is a city I would like to go explore, thanks.

This is one of the few moments where I’ve looked at a city and thought: Oh yeah, I see why this would be of such great strategic importance. Not that I’m an ancient military commander by any means, but the whole thing is built on a big rock with a river making a natural moat around a decent chunk of it. Add in those walls you see and some fortified gates and bridges, and I’d definitely want this to be my medieval stronghold.

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The Puente de Alcántara, the Roman bridge leading into the city.

I should also add that the moment I looked at the map on my phone, I knew this would be the place for me. Just check out those streets:

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A map of the old part of the city, looking like the cross-section of a brain.

Hardly a straight line among them! You could get so lost in there! And all built on a giant freaking rock promising all the ups and downs and twists and turns? YES PLEASE.

Again, actually being in the city did not disappoint:

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A narrow street in the more tourist-friendly part of town, a spire of the cathedral rising ahead.
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Well lost at this point, my strategy basically being: Ooh! This street looks promising!

I had a few things I definitely wanted to see, but as I’d arrived late I knew I probably wouldn’t make it to all of them. I decided to head first to the Cathedral, as I understood it was not only an incredible piece of architecture but also housed a small-but-impressive museum with some more El Greco, and a Goya, and super famous and also gigantic monstrance.

I spent way longer inside than I’d intended, and because I’d rushed straight there I was feeling nearly faint from hunger. And then, by the time I’d finished eating, most of the other places I’d wanted to visit were closed. Most importantly, the Alcázar.

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The Alcázar, the fortress which made Toledo such a strategic key.

Apparently, this has been a major fortress for years, and unlike some of the other castles I’ve visited, was actually used as such. It played a significant military role as recently as the Spanish Civil War, and I hear there are places where you can still find bullet holes in the walls from that conflict. Today, it houses a museum, crypt, and documentary room.

By this point I was also too late to visit the El Greco house, so instead I wandered around the city looking at the tourist shops. Most of the time, this isn’t of particular interest to me, but it turns out that souvenirs in Toledo are actually incredible, and may even be worth more than sentiment.

Toledo is famous for its steelwork, which wouldn’t sound like glamorous souvenir material until you see what they make of it:

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Toledo is famous for its gold and steel. These decorative plates are made by hand, with the drawings inlaid in gold and the steel blackened afterward.
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More examples of Toledo’s signature souvenir.

The black and gold form a truly stunning combination, as does the mixture of European and Arabic influence in the design. And these don’t come cheap: unlike what you find elsewhere, these are the kind of souvenirs that you might want to actually use.

Most of the rest of my time I spent wandering the city, taking pictures and admiring the views. One thing I appreciated about my sojourn from Madrid was getting a chance to see a bit of the Spanish countryside. I’d seen pictures, but part of me always feels pictures are portraying the most stereotypical features, and that the reality will be quite different.

In this instance, although pictures I’d seen showed the country to be fairly sparse and rugged, I’d yet expected there to be more trees and foliage. Instead, I was surprised by how much scrubs and bushes dominated the landscape.

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The Río Tajo, which encircles a good two thirds of the city. This is about as lush as the land ever looks.
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Looking out over the rugged, sparse countryside.
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More rock, crowned by the Academia de Infantería, which I don’t think is actually meant for tourists.

In short, Toledo delighted me at every turn. And since I missed some of the key sights, I’ll have to make a return trip some other day.

I’m already looking forward to it.

2 Replies to “The better Toledo.”

  1. The Hit is a 1980s kidnapping roadtrip crime drama that takes place in Spain. I was surprised by how sparse the countryside was in the film; I don’t think I entirely believed that’s actually how it was.

    Liked by 1 person

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