Discover Toledo, the "Holy Heart" of Spain by Victoria Ugarte

If you’re a bit of a history buff, then Toledo will not disappoint you. Every street, church, plaza and museum has a fascinating story to tell. As they say, if only the walls could speak.

The Romans singled Toledo out for strategic reasons, as it was situated at the centre of the Iberian Peninsula. By the 6th century, when the influence of the Roman Empire began to decline, the Visigoth, King Atanagild, found the opportunity to move his capital from Seville to this city and called it “Toletum”, making Toledo the centre of Catholicism. However, endless feuds between Visigoth nobles left the city vulnerable to attack by the Muslims, who easily conquered it after crossing the straits of Gibraltar in 711. Under the Moors, between the 8th and 11th centuries, Toledo was a paragon of peace and religious co-existence. The city grew, not only to become the most important city of central Muslim Spain, but also to become the centre of arts and learning.

In 1085, Alfonso VI marched into Toledo, thus turning it into the primary residence of choice for the Castilian monarchy, as well as the seat of the Catholic Church in Spain. When Granada fell to the Reyes Catolicos (Catholic Monarchs) in 1492, and the Inquisition was in full force, Spain’s Muslims and Jews either had to convert, or were tragically banished to other regions. In the 16th century, Carlos I considered making Toledo his capital, but his successor Felipe II moved the capital to Madrid. From then on, Toledo lost its relevance and went into decline.

In 1986, UNESCO recognized Toledo as a historic world treasure, and declared the city a world monument.

Where to stay:
If at all possible, spend at least a night in this historical city (we spent two). It isn’t possible to see all the sites in one day, especially if you’re not part of an organized tour group.  Stay at a hotel in the countryside, or right in the heart of the historical town in an “eccentric” old hostal, ‘built on ancient grounds’ - I ask you, isn’t everything in Toledo ancient?

If money is not a major consideration, then check out the luxurious “Palacio Eugenia de Montijo”. Located at the centre of Toledo, this marvelous Renaissance Palace was once home to the Empress Eugenia de Montijo. The hotel’s 39 rooms features hand-made carpets, embroidered bed linen, and works by prestigious Toledo painters.

We chose to stay at a small hostal called “Hostal Casa de Cisneros”, a restored 16th century house built on the site of an ancient 11th century Muslim Palace. The hostal, located at the centre of Toledo, is a stones throw from the Cathedral, which is the heart beat of Toledo. The hostal features 10 very charming rooms with en-suite bathrooms, air conditioning (a must in this town), TV and “e-mail service” (although the hostal advertised WiFi, none of the staff knew enough about it to help us out with the right codes). Still, at 96 euros a day with breakfast included, we were not complaining.

What and Where To Eat:
Toledo is famous for its roasts, meats and stews, particularly “perdiz” (partridge), roast lamb and suckling pig. You musn’t leave Toledo before trying “judias con perdiz”, an exquisite bean and partridge stew that is typical of the region.

Regarding restaurants, stay well away from anything along the main plazas, as they are tourist traps. The food is lousy and the locals wouldn’t eat there, so why should you? We asked the hostal to recommend us 2 great places to eat, as we only had 2 nights in Toledo, and we were not disappointed.

The first restaurant we dined at on our first night in Toledo was called La Abadia ( Situated in Plaza St. Nicolas, it was established on what was originally a 16th century palace. Their set Menu of the Day is reasonable at 11 euros, including bread and wine. However, we chose from their more expensive but extensive a la carte menu, featuring delicious and very typical dishes of the region. The service was friendly and efficient. We were not disappointed.

The second “restaurant” we went to on our last night in Toledo was a gem called “Bar Ludena”, a tiny and unbelievable “hole-in-the-wall” of a bar that served the most scrumptious tapas. We were warned by the hostal staff to go early, as it was very popular, and it got full very quickly. We were told that there were only 4 outside tables, and to grab them if we could manage it. We managed to do this as we arrived at the bar at the un-godly hour for most Spaniards of 6:30 (only the tourists eat at that hour in Spain!!). The bar was still closed, but that didn’t stop us from laying claim to our table at the courtyard. And did our planning pay off. When it finally opened, we were comfortably settled at our table as the locals fought for space at the bar. We asked the waiter, a young, athletic Toledano in his 20’s, to just just bring us a selection of typical tapas and delicacies of the region with a good local Red, and he was only too happy to comply. We were so impressed with the food that we ordered a selection of hot tapas as our dinner. We came out of there feeling as if we had struck gold.

What to see:
  • Toledo is like an open-air museum filled with mosques, synagogues, churches and museums. Don’t miss:
  • Alcazar – this castle is one of Toledo’s emblematic monuments.
  • Cathedral of Toledo – An impressive Gothic building founded in the 1st century by San Eugenio.
  • Monastery of San Juan de los reyes – 15th century monastery
  • Monastery Cisterciense de Santo Domingo de Silos – 16th century monastery
  • Puerta Bisagra – The main entrance of the old city of Toledo.
  • Sinagogue El Transito – 13th century synagogue with a museum which describes the history of the Jewish population in Toledo.
  • Taller del Moro- Built in the 14th century by the Jews, this was converted into a church when they were expelled.
  • Museum of El Greco – The famous Spanish painter, El Greco, lived in this house.
  • Museum of Santa Cruz -16th century building that used to be a hospital.
  • Museum Parroquia de Santo Tome – This museum is where El Greco’s most famous painting, the Count of Orgaz is exhibited.
Fiestas in Toledo:
We were advised by Spanish relatives not to visit Toledo on the weekends, as it was over run by tourists and became extremely crowded. But no one warned us about being in Toledo during their most famous festival outside Easter, the Corpus Christi celebrations. And there we were in May of this year, smack-bang in the middle of it…. The street parades were colourful and interesting, but fighting the crowds along those narrow, cobblestone streets was not, nor was the concert held just outside the main Cathedral (and around the corner from our hostal) on our last night that started at eleven and went right through until 5 o’clock the following morning. We arose that morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted from lack of sleep, and never were we happier to escape this historic town, back to the hustle and bustle of Madrid.

What to Buy:
Toledo does have a glut of souvenir shops, spread around its claustrophobic streets. However, certain things are well worth buying there. This city forged a reputation through the years of creating the finest steel blades in Europe.  Some areas of Toledo are also famous for producing high quality pottery (although our luggage restrictions stopped us from buying any!!). Other products include lace and embroidered materials --- this is the place to look for those exquisite Spanish mantillas in silk, with embroidered floral designs on the body and long fringeing along the edges. The mantillas are easy to pack, do not weigh much, and are a beautiful reminder of your trip (not to mention how stunning they look over your shoulders!).

Avoid traveling to Toledo in the Summer (extremely hot) and the Winter (very cold).

How to get there:
Only 70 kilometres South of Madrid, Toledo is no more than 1 hour by bus or half an hour by high speed train. We chose to “bus it” so as to savour the “Castille - La Mancha” landscape a little more. And although most guidebooks indicate a bus which takes you straight to the city centre from the bus terminal or train station, we wasted no time in hailing a taxi. And are we glad we did!! Toledo is a virtual labyrinth of plazas, narrow, winding streets and dead-ends that only the locals can navigate. Our taxi was able to drop us virtually at our hotel door, which saved us from having to struggle with our luggage wheels over those hazardous cobblestones.

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