In the small, winding alleys of Toledo, all the tourists are clutching a folded or flapping sheet of paper in their hand: It is the free map available in the numerous tourist offices around. Even with frequent consultation of the map we walk in the wrong direction several times, but getting lost is part of the charm when visiting the Spanish town of Toledo, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986.
Origina lly a Roman settlement and then seat of the Visigothic kings, Toledo became the capital of Christian Spain after being reconquered from the Caliphate of Cordoba in 1085. At that time, it was a very liberal multicultural city of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions. This was where the scientific advancements of the Arab world were translated into Latin and made available for then-backward Europeans (at least until the Catholics put an end to such liberalism and scientific exchange again in 1492). In the 16th century El Greco settled here and left the town dozens of his colourful dramatic paintings.
The alley swings a little to the left, forks, rises up, and then ends in a square. Wasn’t it supposed to lead straight to the cathedral? Toledo is too old to have any straight lanes at all, and too big to get to know their twisted layout in a two-day visit. Another look at the tourist map, another zigzag, and we finally arrive in front of the Gothic cathedral which is square and fat, built to cover the whole area where the Friday mosque once stood. Its interior layout is almost as confusing as that of the town itself, and just as much to see.
The sweet legacy
But Toledo is not only famous for El Greco and its cathedral, but also for swords (doesn’t interest us at this moment) and for marzipan! Both are a legacy of the Arab rule 712-1085. Every shop that doesn’t sell exclusively swords, or whole Iberian hams (slightly scary for vegetarians like us) offers marzipan in commemorative bars or in a variety of small confections. Several churches and monasteries have their own manufacture. We buy some almond marzipan balls from San Clemente monastery, allegedly in the sweets business since 1212. And after eating some of them we have energy again for more sightseeing.
Reasons to visit Toledo
Toledo is an incredibly atmospheric mediaeval town with cobbled alleys and city walls. Take a walk (or go by bus) on the other side of the river to get a superb panoramic view.
The cathedral is definitely worth visiting, as is the Museo El Greco. There are numerous other museums and edifices to keep you busy. And marzipan to keep you going.
How to get to Toledo by public Transport (from Madrid)
Alsa Buses for Toledo leave Madrid rather regularly (once or twice an hour) from the bus station at Plaza Eliptica and take a little less than one hour (www.alsa.es). They stop quite close to the old town in Toledo. The visit is possible as a day trip but for the atmosphere it is nicer to have a night in Toledo.