City of three cultures
Toledo, the old capital of Spain, was at the confluence of many cultures that influenced its growth as a unique heritage town
Ranjita Biswas

Toledo's different periods are reflected in the varied styles of the Alcazar (royal palace for the Moors), churches, synagogues and buildings
Toledo's different periods are reflected in the varied styles of the Alcazar (royal palace for the Moors), churches, synagogues and buildings Photo by the writer

Toledo — the name brings images of a place steeped in romance and history. The first glimpse of the old city across River Tagus did not disappoint. Bright sunlight washed over its contours adding to its mystery and charm. This was the city the great artist El Greco, the Greek, as locals called him, loved inspiring him to create some of his best works.

Situated at about 70 km south to Madrid, Toledo was the old capital of Spain. In 1561, the capital was shifted to Madrid when King Philip II, suffering from gout, wanted to go somewhere less arid.

Arid it is. After all, this is Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ land with the red, dry earth of the Meseta plateau rolling away to the distant hills. The place itself spans the history of Spain. Its different periods dominated by different kingdoms are reflected in the varied styles of the Alcazar (royal palace for the Moors), churches, synagogues and buildings.

For its historical value, the whole fortified city is listed as a Unesco heritage site. New constructions in the old city limits is prohibited. So when you stroll on the wide courtyards, or saunter down the narrow cobbled streets shadowed by tall medieval buildings, it seems as if you are walking into a set of a film with a storyline positioned in medieval times.

The awe deepens as you enter the ancient city through Puerta de Bisagra, the main entree gate with its coat of arms of Charles V depicting a two-headed eagle.

Toledo was once the confluence of Jewish, Arab and Christian people. This is why it is often called "The City of Three Cultures."

The Moors from Morocco on the tip of northern Africa invaded Spain in the 8th century and reigned for almost four hundred years. These various influences had enriched the capital, and as a commercial centre, too, Toledo had prospered. Toledo’s Jewish heritage can be traced today only in a few synagogues like the serene Santa Maria la Blanca (Saint Mary the White) with its pillars beautifully decorated with complex geometrical medallions.

Its great cathedral, which still remains the primate cathedral of Spain, marks the beginning of Gothic style in Spain, and is ranked as one of the greatest Gothic structures in the world. However, different architectural styles exist side by side as it was built over more than 250 years beginning at 1226. It harbours glorious murals, stained-glass windows and works by El Greco, Velazquez and Goya. The richly embellished wooden choir is astounding, to say the least. Then there is El Transparente signifying the ingenuity of 18th century sculptor Narciso Tome; he cut a skylight on the dome to bring light to the dark corner and draw attention to the magnificent marble and alabaster baroque wall with Christ and angels, a move which once brought bitter criticism. But as you look at the shaft of light illuminating the intricate work you realise that being rebellious – be it artists, painters or sculptors, through the ages have introduced new thoughts and creativity in the world and generations in posterity have enjoyed the fruit of their daring.

The Alcazar (palace, as the Moors called it) is not only imposing and cornucopia of love stories, intrigues and tragedies but also a symbol of tenacity as it went through many disasters; Napoleon burnt it, and then it went through a 70-day siege during the Spanish Civil war that almost destroyed it. Today, it has been restored into an army museum.

The famed tiles of Spain are actually not Spanish but of Moorish origin. The combination of Christian and Islamic art fused into what is known as Mudejar art, beautifully in view on the ceilings of the Alcazar. Though the art of tapestry has been known from Egyptian times, during the medieval period it reached its peak and tapestry artists were much esteemed. Great swathes of tapestry telling stories of kings and battles decorate the walls of the palace in Toledo.

The Moors also introduced many Arabian medicines in the country. Damascene is another Moorish art — inlaying gold or silver threads against black steel backdrop, quite like Hyderabadi bidri work but looks much more gorgeous. Toledo’s swords are reminders of days when swords and sabres played a major role in battles. Walking around shopping for mementoes and artefacts, people often drop into confectioneries which sell the famous Toledo marzipan, originally made by nuns of a monastery.

Though day tours from Madrid are more popular staying overnight gives more scope to soak in the atmosphere of this beauteous city that seems to stand still in a time long past.

Fact file

How to get there: From Madrid’s main bus depot, tourist buses (mention English-speaking guide requirement) leave from the morning at half hour intervals to return in the afternoon. Tours can be booked at the hotel itself and pick –ups are arranged. There are also super fast trains from Madrid’s Atocha railway station.

Where to stay: If staying overnight budget hotels to star hotels are available. One of the most beautiful is "La Hacienda del Cardenal" right on the Arabic city wall and now a heritage site.

What to do: Visit the Cathedral, the Alcazar and walk around the walled city to get a taste of history.

What to buy: Mudejar art tiles, Damascene artefacts, local jewellery, marzipans and other local confectionery.