Toledo: City of the Three Cultures

This is the travel account for my Toledo trip. Scroll down for tens of photos, and click any to enlarge it.

City of the Three Cultures?
It’s easy to understand why Toledo brands itself as ‘City of the Three Cultures’. A walk around the compact yet fantastic UNESCO World Heritage historic center would offer the visitor the chance to enter churches, synagogues and mosques, symbols of the three Abrahamic religions whose followers once lived together in peace for centuries before the infamous Inquisition Courts brought this utopian image to a horrific end.

‘Three Cultures’ apart, the city has much more to brag about, and it goes a long way back. Once the capital of the Visigoths, Toledo eventually fell to Muslims, becoming the ‘Pearl of al-Andalus’. In the XI century it became the seat of an important taifa and a centre of cultural refinement compared only to Seville (Cordoba was already eclipsed following the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate). Alfonso VI took the city peacefully in 1085 in what marked a major turning point for the Iberian Peninsula, and a breakthrough for the Reconquista. The fact that the city fell peacefully is very relevant: lives were spared, and the city’s buildings remained intact.

Under the Christian rule, a very sophisticated society further enriched the city’s cultural fabric, enjoying relative peace and a cultural renaissance best exemplified by the Toledo School of Translators, founded and sponsored by Alfonso X El Sabio (the Wise) in the XIII century. This School only culminated the efforts started earlier in the XII century by the Cathedral through the works of such prominent figures as Gerardo de Carmona, Miguel Escoto and others.

Back to the society, a more thorough examination of its medieval cultural mosaic would reveal that the term ‘City of the Three Cultures’ is nothing but an oversimplified ‘packaging’ understandably –and successfully- tailored to cultural tourism (and to self-esteem). Take for example the Christians of medieval Toledo: Mozarabs (Arabized Christians), Castellans and Franks are all grouped under the umbrella term of ‘Christians’ in this title, even though they were very different groups culturally. The Mozarabs practice the Visigothic Rite rather than the Roman Rite, and there is a functioning Mozarabic Chapel inside the Toledo Cathedral till our present day. But that doesn’t seem to matter much to the day trippers that come for some nice time with a bunch of quality monuments attached. In fact, the city offers much more to the curious and the passionate.

Toledo’s self-proclaimed tolerance is evidently undermined by the extent to which odious figures, like that of Cardinal Cisneros (Grand Inquisitor of the XV-XVI c.), remain to be celebrated and venerated. Actually, the name and blazon of Cisneros are all over the place, and his blood red hat still hovers in the Cathedral, hanging from the ceiling. But let’s switch to the pleasant part because the city is a true gem.

Luxury Heritage
First there are the obvious attractions: the overwhelming Cathedral (one of the three most important gothic cathedrals in Spain), the Alcázar (housing the Military Museum), the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (with its cheerful cloister and its superb artesonado ceiling), the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca (with its horseshoe arches and its unmistakably Mudejar style), the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz (with its original cupolas and elegantly compact façade), the Hospital of Tavera (with its Renaissance courtyard), the walls and the gates (specially Puerta del Sol and the Bisagra Gate) and the old bridges (like Alcántara and San Martín). First class museums are not lacking, with Santa Cruz, El Greco Museum and the Museum of Sefarad (Jewish History) offering real treats.

Toledo’s charm, nevertheless, hides inside less picturesque monuments. The Visigothic column inside the Church of El Salvador is a perfect example, coupled with the recycled stones encrusted into the minaret/tower of the same church (once a mosque). Another ‘hybrid façade’ can be admired in the Mozarabic Parish of Santa Justa, where a plaque with verses from the Quran and part of a horseshoe arch betray the original function of the convent. Inside the Convent of Santa Úrsula, one can not only see the nuns as they pray through a curtain, but also admire a retable by Berrugete, namely ‘The Visitation’. But just to walk into the patio of a Toledan house or hotel is to stand the chance of coming face to face with parts of a Roman arch, a Jewish house or an Arab aljibe (well). Such is the case in the hotel of Casa de Cisneros where I stayed. Highly recommended by the way!

Plaza de Zocodover is a pleasant place to hang around at night, and would have been even nicer if it was not for its dark history (again the Inquisition Courts, in addition to bullfights). What was once the old Arab Cattle Market (Souq al-Dawab, and hence ‘Zocodover’). The labyrinthine Jewish Quarter is a quieter and more interesting neighbourhood, but the best is yet to come. Hanging around the city’s bars and restaurants, one can sample typical dishes like stewed partridge, deer meat and carcamusa, but the star attraction remains to be the legendary Toledan marzipan, whose recipe was introduced by the Arabs of al-Andalus.

The towers of the otherwise aesthetically insignificant Church of San Ildefonso offer one of the best panoramic views of the city, while the XIV century Church of Santo Tomé is home to one of El Greco’s most treasured masterpieces: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The painting features the artist and his son, as well as Cervantes, who staged some of his Don Quixote’s adventures in Toledo.

Back to El Greco, one cannot simply ignore his legacy or limit it to a paragraph, especially on the El Greco Year (2014 marks his 400h anniversary, celebrated in Toledo and other Spanish cities).

El Greco’s Toledo
The most unforgettable moments in Toledo are not the ones you spend inside any of the city’s monuments or around any of its plazas, but rather the sensation you experience as you contemplate the hilltop old city from a mirador (viewing point) across the River Tagus (El Tajo). The splendor of Narciso Tomé’s Baroque alterpiece and Luca Giordano’s ceiling painting at the Cathedral…the works of Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio that adorn different monuments and museums…they all seem to recede against the graceful cityscape of the Toledo, once called ‘Jerusalem of the West’.

Mesmerized by the grace of the city which seems as if embraced by the river, one can only think of El Greco. It was probably at this very same spot where I stand now that he produced a painting that would immortalize the city: View and Plan of Toledo.

During my stay in Toledo, I followed the footsteps of the artist through a number of exceptional monuments and museums, an extraordinary itinerary designed to celebrate his anniversary and showcase his legacy. From his museum and all the way to his resting place at the Convent of Santo Domingo, I was only a sigh away from such breathtaking masterpieces as The Tears of Saint Peter (El Greco Museum), the Disrobing of Christ (at the Cathedral), the Baptism of Christ (at Hospital de Tavera), to the end of the long list.

You can read more about El Greco in another article that I posted earlier: https://camel76.wordpress.com/2014/04/09/2014-the-year-of-el-greco/

I left Toledo with a heavy heart. It’s easily one of the most charming cities in Spain; a glimpse of an age gone by and a symbol of what was once an exemplary coexistence.

2 thoughts on “Toledo: City of the Three Cultures

  1. Hello there. I used to attend book discussion with Pen Temple Pilots a loooong time ago before I left Egypt. I came back home about a year ago and find that the cultural and art scene changed drastically which made it kind of hard for me to get back into the swing of things. Are you still around? what kind of activities are still taking place?

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