Toledo’s most famous resident is a fictional one. Just 70 kilometres or half an hour by immaculate fast train from Madrid’s Atocha Station, Toledo is a magnificent historic city known for many things, but perhaps most of all for Cervantes’ anti-hero Don Quixote. So take a walk with me through this ancient urban landscape and meet the ‘Man from La Mancha’.
Toledo is the capital of the Castile-La Mancha region and to get there the train passes through brown fields of stubble and low hills. A dry, seemingly monochromatic landscape through which Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza travelled in the novel. But olive groves add a dusty grey green against silver soil. White, flat-roofed farmhouses hug the ground. Ploughed fields glitter and there is the gold of ripe maize.
Sitting on its granite hill, Toledo has visible evidence of the Roman, Moorish and Spanish empires so it is no wonder Unesco bestowed World Heritage Site status on the walled city in 1986. The massive cathedral and fortress are testament to the power of medieval Spain.
The facades of Toledo’s buildings are in many shades of terracotta that become a single, sun-baked tan as the heat of the day progresses. The sort of colour that absorbs the sun and throws it back at you if you make the mistake of venturing out into an unshaded plaza in the middle of the day.
The buildings are decorated with wrought iron from different eras and in the Paseo San Cristobal the trees shade peaceful views of variegated tile roofs. Don Quixote is an influential member of the Western literary canon and many describe it as the first modern novel.
In the church of Sao Tome is a magnificent gold altar and the famous El Greco painting of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, dealing with a miracle that took place here. El Greco lived in Toledo for many years and I love his unique sense of contrast and drama.
The painter himself is staring out at you from a corner as an angel carries a soul heaven-ward with great care into heaven. The effect of the exquisite ironwork chandeliers is somewhat diminished by the eco light bulbs but I have to approve of that.
Of course the other thing Toledo is famous for is weaponry, armour and swords made from the famous Toledo steel. I know that thanks to Inego Montoya from The Princess Bride. Even if you didn’t know, you’d soon figure it out from the many suits of armour and sword shops in the town. Toledo steel and sword-making was valued by Hannibal and the Romans.
I love to get to the high point of a town and the Jesuit church offers views from the top of its two towers (Euro 2.50). Toledo was long a centre of Jewish culture in the Middle Ages. They lived here for centuries alongside Muslims and Christians until the Visigoths put paid to that episode of cross-cultural harmony.
The old synagogue is covered with exquisite carving and houses a museum displaying lots of artefacts and information about Jewish life in Toledo (and the migration after the Inquisition) but all in Spanish.
I was walking through a narrow street, the sun warm on the back of my legs when I heard an ineffably sad melody. Around the corner a gruesomely crucified Christ in a bed of roses was born on the shoulders of robed priests fingering rosaries. Beside the steady marchers boys twirling giant flags followed and little girls in their best dresses.
Multiple church bells crashed as the procession arrived at the Convent San Antonio, along with the overpowering smell of incense. Finally the grandmas in black dresses and pearls carrying carnations, and then a priest in medieval-looking robes chatting on his mobile phone.
Toledo went into decline after 1561 when the Spanish king moved his court to Madrid but it is certainly making the most of its good looks to entertain the tourists. And perhaps the influence of Toledo is still worth something in Spain. Next time I visit I’ll head out into the La Mancha countryside to see the windmills at which Don Quixote tilted.
By Natasha von Geldern
It’s easy to get to Toledo from Madrid. I booked my ticket online at renfe.es then there was a shuttle from Toledo station into the historic centre. There’s also a panoramic tour bus that runs from outside the station should you be so inclined.