The cultures that have passed through Spain have left some of their traditions in Toledo, turning any visit to the city into an authentic walk through the history of the country. Architecture, gastronomy and art in Toledo all have a multicultural character, with the nobility and tranquillity of the interior of the peninsula.
TOLEDO is situated seventy kilometres from Madrid and is perfect for a weekend away or an escape for a day, although the monumental power of the city well deserves a longer stay. For anyone who is not convinced, the city of Toledo was declared a UNESCO world heritage site because of its impressive representations of Mudéjar architecture, which combine Muslim aesthetics with Christian practices. UNESCO also emphasises its location on a granite crag and the diverse landscape of its environment, includng the river Tajo. Finally, it is a city that represents three of the main cultures that lived in Spain; Jews, Muslims and Christians. Overall, it is considered that Toledo’s patrimony should be conserved.
In the surrounding landscape of Toledo they emphasise the great 16th-century Fortress, in a Renaissance style and the Gothic Cathedral, which was completed in the 15th century. The city, therefore, guides the visitor through every known period of civilisation in the Iberian peninsula all within the same environment.
To take advantage of your stay to the maximum, several activities can be planned – the majority of them free – organised by the Consortium of Toledo. There are twelve areas to visit that summarise the city; from the Caves of Hercules, which supply water to the city, to the tower of San Andrés, which constitutes its ceiling. Reservations for this visit can be made online at www.consorciotoledo.com.
The City Hall also organises visits to the main gates and wall of Toledo, as it is interesting to see the outer location and shape of the city. The gates of Toledo city have an extensive history, including the manner in which the kings and nobles were received, and how the gates were normally closed to other visitors.
Food of Kings
With two millennia of history you might expect that Toledo has an extensive gastronomic culture, and that it is worth tasting some of the typical dishes. Partridges, a significant dish in all three cultures, are the basic dish of a succulent meal, deriving from the inland zones. The partridge is pickled for consumption, to conserve its delicate flavour, and goes well with a traditional gazpacho, also extremely delicately flavoured.
The wine of La Mancha is also one of the most renowned in the country, and Toledo is also the city of marzipan. This is an Arabian product that has been maintained throughout the history of Spanish gastronomy and consumed all year but particularly at Christmas. This confectionery is made from almonds and sugar and takes the form of small animal shapes. Giving Toledo marzipan as a gift is quite traditional, especially since they make an ideal treat for the traveller – light, small and easy to transport, not needing refrigeration and not easily damaged in transit.
In the two most famous neighbourhoods of Toledo, Santa Bárbara and Santa Teresa, numerous tapas bars exist that serve small rations of some of these typical products, with a glass of beer or wine. Don’t forget that the cheese, ham and sausages of La Mancha are exported worldwide for their quality and trying them in Toledo is a unique opportunity.
Whether inside or outside of the city, there are different routes for tasting wine of the La Mancha region. WineTime is a specialist wine business that offers two possibilities for wine-tastings. The first one consists of a visit to three wine cellars of the city, in which winetastings are accompanied by tapas dishes and directed by an expert that comments on the characteristics of each product. This costs only 20 euros. The second option is external visits, close to Toledo, visiting bodegas on guided tours. These excursions can be organised for half a day or several days, for which the price varies.
Architecture and art
Continuing our walk by the old city, you can have the opportunity of seeing the courtyards of Toledo. It is said that the patios of Toledo ‘have been sung about more than they have been seen’, since their position toward the interior of the dwelling does not permit them to be seen without the complicity of the locals. Nevertheless, given their fame, many houses are now opened up to show this patrimony of incalculable social value. The patio is the common zone of the typical houses of Toledo, inherited from Roman and Arabian culture. The square-shaped houses leave an open space in their centre, to increase natural light in the property and for social gatherings during the warm summer. The majority of courtyards have a water source or fountain, that, for centuries, collected and supplied water to inhabitants, and that especially represents the Muslim culture, ever present in this city.
Famous personalities that stayed in Toledo or made the city their home are numerous and universally known. Among them, in addition to Cervantes, there is El Greco. This painter of Greek origin bought a house in the city. In Toledo, he married, had a son and also died there. Today, the city pays him sincere homage and keeps his works as part of its cultural heritage.
El Greco’s Renaissance creations are considered a precursor of Expressionism due to its dramatic style. In the city, the El Greco museum can be visited, for free on Tuesdays and only three euros the remainder of the week. Not all of the works of El Greco are on canvas; he received Royal patronage and many Court commissions so many of his works are in the walls and ceilings of monumental buildings. In Madrid, his main work was in El Escorial, but in Toledo the Cathedral can be visited, which also contains works of other international painters such as Van Dyck, Goya, Caravaggio and Titian.
The best way to see the structure of the cathedral of Toledo is to climb some of the towers of the Fortress, from which the impressive form of the perfect cross of the cathedral is visible, as well as the courtyard and arch.
Swords of Toledo
With a long-standing tradition of kings and wars, the city of Toledo contained all that it needed to confront anarmy, and over years of experience forged the best craftsmen of steel. The swords of Toledo are renowned for their quality, but also from their appearance in all the famous films which feature shields, sabres or armour.
From Gladiator to The Lord of the Rings, all the warriors have used swords from Toledo and in the city imitations of all the famous weapons can be bought, from Legolas’ bow to the sword of Escalibur. Of course, the sword and metal stores are very attractive for children and the ideal excuse to explain the history of the city through its military tradition.
Walking through the Santa Bárbara or Santa Teresa district, you can find numerous stores, but the most famous (which also manufacturers swords) is La Espada Toledana, which sells items to almost all the other retailers. In Toledo, Spanish classical crafts can also be bought, such as dark wood furniture and white ceramics with different cultural decorations.
On the other side of the river Tajo are Los Cigarrales, old farmhouses and orchards that surround them. Currently, it is a luxury residential area that retains the historical structure of the houses and hotels among gardens that look over the city. A group of well-known hoteliers have turned the area into a tranquil spot for visitors from the city seeking a night in a charming inn, a place where your imagination takes you back hundreds of years, when the houses were used as a refuge against epidemics that levelled the city. The luxury lodgings in this privileged spot vary from traditional inns to four- and five-star hotels with restaurants and exclusive services.
Don Quijote country
To celebrate the fourth centenary of the publication of Don Quijote de la Mancha, a thematic route has been set up that travels through the landscapes which inspired Cervantes to give life to Sr Quijote and Sancho Panza. The layout is divided into phases that can be travelled through on foot, on horseback or by bicycle, following the signs of the map from the website: www.rutadedonquijote.com.
The first section, from Toledo to San Clemente, passes by Belmonte and El Toboso, the place where Dulcinea lived, Don Quijote’s beloved. The 276 kilometres across the historic landscape of Castilla-La Mancha display the real splendour of inland Spain. Once you leave Toledo behind, you encounter Villacañas, famous for the subterranean dwellings called silos, which continue to be used. Next you come to Campo de Criptana, the symbolic place in whose fields of windmills the famous battle took place between Don Quijote and the ‘giants’.Some windmills, still used to grind wheat, can be visited to see their workings in motion, showing the use of the wind power from centuries ago.
The next town is El Toboso, where the Cervantes museum is located, which contains several first editions of Don Quijote. Also in this small population is the house of Dulcinea, showing the typical structure of Castilla-La Mancha’s houses, with an oil press and various food and drink storage objects. Continuing along the route you reach Belmonte, which has conserved part of an ancient wall and a monument. The castle (second photo) was used as a jail during the French invasion in the nineteenth century. The journey finishes in San Clemente,famous for its beautiful main square. The second section of the route crosses the lakes at Ruidera, an impeccable landscape of mountains for hiking to arrive at Villanueva de los Infantes, the place where Cervantes died.
The route of Don Quijote also has a major culinary element. The casseroles of central Spain are very popular, but enjoying the homemade sausages and cheeses is indispensable if you wish to get to know the diet of this region. Sheep’s cheese is found all over Spain and is known as queso manchego. According to Cervantes, Don Quijote and his squire were given this cheese and white bread made from locally-milled flour. On the route website, there are recommended restaurants and accommodation in local inns, and ways to entertain children thanks to the innumerable stories and comic adaptations of the original book.
How to get there
The new high-speed train from Madrid to Toledo takes half an hour with nine trains daily at a price of only 15 euros for a return ticket.
From Madrid you can also travel by motorway on the toll-paying AP-41.
By plane, the nearest airport is Madrid-Barajas, approximately50 minutes by car.
Plaza del Consistorio, 1
Tel. (+34) 925 254 030