Picture a Medieval city whose clever founders built the city on a hill surrounded by a river, ensuring natural protection from any enemies. Welcome to Toledo, easily my favorite city in Spain.
An easy day trip from Madrid, I wish I had instead spent a night in this charming town. My stepfather Ray and I took an early bus, and so arrived just as the sun was rising over the hillside city. As a Medievalist, I was initially struck with just how clever of a location Toledo is situated. The Romans described the city as "fortified by location". There is still a large Roman bridge in the city, though unfortunately I did not snag a picture of it.
We got off the bus on the opposite side of the river in order to admire the picturesque view for as long as I could, but the December chill got to us after awhile and we grabbed another bus into Toledo itself.
Our first, and really only touristy, stop was the Toledo Cathedral, commonly thought of as the greatest Gothic cathedral in Spain. As with many cathedrals across Europe, it took the place of an earlier, much more modest church. And, this being Spain, it also replaced a mosque that had taken the place of that earlier church. When the Catholics re-conquered Toledo from the Moors in 1085, they agreed with the Muslim community to leave the mosque. However, this agreement was short-lived. Long story short, there was quite the uprising and the resulting compromise was that the building would indeed be converted back to a church but with an homage to the Muslim community inside. You can still see this homage today, in the shape of an effigy of the lead broker for the 11th century Muslim community in Toledo, Abu Walid, in one of the main pillars of the cathedral.
While the architecture of the cathedral itself is incredible, as are all cathedrals, what makes Toledo above and beyond many others are the interior decorations. What stood out the most to me was the retable, pictured at left. In person, it looks like a solid gold wall interlaced with stunning paintings.
The vaulted ceilings have also stuck in my memory, as they were more detailed than you often find in cathedrals. In the photo of the retable, you can just make out the vaulted ceilings at the top. Imagine an entire cathedral of that. Spectacular.
After whiling away at least 90 minutes in the cathedral we finally tore ourselves away from the architecture and headed back outside to the chilly December day. Admittedly, it wasn't that cold but I was living in Senegal at the time and had forgotten my Minnesota roots. But when the views are as quintessentially Spanish as Toledo offers, I quickly forgot the cold. I'll be honest, Spain is not my favorite country. It's nothing the country did to me, just a vibe thing; I gel better with other places. But what I absolutely adore about Spain is the architecture. Other countries offer the tiled roofs, or the colored buildings, but Spain delivers them in a unique combination. Considering Toledo is on a hill, these buildings were surrounded by open air and surrounding landscape, thus adding to their magic and mystic.
As we were there in December, the city's Christmas decorations were in full swing. Unfortunately, we had to go back to Madrid before we were able to see them lit up. Again, I wish we had stayed the night and I recommend you do. I love European Christmas decorations anyways, but I have a feeling they would have been extra special in such a Medieval city.
While I was happy to explore the streets, Ray had another destination in mind: he is very interested in the history of weapons, and has a few historic rifles in his safe at home that have been passed down through his family. It was actually his idea rather than mine to visit Toledo in order to see the swords. And thank goodness he suggested it, because this city stole my heart.
Why would somebody who is interested in the history of weapons want to come to Toledo? Well, just take a look at that picture. to answer your question: Toledo, which I did not know before going there, is famous for its strong swords. As my Ray (and Google) told me, this area has been famous for good sword-making since Roman times. What makes it stronger than other swords, I have no idea, but the city has embraced this reputation. As in, holy mother of gift shops. I have never seen so many stores that were devoted to such a singular ware before. And we went into every one of them. My personal favorite was the one that was playing movie soundtracks of various Medieval adventure music (songs from both the Kevin Costner Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven soundtracks were both played while we were in the shop). This may or may not be my favorite use of audio I have ever experienced.
The cathedral, street explorations, and sword gawking (yes, Ray did buy a small knife) took most of the day. We did still found time to sneak into a bar to have a pint and some warm soup, but too soon it was time to get back on the bus and head to Madrid.