(Above): Flour Mills at La Mancha, Spain (Photos: Al Auger/Photos.com/iStock)
Traveling across the breadth of Spain is like being in a time machine. The past, current and future exists alongside seemingly everywhere. It is also one of the most adventurous, writes our travel editor Al Auger.
Unlike the picture professor Higgins illustrated with “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains,” Spain is one of the most mountainous country in Europe which adds drama to driving coast to coast. We were heading down the middle of Spain to the famed city of Toledo where, it seems, the turbulent and rich history of the Iberian peninsula co-join in a revelation of famous painters, architecture, palaces, monuments and so much more. As you near this fabled city, the capitol of La Mancha, you’re made quite aware this is Quixote country, awash with bright, white windmills everywhere. So entranced were we with this visual treat we spent the first night in the shadow of the nearest windmill.
I can only compare, if you will, Toledo to a smaller Florence. There isn’t a corner of this city you won’t find manifestations of its long past beginning with its capture by the Romans in 190 B.C. and given the name Toletum and followed by the Visigoths in the 6th century. But, the light of Toledo’s weave of history was never so bright after the 8th century and the arrival of the Arabs. It was known as the “city of three cultures.” For the next 700 years the Spanish, Jews and Arabs lived together each blending their culture adding layers of their best and worst.
(Above): A statue of Don Quixote
There isn’t a better guide for the traveler who loves Spain than Michener’s book “Iberia.” The tome is filled with destinations so unique, you won’t find many of them noted anywhere else. Toledo is known as the “city of three cultures” and the result of this layering of Christian, Arabic and Jewish life, art, philosophies and food is a travelers cornucopia. Monuments attesting to this are everywhere surrounded by churches, palaces, fortresses, mosques and synagogues.
Still a walled city, the medina or old quarter has been dedicated as a World Heritage Site. Here is a true open-air museum the timeless traveler can peruse at his leisure. Turn in direction and you will find a treasure to discover. One of the most overwhelming structure built during the Moor occupation is the Mosque of Cristo de la luz. Examples of these diverse cultures can be found in the architecture of the Mozarabs, Christians who lived alongside the Muslims, can be found in the San Sebastian and Santa Eulalia churches.
Once the capitol of La Mancha, Toledo’s narrow, bending streets are a theatre to its history with the ghosts of Emperor Carlos V, Alfonso VI, the major influences of the Moors and Jewish citizens and its most famous son, El Greco.
(Above): San Sebastian in Spain.
Jutting sharply into the Mediterranean at its entry into the Atlantic Ocean, Spain was a natural target for the armies looking for territory and plunder as they marched through Europe. No other city in Spain seems to have a broader brush to paint its ever changing history than Toledo. The centerpiece that brought all this to life, particularly for us, was the Santa Cruz Museum.
Built over the 15th and early 16th century, the Santa Cruz Museum brings the story of Toledo to life with sections on Toledo archaeology, fine and decorative arts and painting exhibitions. In this sprawling showcase you will find a collection of just about everything you need to know about this city that was one of Iberia’s most important centers of culture, efficiently divided into three sections beginning with the Roman, Visigothic, Moorish and Mudajar influences; the arts from the 15th to the 18th centuries, centered on the 16th and 17th century paintings from Toledo, naturally bound around El Greco. The third section deals with the modern era of Toledo highlighting the Industrial Arts of local artisans and other areas of Toledo’s modern culture.
But, with all this Toledo is still a city of people and the art of living day by day. The people are literate, well-versed in the multi-diversity of their city. They love to talk to strangers which opened many highly entertaining conversations over a mid-day coffee or a cool beer as we watched the sun slipping behind the River Tagus. One afternoon, sitting and sipping, we were entertained by a grizzled farmer madly chasing his runaway mule. It was like a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler as the sped in and out of the narrow streets, leaving clothes lines, baskets and the like in their wake.
(Above): Toledo’s winding roads make an interesting cityscape.
The end came as the mule sped down the bank along the Tagus and the outflanked farmer slipping and sliding on the stones his audience clapped and shouted “Ole!” Whatever became of his valuable mule remains a mystery today as the farmer simply sat down, head in his hands, and moaned. The people around us at the outdoor café were so gleefully enjoying the show, the owner bought a round for the house.
One of the truly cerebral experiences is to visit and absorb the engrossing “El entierro dell Conde Orgaz” (The burial of Count Orgaz) by El Greco. The mural takes up nearly a full wall in the small Mudejar-style church of Santo Tomé. For us it was also a lesson in why bus tours can be a waste of time and money.
James Michener’s magnificent tome on the masterpiece led us to this little church outside the center of Toledo. Sitting quietly in the semi-darkness of the church studying the depth of the El Greco’s mural, we suddenly heard a squeal of brakes, the hiss of doors opening and our reflections were broken by the shuffling of a horde of tourists.
(Above): ‘The Burial of Orgaz’ – El Greco
The English-speaking guide spoke quickly and obviously by rote. The complete show took approximately 10 minutes before we heard the welcome sound of retreating footsteps and the hiss of doors opening. As the bus headed for its next stop, Louise and I sat back and returned to our quiet, solitary introspections of the mural. Michener writes in his book a deep and meaningful critique of the masterpiece.
Like the dominance of the legendary windmills, so too are you surrounded by the art of El Greco and Goya. But, other artists who have left their mark on Toledo are Pedro Berruguete, Petrus Petri, Enrique Egas and Juan Guas. The two most visited and exhibitions of these world famed artists are the Cathedral and El Greco’s His House-Museum. The maze of buildings boasting unparallel architecture that harkens back as far as the 13th century is so wide spread you will need days just to put a dent in your travels around Toledo.
For a change of pace and to educate ourselves on the celebrated art of Toledo sword and armor artistry, an art that goes back to the 5th century B.C. when blacksmiths were forging Toledo swords they called falata. We followed a tour through a large shop of artisan busily creating finely drawn, intricate gold artwork on dangerous looking swords and knives. In addition others were creating beautifully and delicately wrought, Moorish designs in gold jewelry, plates, artwork and more.
(Above): The Santa Cruz Museum facade detail, Toledo, Spain.
A surprising find was the exhibition of the creating thin, fragile appearing blades of razor sharpness. According to the sword-master the blades are not made of highly tempered fine steel, but slender strips of steel, each laid upon the other one at a time and then forged into the famed weapon of hardness that other nations have tried to equal and failed.
Toledo is another example of why Louise and I consider Spain the most intriguing nation in the world, peopled by generous, caring citizens. This ancient city defines the vast diversity of Spain that has a history of sharing so many cultures and properties. Nowhere else will visitors find a city like Toledo where you will spend your days in a ever emerging time warp. And don’t forget your copy of Iberia, Spanish Travels and Reflections.
Are You Going? For tours, etc., Google Toledo Tourism/Spain.
Al Auger is a freelance travel writer. He lives in Fairfax, Calif.