Who says that time travel is a myth? Even without a time machine, going back to the medieval era only takes a half an hour train ride from Madrid. It’s no Platform 3/4, it’s as simple as taking the RENFE at Atocha Station and voilà, you’ll be in Toledo in no time.
Back in its heyday, this city was far more significant and financially richer than Madrid, but even if it had lost its political influence, Toledo retains to this day an unspoilt Old World wonder that draws packs of tourists escaping from the overwhelming Spanish capital.
As soon as I got off the train, I fell right into a tourist trap. Exactly on the platform where we stopped were two tourist info booths selling maps. € 2 for a map? yeah, right. Other passengers before me had already taken one, and like a chain reaction, my instinct told me to get a copy as well, which I did, only to find out that free maps were given away inside the station! Smart marketing strategy successfully applied to a disoriented, hungry tourist. So not fair.
As overwhelmed and distracted as I was, I instantly got engulfed by its untouched beauty and at the same time, choked by the suffocating crowd. Another tourist trap I fell into was taking the tour bus from the main station that took away another € 5.50 from my budget. There would have been an alternative way of entering the historic core of Toledo simply by walking on the bridge over the Tajo River. Climbing up (or down) the escalator, it only takes 10 minutes to get there with no sweat. The forbidding high gates of the fortress weren’t as welcoming as the bus passed beneath its portals. As we penetrated the heart of the old town, I officially started my tour right where the driver let us off in the medieval city:
The Alcazar. Situated on the highest peak of the old town, this 10th century Moorish fortress dominates the Toledo skyline along with the cathedral bell tower. Just like every single building in Muslim Spain, it was redesigned by the Christians and after centuries of existence, it was badly damaged in the Civil War in 1936. The structure, however, regained its former glory under the Franco regime and it now houses an enormous military museum.
I began to wonder what Toledo would be like in the evening when the city got back to its locals. Then I wouldn’t probably have an impression of an amusement park because of tourists (like me:)) But apart from that, Toledo’s historic center is like a confusing labyrith, in which one could easily get lost within the narrow, winding streets of the old medieval quarter. Luckily for this city, the signage to the main attractions are well organized and easily seen.
I walked down the small alleys from the Alcazar and followed the stream of people that eventually led me to the main cathedral down the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. Guess what this church used to be? A mosque.
In Toledo, it seemed hard to pretend like a local so I did nothing else but act like a tourist, walking with a massive camera and taking pictures incessantly. To make the sightseeing much more practical, I purchased a wristband to access six museums without having to pay every time. I hesitated at first before buying it but then I realized that this wasn’t a tourist trap after all. Spending € 8 for this was truly a fair offer.
With my wristband, I was able to take advantage of the following sights in Toledo, beginning with:
Iglesia de Santo Tomé
There’s nothing more synonymous to El Greco than the city of Toledo. This church exhibits one of the artist’s masterpieces: El Entierro del Conde Orgaz (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz). Following my professor’s recommendation, I included it on top of my list. El Greco’s career flourished in Toledo more than in Madrid when he didn’t live up to Philipp II’s standards and expectations that led to his rejection as one of the court painters to decorate El Escorial. Despite this, he had remained in this city to perfect his artistry until his death, leaving his works scattered around Toledo.
Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca
Not only in Southern Spain does the Moorish architecture continue to exist but Toledo also has its fair share of this Arab legacy. The múdejar synagogue is the result of the coexistence of three religions and clearly shows influences from the Christians, the Jews and the Moors, making way to this unique architectural style that left me an impression of a utopic world.
Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes
Another architectural gem within the heart of the Jewish Quarter is this imposing gothic-múdejar monastery as a symbol of Catholic faith’s supremacy. The flamboyance of its style strongly opposes to the Christian monarchs’ austere tombs in Granada.
Iglesia del Salvador
The present church of Salvador is considered the most ancient mosque in the city and of second importance after the Great Mosque, which is now where the cathedral stands. It features a Visigothic pilaster as one of the oldest elements of the church. More than a house of worship, it is also an excavation site where the remnants of an old Visigothic temple (predating that of the mosque) are now revealed and can be visited.
Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz
The majority of the mosques that were converted to churches maintain their strong Moorish character. Bearing the name, Mosque of Christ of the Light, the church itself is already an evidence of Muslim and Christian identities. The interior of the former mosque was undergoing restorations when I visited it. Though the ceilings were bare, it somehow revealed the fresco of Christ on the dome.
Iglesia de San Ildefonso
Despite its lavishly decorated Baroque façade, this seemingly posh church shows nothing but simplicity on the inside. Climb its bell towers to have a glimpse of the whole city from above.
Visiting UNESCO’s well preserved Toledo truly gave me a real medieval atmosphere as no single modern skyscraper could be seen rising higher than the Alcazar or the towering cathedral belfry. Its unparalleled charm will never cease to coexist with modernity in our ever changing world. Getting lost around the city is just as good as getting lost in time. After all, time travel wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. It would only take another half an hour train ride until I got transported back to the present. As my day trip came to an end, I made my last stop at a marzipan shop to bring back home a sweet taste of Toledo’s past.