If you ever ask a Spanish person about the history and culture of their country, one of the first things they will tell you is how for centuries, three major religions and their respective cultural traditions, foods, and architectural styles coexisted together for centuries. Of course, how truly peaceful their coexistence was, we will never know, and the Jews and Muslims were all eventually killed, converted, or otherwise forced out of Spain by the Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition. (So peaceful, right?) But we are still able to see evidence of their profound influence on Spanish architecture, food, culture, and even language today. Most people think of Granada with its impressive Moorish castle, the Alhambra, its Jewish quarter, the Realjo, and the Capilla Real where the Catholic king and queen are buried, as being the crown jewel of this mix, but there are a multitude of cities and small villages around Spain which show case these three cultures, Toledo being one of the finest examples.
Toledo doesn’t just have traces of Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic culture, it is dripping in them. You could walk by a synagogue, visit a mosque, and step inside of a cathedral all in a matter of minutes. The city is replete with ancient ruins, to the point that no one wants to buy any houses or apartments anymore because of the high probability of finding ruins underneath. Anyone who does come across ruins on their property is obligated by law to open their house to the public at least once a year. Woof.
For being such a relatively small city, (population 83,000), it has everything any kind of tourist could wish for. Having said that, the following list is by NO means exhaustive, but it does have the local stamp of approval from my good friend, Javi, who has lived there all his life, and gave me the run down on the true gems of the city.
If you have spent any kind of time in Spain or around Europe, you are probably up to your ears in cathedrals, but there are some that are truly worth the time, money, and hype. This excellent example of Gothic architecture dates back to the 6th century when it was used as a a church during the visigoth reign, then as a mosque (Muslims, remember?), and in the 13th century the construction for the cathedral that now stands was built on top of the mosque. See, sometimes you don’t even have to MOVE to see the mix of cultures, they are literally on top of each other!
Cost: 11 euros
Hours: Saturday-Monday 10:30am-6:30pm
The Jesuit Church, otherwise known as San Ildefonso, is the only example of Baroque architecture that you´ll find in the city. Personally, I have always been more drawn to Gothic architecture because of the ornate detailing, but to each his own. The church was finally finished in 1765, but just two years later the Jesuits were forced out of Spain and did not come back to Toledo until 1903. Again, super peaceful guys. Complicated history and architectural styles aside, probably the best part about this church is that you can climb the towers and have unparalleled views of the city.
Now that’s a view!!
Hours: 10am-5:45/6:45pm (winter/summer hours)
Toledo is a gorgeous city in itself, but the Tajo river wraps itself around the ancient city is a naturalist’s dream. There is a clearly marked path that will take you to places like the small ermita de Santa María, the panoramic views at el Valle, and if you are really adventurous and need to work off some tapas, go all the way to la roca del Rey Moro, where supposedly the grave a Muslim king was found. It is said that he was buried there so he could always look on the city where the love of his life died.
This is the easiest, cheapest, and often the best way to get to really know a city. But Toledo is a city where getting lost isn’t a suggestion, it is a necessity and an almost certainty. (I distinctly remember nearly missing the bus back to Madrid the first time I was here, seven years ago.) The thing about the Toledo streets is that they have three different stories to tell, and each one is begging to be heard. See for yourself the influence that the three cultures, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism had on the city, its history, and architecture. Don’t miss the Jewish quarter which boasts some incredible museums and synagogues like the Sefardi museum and the synagogue of Santa María la Blanca
According to local’s, it is the most privileged spot in the city to catch the last moments of the atardecer, when the sun dips below the horizon.
As a general rule when you visit Spain, you should really make a habit of eating and drinking a. LOT. Every region in this country is known for some kind of dish and it is usually de-fricking-licious. Toledo, because it is on the interior, is best known for their big game like deer (“venado”), hare (“liebre”), and partridge, (“perdiz”). While eating in Toledo, be sure to try:
- “Carcamusas”–the most typical Toledo dish, kind of like a stew with meat and vegetables
- Marzipan–they sell it on every corner, but the best stuff is supposedly available at Santo Tomé
- Bomba de patata y carne at Cervecería Trébol, which is an old Islamic fortress-turned bar. Naturally.
- Tea and typical arabic desserts at a typical “tetería” like Dar al-Chai
- And if you are feeling really regal and want to surprise your date, why not have a beautiful dinner at La Abadia, in a cave.
We got extra lucky this weekend and our dear friend, fantastic chef and local Toledano, Javi, made a delectable paella.
Good friends and good food. No better combination.
Have you ever been to Toledo? Are you from there? What are your favorite places in the city? If you haven’t done it yet, be sure to check out the video for this article on the YouTube channel.