Dwight Peck's personal website

A visit to Toledo (the other Toledo)

A getaway weekend to the ancient capital of Spain

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Arriving in Toledo, 19 November 2012


The brilliant rail station sets the mood. So do the security people (polite, but firm).

A bit like the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, as I remember it.

People don't normally flock to an Amtrak station for photos. This brilliant piece of work was built in about 1919, replacing the original station from 1858 -- it's recently been restored when the high-speed rail service to Madrid was put in in 2005.

We're booked into the Hacienda del Cardenal, in the Best Western chain, a 3-star but very inexpensive at off-season rates, and a fine renovation of the 18th century pavilion built by Cardinal Lorenzana in the walls of the city.


Ah, there's our room.

In a kind of mini-lobby at the end of the wing.

The breakfast room. We'll be back.

The hotel gardens

Probably way too lively in mid-summer, but it's all for us in mid-November.

The hotel's restaurant upstairs, and a tavern or bistro on the rez de chaussée.

Old Toledo sits up on a sizable hill over the river, and the city wall ran all along the landward side; much of it is still there. To help us get an easy start on the morning, there's a 5- or 6-level escalator to haul us up into the old town.

Right from the front door of the hotel, under the city wall, and up we go. Toledo's built on a steep-sided headland at a tight bend of the river Tajo -- the Tagus, the longest river on the Spanish/Portuguese peninsula, which dumps into the Atlantic near Lisbon -- a naturally defensible site populated from Bronze Age times and an administrative centre ("Toletum") for the Romans.

Two levels up. When the Visigoths, settled nicely into southwestern France after their Sack of Rome in 410, got thrown out again by Clovis and his Franks in 507, they took over the Iberian peninsula, tossed the Vandals and Suevi out, and set up Toledo as their "capital" of sorts, where they overlorded the population until they got removed by the Umayyad Islamic Moors in about 711.

Four levels up. Toledo continued under the Moors as the capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, including a period known as La Convivencia when Jews, Christians, and Muslims famously lived together ostensibly in mutual respect and prosperity.

And up we go into the warren of streets. All good things come to end, however: after the fall of the Caliphate in 1031, Toledo served as capital of one of the most prosperous of the Taifa warlord kingdoms (as "Tulaytulah"), but 50 years later Alfonso VI, king of León and Castile (patron and foe of El Cid Campeador), moved in and turned Toledo into an international centre for the translation of ancient texts into and out of Arabic, Hebrew, Castilian Spanish, and Latin, instrumental in spreading acquaintance with classical works throughout Europe at the time.

This is the church of San Romano, which houses the Visigoth museum; we'll be back to that, and up the tower, too.

Just now we're at the high point of the city (the red circle), which is otherwise dominated by the cathedral just down the hill, and the square military fortress of the Alcàzar to the east of that. The old city's compact, beautiful, and filled with good stuff -- in fact, the entire historic old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Toledo served as the capital city of the kingdom of Castile for some time as well, until Philip II moved the capital to Madrid in 1561 and from 1563 onward built his famous El Escorial palace nearby.

That's part of the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, the autonomous province of Spain of which Toledo is presently the capital -- ca. 30,000 under- and post-graduate students, many of them wandering round the narrow streets of this lovely Old Town, discussing weighty academic subjects and chatting on their iPhones.

Toledo street scene

For two centuries after Alfonso VI's takeover, the main Christian church in Toledo was the rebranded mosque. In 1226 a gothic cathedral was got underway, evidently built in emulation of the cathedral at Le Mans and the one in Bourges. It was meant to have two great towers, but had to settle in the end for one tower and a cute little dome.

Kristin's wondering what's next. This is the "Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo", or Catedral Primada, completed more or less in 1493 (2½ centuries after it was begun) -- the first archbishop, St Eugenio, had a cathedral here in the old days, and the Visigoths (first Arian heretics, then Nicean/Roman orthodox) kept up the tradition, until the Moors tore it all down and built a big mosque. And then -- voilà.

That's the Pardon Door -- at a crucial and unfortunate point in history, if you passed through that door and paid your fee, you got to go to Heaven straightaway when your time came.

The belltower is 92 metres high, and we'll soon be cursing each other's ambition up every step of it. The dome was built by El Greco's son, George.

The entrance to the cathedral cloister -- we're going to be congregating at a specified time to run up the belltower with a guide and entourage.

The central altar and choir

The chancel

The choir

Sharing a secret (called the "white Virgin")

There are 54 walnut seat backs in the choir, carved in 1495 to commemorate each of the cities that Ferdinand and Isabella destroyed in conquering Granada by 1492.

We're on our way, with our group and guide, UP.

We're just taking a brief pause here, before continuing.

We're taking just another little pause here, before continuing again.

We've got quite a ways still to go, however.

The Alcàzar fortress, just across town

Campana Gorda, the great 17-ton mid-18th century bell that got one loud, soulful ring out and then cracked

This is all well and good, but . . .

Our guide discoursing volubly in a heathen tongue

The Liberty Bell. I'm reflexively checking my watch to make sure we're down out of here before the top of the hour.

Long-suffering religious people

The belltower again as we hurtle earthwards

The cathedral cloister

Saint Eugenio, first Archbishop of Toledo, much worse for wear.

The Catedral Primada in late afternoon

And the Hacienda del Cardenal in early evening

Dinner in the restaurant: out of our normal budget, and the specialty "suckling pig" is out of my normal repertoire, but there are elegant surroundings, friendly service, and nobody else in the whole place to disturb us.

We're catching up on the grim news of the world; tomorrow is another day.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 5 December 2012.

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