My travels have taken me from Venice to Florence, and to Genoa – centers of commerce during the medieval period, and of heightened artistic and scientific endeavors during the Age of Enlightenment. Istanbul presented itself as a counterbalance, advancements equal to their European counterparts, and in some cases surpassing them.
My next destination continues to follow the Muslim occupation of Europe. That pathway brings me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule.
We land in sunny Madrid. I board a city bus to the Madrid train station — a large, clean, modern multi-platform affair with large airport-style screens showing arrivals and departures. It’s pretty easy to navigate as long as you pay attention not only to your train number and gate, but also if your ticket says “Baha” (lower floor) or “Plata” (upper floor).
I exchange USD for euros, and look for a place to sit. There are beautiful palm trees just outside of the double glass doors, which I thought led outside until I opened the door. I step into what looks like an aircraft hangar, filled with a conservatory of full size palm trees, and a pond filled with over a hundred turtles. There are shops along the sides and a couple of restaurants. It is serene and I look forward to returning here to make my connection to Cordoba.
It’s pouring rain when I arrive at the beautiful Neo-Moorish train station, and it takes me several tries to hail a cab for the five minute ride to my hotel, up a winding hill which would be challenging to walk up with luggage in tow.
- Toledo is a small but historically important fortified town, halfway between Madrid and Cordoba. This Iberian city served as a Roman trade hub, a Visigoth capitol during the 6th century, and a Moorish capitol in the 8th century before coming under Christian rule during the Reconquista in 1085. It was the capitol of Spain until 1561 and remains Spain’s religious capitol.
The Santa Isabel Hotel is located in historic Central Toledo. Built within the restored 14th century home of a Toledan noble, it was remodeled during the 15th, 16th and 20th centuries. A ceramic-tiled staircase leads me to a spartan room, with heavy carved doors on iron hinges. Its quiet here and I fall almost immediately to sleep.
The Cathedral of Santa Isabel is nearby. I thought Florence was the home of brilliant sculpture until I visited this church, which contained some of the most beautiful marbles I had yet seen.
- The Cathedral of Santa Isabel, also called the Holy Church Cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Building began in 1227 over the foundation of a 6th century Visigoth church, which itself had been built over a mosque. The church was not finished until the 16th century.
Of equal workmanship to the marbles, were the wooden pews, which appeared to be of mahogany, and depicted the defeat of Granada. They are reputed to be the largest carved choir in all of Europe.
The Chapel of St. Blaise, with its lapis-blue ceilings and murals, was stunning. The halos of the saints, done in gold leaf, were in remarkable condition for frescoes dating back to 1397.
One of the treasure rooms is filled with vestments, and I see an alter cloth with Arabic borders, produced by Muslim weavers. The beads on the textile at right are red coral. I think the technique is trapunto (a form of quilting done by adding padding through the back of selected areas, to create the illusion of embossing).
The Cloister of St. John the Kings was begun in 1389 and finished in 1425. Finely wrought archways surround a courtyard which is lush and beautiful. The orange trees were in full fruit under a roof of bird netting. This cloister would be the finest example of Spanish-Arabesque Gothic architecture I would see on this trip. It would eventually inspire one of my hats.
I wander around the Plaza de Zocodover, in and out of the wide alleys, watching workmen hang lanterns and large sun shades. I walk pass the parliament building of La Mancha which is housed in an old convent. The Arabel – “between walls” is one of the oldest parts of the city, built by Muslims to protect Toledo. The Bisagra Gate, on a bridge over the Tajo River, offers an exceptional viewpoint for the city
Toledo was the first city to fall to the Christians during the Reconquista. Its fall in 1085 marked the beginning of the end of Muslim rule in Iberia. It is a city where mosques, churches and synagogues are so similar structurally that you may not know which one you are standing in without a guidebook.
The Synagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca was built by Muslim architects in the early 13th century, and converted to a church in 1492. I was surprised to see Islamic script carved around the doorway. Its ceiling reminds me of the ‘upside down ships’ hull” from a church I saw in Alaska.
The Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, Toledo’s oldest mosque, dates back to the turn of the 11th century, it’s keyhole arches facing Mecca. It too, was converted to a church less than 200 years later, in 1187.
The Museo de Santa Cruz, as noteworthy for its architecture as its contents, was formerly an orphanage and a hospital. It is home to the famous Tapestry of the Astrolabes. Woven in Belgium in 1480, it combines mythology and science to explain the divine world as it was perceived during the Middle Ages. See more of the pieces from this museum my board at Pinterest.
Toledo is rugged, but compact, and in spite of its hills it is a fairly easy to walk. The shops here are filled with reproductions of helmets from the Roman and Medieval periods; blades labeled as damascus but lacking the distinctive water patterning; damascene wares geared towards tourists. Books were few and far between.
After dinner I board a tour bus, which includes really great views of The Fortress, Toledo’s castle, perched on the top of the tallest hill in the city. It’s easy to see how difficult it must have been to have finally conquered this city …
- My long-form journal which contains additional historical notes and travel tips can be accessed at AugustPhoenixHats.com.