Across Andalucia: Toledo Transit – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos. 

My travels have taken me from Venice to Florence, Genoa, and Istanbul. My next destination continues to trace a path through Europe as it existed under Muslim occupation. In 2012 it brought me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule.

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 to me as a counterbalance, with similar pursuits and advancements equal to their European counterparts, and in some cases surpassing them.

My next destination continues to trace a path through Europe as it existed under Muslim occupation. That pathway brings me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule.

My favorite flights are those that are uneventful, as this one was. My only memories of it are giving up my window seat to a mother and young child so they could sit together (instead of in seats separated by a row and an aisle), and being woken up at midnight Madrid time for yet another skimpy sandwich of white bread with unidentifiable white filling. By the time we land in sunny Madrid, I’m dying for a salad. I find one at an airport eatery; greens garnished with white beans, red peppers, and eggs with bright orange yolks, the first orange yolks I had ever seen.

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 find a ledge to sit on, within sight of the reader boards. There are beautiful palm trees just outside of the double glass doors which I thought led outside.

The doors actually lead to an annex that looks like an aircraft hangar, housing 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, and some fun travel-themed installation artworks. It is a calm place to wait for a train and I look forward to returning here to make my connection to Cordoba.

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 when Philip I moved Spain’s political center to Madrid. It remained Spain’s religious capitol.

It’s pouring rain when I arrive at the the Toledo train station, built in the Neo-Moorish style in 1919-20. With its stained glass windows, intense woodwork and brick-and-tile floor, it would be the most beautiful train station I would see on this trip.

Toledo Train Station

The architect for the clock tower took their inspiration from cathedrals in Toledo. The details of the train platform were just as exquisite as those at the front of the building.

It takes me several tries to hail a cab for the five minute ride from the train station to my hotel. Although it would have been a short walk, the winding uphill road appeared too challenging for me to traverse in this downpour, with luggage in tow.

The Santa Isabel was built inside the restored home of a Toledan noble, and dates back to 1388. It went through a series of remodels during the 15th, 16th and 20th centuries. If you follow my travel blogs you will note my preference for lodging in historic properties rather than mainstream hotel chains. I get a much better feel for the history and culture of the country that way.

I enter the building through a discreet 15th century door, and after checking in, climb up a tiled staircase that leads to my second floor room. The room is small and spartan, with a single bed covered with a plain white duvet, surrounded by heavy carved doors on iron hinges. A mock balcony overlooks a niche carved into the building across the narrow street. It is very quiet here and I fall almost immediately to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning in the crowded dining room is bread with olive oil, tomato puree and prosciutto, orange juice, and a cup of very thick coffee served with a double-sized packet of sugar. It’s a far cry from the Turkish breakfasts that I am now completely spoiled by. I finish quickly so I can start my plan for the day.

Toledo was under Muslim rule until the city fell to the Christians during the Siege of Toledo in 1085, which marked the beginning of the end of Muslim rule in Iberia. I will always remember Toledo as the city where churches, synagogues and mosques have such similar architecture that it’s hard to tell them apart without a guidebook. I will detail those buildings in my next post.

The Museo de Santa Cruz, formerly an orphanage and then a hospital, is as noteworthy for its architecture as its contents. Outside of the architecture, there weren’t a lot of pieces here that caught my attention, with a few notable exceptions.

The piece I came to see here was the 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.  It covers a wall, floor to ceiling and is about 12′ across – much larger than I thought it was. I spent about 20 minutes here, just trying to absorb all the details.

After exiting the museum, my lunch choices are pasta, pizza and doner kebab. So I choose – gelato! But it was really good gelato, the best I’ve had outside of Venice…

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, and along the Arabel – “between walls” – one of the oldest parts of the city, built by Muslims to protect Toledo. Further down, the Bisagra Gate, on a bridge over the Tajo River, offers an exceptional viewpoint for the city.

I thought Florence was the most austere city of my travels until I arrived here. Toledo is rugged, but compact, and in spite of its hills it is a fairly easy walk as I circumnavigate the entire outskirt of the city before heading back towards its center. The Fortress at the top of the hill is closed, so I spend the next few hours looking for a momento or two to take home. Toledo is a ‘trinket’ city, full of reproduction helmets from the Roman and Medieval periods; blades labeled as damascus but which do not bear the distinctive patterning; damascene plates and other items geared towards tourists.  I found a tall black plastic hair comb, but could not afford the mantilla to go with it.

Books were hard to find, and very few were in English, which is not a language of choice here. Whenever my limited repertoire of Spanish phrases fail and I resort to “no habla español,” that statement is met with intolerance and people continue speaking to me in Spanish. It’s an interesting comparison to my trips to Italy, where nearly everyone speaks at least a smattering of English, or to Istanbul, where pantomime has evolved into an art form …

Dinner this evening is at the El Foro Cafe, where I point to a chicken and seafood paella on the photo-menu (a god-send when you have a language barrier). I think paella must be a national dish, and it is a specialty of this cafe. It arrives with seafood in shell, immersed in the rice and messy to eat, but the squid and calamari are very tender and flavorful. I am smitten by a violetta mojito, deep purple at the bottom of the glass, fading to the palest lavender at the top, and “like drinking candied violets.” I had been introduced to ‘cafe violetta’ in Genoa, and it would take me weeks of searching for the elusive elixer upon my return to Seattle …

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 …

The Fortress, as seen from the other side of the Taro River, near the Bisagra Gate

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