Monday, January 18, 2010

Holy Toledo

I have been asked a few times before and after my time in Madrid about whether I saw any other places while I was in Spain. Trust me, the short period of time (six full days) we were there was not enough to see the whole of the city. I missed seeing Real Madrid's stadium, the Egyptian temple, and about twenty-three museums, which were all closed on the many and varied holidays that occurred during our stay. We also successfully executed a failed visit to El Escorial, a palace of the Spanish monarchy thirty miles north of Madrid that happened to be closed on New Year's Eve, despite no mention of this fact in our guidebooks.
Not all our side trips ended in such disaster. Our trip, through customs, for instance, was an improvement over last year in Dublin. More relevantly, on the fourth day of our stay we hopped on a bus and rode out to Toledo. Unless its namesake in Ohio, this Toledo isn't a barren wasteland of post-manufacturing era America despair.
I will provide a disclaimer vis a vis the American Toledo: I've never been there, but it is in Ohio so I just assume no one in their right mind would want to go there. I would argue that its only fair to poke fun at Ohio as they are probably making fun of us in South Carolina as I speak. If they are not they sure as hell should be.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand, Spanish Toledo. Located, as you may have guessed, only forty-five minutes by bus outside of Madrid, Toledo was once the capital of the country, in fact as recently as the 1500s. Seems like just yesterday. During the Middle Ages Toledo was vitally important in the retention of lost knowledge throughout Christendom. The vast libraries taken back from the Moors during the reconquest of Toledo in the 11th century were translated into Latin and Spanish, thus preserving the Pythagorean theorem amongst other moldy treatises. Without their painstaking labors Shaq would have never been able to spout the immortal words, "My game is like the Pythagorean theorem: there is no solution."
Toledo is one of only a handful of cities to have been declared an UNESCO world heritage site. When you arrive and see the place for the first time, you immediately have to applaud their decision. Sitting atop a hill overlooking the Tagus River, which runs bestride the town, Toledo possesses an ideal geographical location. You don't just get named a world heritage site by looking hot in the swim suit competition, though. Toledo happens to have the goods architecturally and aesthetically, showing off an array of buildings and streets, many dating back to the medieval period.
One of the most famous of these is the Cathedral of Toledo, completed in 1493 after two hundred and fifty plus years of construction. Surely the project did not go over budget. Seriously though, you thought modern contractors dawdled.
When you get inside you can appreciate what took so long. The craftsmanship is unparalleled - every little nook and cranny is a work of art that must have taken an immense amount of time to complete.
No expense was spared. Seemingly every ounce of gold Cortes and Pizarro plundered from the hapless Native Americans was used in the cathedral, most of the precious metal going to make the processional monstrance pictured above. The device, still in use today and needing the services of four poor bastards to carry the thing, is composed of over five hundred different pieces and utilizes 2,000 screws (equal to ten years of Wilt Chamberlain's life).
Another building that dates from the same period is the Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes. Construction moved a little more briskly here, with completion taking a mere twenty-seven years. Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs who completed the reconquest of Spain and funded Columbus's excursions to Asia, er America, had the place built to commemorate their victory over the Moors at Toro. The couple originally intended to be buried here but ended up entombed in Granada after no one wanted to drag their rotting corpses the necessary several hundred miles back to Toledo.
A newer structure worth seeing is the Alcazar, a word which means fortress in Arabic. With a dominating view of the Tagus River flowing beneath, the strategic significance of the ground upon which Toledo was built is immediately apparent. The view of the bluffs across from the fortress is stunning and you can ride an elevator to cafe at the top of the building and take a panoramic look at the whole ball of wax. The famous painter El Greco (Greek name George Papadapolis) moved here from his original home in Greece for a quick job, fell in love, and forgot to ever go back to Greece.
One last piece of advice for those planning to tackle the journey to Toledo. Under no circumstances should you attempt to drive there - signs are poor and the very few roads in the old town are one way and more narrow than Glenn Beck's mind. Places for parking your automobile? The locals there laugh at your silly concept.
Instead, break out those tennis shoes and get ready for a stroll. The old city is not that big, but it certainly is confusing. Bringing a compass might be advisable, as navigating through the twisting, turning streets is not much easier, but it is more convenient. Anyone who can walk from the Alcazar to the San Juan monastery without getting lost deserves a merit badge. If not for the helpful intervention of taxis and buses, we would still be trapped amidst the city's maze-like alleyways. Part of me kind of wishes I was, there are certainly much worse places to be, say Ohio for example.

P.S.: for a more fact-driven, rational account of Toledo, check out my brother's story for the Franklin Press here.


rjmera said...

Man, I have to visit the land of my ancestors! Incidentally, I have friends in the Canary Islands... should hit that up, no?

Alastair McCandless said...

Let me know, that sounds really exciting!