Before leaving the United States, our tour guide presented us with the possibility of adding a city tour of Toledo, Spain to conclude our final day in Europe. So, that is precisely what we did! After spending the morning at Madrid’s Palacio Real, we took a private bus transfer to Toledo – the heart and soul of Spain. Since 1986, this monumental ancient city has been a captivating UNESCO World Heritage Site. Behind its mighty medieval walls and in a labyrinth of winding streets, are some of the most significant historical landmarks in Spain! Toledo’s spectacular old stone buildings and quiet cobblestone streets display the legacy of the past.
The city is located in central Spain; it is the capital of the province of Toledo and the autonomous community of Castile-La Mancha. Toledo is known as the “Imperial City” for having been the main venue of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Additionally, it is also called the “City of the Three Cultures” because of the cultural influences that Christians, Muslims, and Jews reflected in its history. For several centuries, these three religious groups thrived in Toledo; they built a dazzling array of churches, convents, palaces, synagogues, and mosques to amplify their success!
Tourists are often seen wandering the atmospheric narrow lanes, calm courtyards, and visiting artisan shops! Toledo has a long history in the production of bladed weapons, which are now one of the most common souvenirs in the city. Similarly, it is a place notorious for its traditional crafts, including damascene metalwork and antique-inspired swords. While exploring the city, we were able to visit a local sword factory and watch an artisan fast at work. The sword factory also had its own souvenir shop and I could not help myself from buying my own sword!
The Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo is a Roman Catholic church as well as one of the three 13th-century High Gothic cathedrals in Spain. The construction of the church began in 1226 under the rule of Ferdinand III and the last Gothic contributions were made in the middle of the 15th century. That is roughly 267 years of construction! The Cathedral is the centerpiece of Toledo, as it sits on top of the hill just below the Fortress of Toledo. One of the most outstanding buildings in the city, it is considered one of the greatest Gothic structures in all of Europe! The second-largest cathedral in Spain, it is also believed to be the most important church in Spain because of its history as the capital of the Catholic faith in Spain.
The retable of the Cathedral of Toledo is a very ornate Gothic altarpiece and is one of the last examples of this artistic style. This technique first started to disappear when the Renaissance began to take hold in Spain. Commissioned by Cardinal Cisneros, this masterpiece was made between 1497 and 1504. The interior of the Cathedral depicts extraordinary artwork and I was left breathless by its splendor on more than one occasion!
The retable rises to a tremendous height above the altar and consists of five continuous panels, the center panel being the widest. To accurately imagine the size of the retable, you must picture of a building that is five stories tall. Yes, it is that big! Overflowing with amazing detail, the altarpiece displays the entire New Testament with its intricately carved and life-sized sculptures made of gilded wood. It is a jaw-dropping example of artistry at its very finest! The themes of the central panel extend from top to bottom, culminating in a monumental scene of Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary.
The most famous works of art in Toledo are the masterpieces by the Spanish painter, El Greco, displayed throughout the city’s churches and convents. The Renaissance painter, desperate for commissions from the church, created some of his most famous masterpieces in Toledo. The walls of the Cathedral display a variety of elaborately framed paintings, forming a gallery of countless great works! Many more of El Greco’s paintings are on display inside the Museo del Greco but we did not have time to visit the museum.
The most renowned paintings inside the Cathedral of Toledo are the fifteen by El Greco, including his painting of ‘The Disrobing of Christ.’ This work of brilliance sits on the High Altar of sacristy, adorned by marblework and a pair of Corinthian columns. There is a document dating back to July of 1577, that mentions this painting as the earliest record of El Greco’s presence in Spain. Other paintings by El Greco from the Apostolados series are displayed on the side walls.
After the wonderful tour of the Cathedral of Toledo, we headed to the synagogue of Santa María la Blanca! The synagogue is a religious building that was erected in Toledo during the year 1180. Since it was constructed for Jewish use in Christian territory by Islamic designers, its stylistic and cultural categorization is very complex. Moreover, it beautifully symbolizes the cooperation between the three cultures who populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.
In numerous ways, the synagogue is considered one of the most admirable examples of Almohad architecture. The bare, white interior, the construction of pillars instead of columns, and the vegetal decoration of the capitals are prime characteristics of this. Although constructed as a synagogue, the absence of a women’s gallery makes it more representative of a mosque. Nevertheless, it became a church in the 15th century despite the absence of any major reforms. The synagogue soon acquired the name of Santa María la Blanca and has been known by this name ever since.
There is so much to love about Toledo, many of which relate to the city’s lively past and the well-preserved landmarks that remain. From stunning cathedrals to world-renowned swordsmiths and stunning panoramic views of the city, there are endless reasons why you should visit Toledo at least once in your lifetime! There is no denying that Toledo is one of the oldest and most unique cities in Spain. The former Spanish capital before Madrid, this city continues to make important contributions to Spain’s history. I fell in love with Toledo because it is truly one of Spain’s most magnificent cities.