If you want to get to know Toledo, dust off your walking shoes and get ready. The city is an intricate, windy conglomeration of narrow and often steep streets that cannot possibly be mastered in a short period of time. A map of the city shows a magnificent labyrinth placed atop a hill, with no structure whatsoever. To arrive in Toledo is to confront a city in which almost every stone tells a centuries old history. There is no point in trying to divide it rationally; there are really only two concrete areas: the Casco Histórico, or Historical Quarter, which is, essentially, the whole of the old city; and the newly-built neighborhoods, which are separated by the city walls. The
Go through the impressive Puerta de Bisagra and you find yourself in the Historical Quarter; you will immediately perceive the special atmosphere that is the result of the mixture of history and modernity, most notably in architecture. You can easily note this blend in the
From Zocodover the Cuesta del Alcázar (Fortress Hill) leads up to the
Calle Comercio also leads to the
Carrying on straight on Hombre de Palo Street leads to Calle Trinidad, a steep hill that leads up to Plaza del Salvador (Square of the Saviour), where both tourists and Toledans go for a bit of recreation, especially on sunny days. This is very close to one of Toledo's most popular streets,
Outside of the city walls, you find a very different Toledo; a modern city with all the apartment blocks you find all over Spain, though some parts, such as Vega Baja, have historic remains such as those of the
Tour 1: Outside Toledo's City Walls
Our walk, which will take about an hour and a quarter, begins along the left bank of the Tagus (Tajo) River. Along the way you can clearly see the characteristic earthy color of the buildings in Toledo's Historical Quarter. You will also appreciate the majesty of the old city walls that tell of medieval battles, monarchs and legends across the centuries.
Let's begin by crossing the river across the beautiful San Martín Bridge. From here, you can see San Juan de los Reyes Monastery, proudly reaching up to the sky. After crossing the bridge, turn left and go down the steps leading to the river. They will lead under an ancient arch to the mythical Baño de la Cava tower. Retracing our steps, we go back up the steps, turn left and walk uphill to admire the magnificent Puerta del Cambrón gateway, the impressive entrance to Toledo. Continuing in the same direction, with the city wall to the right, we walk along the tree-lined Paseo de Recadero and reach the Puerta de Alfonso VI gate, just after the Hostal del Cardenal. With its touch of Becquerian romanticism it is very inviting, but we will resist the temptation to enter and continue instead along the outside of the wall to reach the massive and imperial Puerta de Bisagra (Hinged Gate), which we will go through. As soon as we do so, we find ourselves in front of the Iglesia de Santiago el Mayor church.
Leaving it to our right, we continue uphill along the road to the grandiose Puerta del Sol gateway. If we had felt like it, we could have taken some steps on the right-hand side of the road leading to the Puerta de Valmardón a few metres before this. But we will go to the Puerta del Sol, cross under it, and continue up the street. Reaching the Plaza de Zocodover, we pass under the Arco de la Sangre (Arch of Blood) to go down once more towards the river. Going down Cervantes Street we pass the beautiful Santa Cruz Museum. A little further down we turn and find ourselves by the Concepción Convent. Turning to the right, we go to the end of the square then turn left and go down some steps. A few meters more and there are some more steps to go down. They lead to the Puerta de Doce Caños gate that takes us back to past eras with Ommiad Caliphs and 11th century kingdoms. Going through it leads to the majestic Alcántara Bridge from where we can see the solid structure of San Servando Castle.
Tour 2: The Jewish Quarter
Though it may be a bit of a cliché these days, the Jewish Quarter is an integral part of Toledo's Historical Quarter. The Jewish Quarter, which disappeared as such in 1492 as a result of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, is a window into the past. The Jewish people left their mark on Spain, and especially on this city.
Without a doubt, it is the eastern part of the Jewish Quarter that attracts most tourists. It starts in the Paseo de San Cristóbal boulevard, from where you can see unique buildings like the Tránsito Synagogue, El Greco's House and Museum, and other Mudejar-style buildings. Taking the Travesía de los Descalzos, you reach the Plaza del Conde where the Fuensalida Palace is located. Built by the first Fuensalida Count, Don Pedro López de Ayala, it is today the seat of the Regional Government. In the square you can also visit the Iglesia de Santo Tomé church, where one of El Greco's most famous paintings resides, El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz).
Opposite the church is the street, San Juan de Dios, once inhabited by rich Jewish families during the Middle Ages. About half-way along, on the left, is Samuel Leví street that leads to El Greco's House and Museum. Samuel Leví will also take you to the popular Paseo del Tránsito, one of the few parts of the Old Quarter with gardens. From here, you have pleasant views of the Tajo River and Toledo country houses. You will also find the Tránsito Synagogue in this street. On the right is Reyes Católicos street, the nerve center of the Jewish Quarter in ancient times. Continuing along Reyes Católicos you will come to the Santa María la Blanca Synagogue, and then San Juan de los Reyes square that contains a Monastery of the same name. Just before the Monastery, is Angel street, the main access between the Jewish Quarter and the rest of the city. This street leads to Santo Tomé street, and then to Plaza de El Salvador, Trinidad street, and Taller del Moro street, and finally back to our starting point, the Paseo de San Cristóbal.
Tour 3: Vicinity of the Tagus (Tajo) River
If you would like to take a break from the busy narrow streets of the Historical Quarter, we recommend a visit around the Tagus River area, along the Carretera del Valle road. You can reach this by car via the Carretera de la Cornisa road. From this same road, there are lovely views along the banks of the Tagus, where you can see the remains of old windmills like those of Daicán.
The Carretera del Valle takes us to the Ermita de la Virgen del Valle (Shrine of the Virgin of the Valley), a place revered by Toledo citizens and visited on the first of May during the celebrations of the romería in her honor. Above the shrine, between the crags that mark the hillside, is a great rock known as the Piedra del Rey Moro (Stone of the Moorish King) because of its strange shape. A little lower down, on the left-hand side of the road, there is a little pathway leading to a small boat that serves as transportation across the river, due to a lack of bridges here. Down here is the Cerro del Bú (Bú Hill), the site of archaeological digs where you can see the remains of fortifications.
The Carretera del Valle descends towards the Valle de la Degollada, a spot you can access via a bridge built in the 1930s. Before reaching the Roman Puente de Alcántara (Alcántara Bridge), you can see the remains of the Acueducto Romano (Roman Aqueduct). At the end of the bridge is the Castillo de San Servando (San Servando Castle), and immediately after that the Academia de Infantería (Infantry Academy), built in the Cerros de San Blas. After the Puente de Alcántara, the Paseo de la Rosa begins. It is one of the most important entrances into Toledo. You can see the Fuente de Cabrahigos (Cabrahigos Fountain) opposite the Estación de Ferrocarril (Railway Station).
Leaving the station, and taking the road back towards the city, you reach Palacio de Galiana (Galiana Palace). To finish off our tour, drive through the Puerta de Bisagra, and on foot cross the Puente de Alcántara and from there go on up to the Plaza de Zocodover (Zocodover Square), the city's nerve center.
Toledo, declared Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO, has a long and prodigious history. It was a fortified urban zone even in the era of the Iberians, before the arrival of the Romans who conquered it in the year 192 BCE. Later, the Barbarians would invade the by-now decadent empire. Among these were the Alanis and the Visigoths. In the year 411, the Alanis captured the town, but their victory was short-lived; seven years later the Visigoths would conquer Toledo. By the 7th century, the Visigoths completely dominated the Peninsula, making Toledo the capital of Spain. This situation lasted for 124 years, until the arrival of the Moors in 711.
During the first three-and-a-half centuries of Moslem rule in Al Andalus, Islam dominated Toledo, called 'Tolati-Tola' by the Moors. This period saw the three major religious communities - Moslems, 'Mozarabes' (Christians living under Moslem rule in medieval Spain) and a significant Hebrew minority - all living peaceably together.
In 1035, Alfonso VI of Castilla captured the city and made it his capital. The Jewish community continued to have a significant presence, and became one of the most flourishing in the world. The heritage they left includes two ancient synagogues in the Jewish quarter. Along with the Jews and the Christians were the Mudejars, the Muslims living under Christian rule. They gave birth to a unique artistic style, the Mudejar, a synthesis of Christian and Muslim aesthetics and possibly the most characteristic of Spanish artistic trends that survived well after the Muslim presence quit the Iberian Peninsula.
Toledo in the 13th century saw a tremendous cultural revival under King Alfonso X El Sabio (The Wise), and the School of Translators was established. The sages working there translated works from Arabic or Hebrew into Latin. They thus brought to Europe the knowledge of the erudite Muslims, far superior to Christian learning of the time. But even more importantly, these translations were the means through which Europe rediscovered classical learning, as the works of all the great Greek philosophers and other learned men had first been translated into Arabic.
Despite the fact that later Monarchs had itinerant courts and no longer established them in Toledo, the city retained its significance until the end of the Christian "Reconquest" of Spain in 1492. It was then that the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the Jews from their kingdoms. The expulsion of the Jews, and with them their cultural and socio-economic importance, had a serious impact on the city.
In the 16th century, when the Spanish Empire was in full bloom, Carlos I of Spain and V of Austria settled his court in Toledo. Unfortunately, the Empire itself led to the decline of Toledo. The city was too small for administering the Empire's vast resources, and in 1561, Felipe II moved the court to Madrid. Ironically, Madrid had gained importance only as a military outpost for the defense of Toledo. The once-imperial city fell into decline, and never again regained its past importance.
In the 20th century, the last of the Spanish civil wars swept the country between 1936 and 1939. At the beginning of the struggle, Toledo acquired crucial psychological and propagandist importance as the city was entirely in Republican hands, except for the besieged Alcázar (castle). Nevertheless, the city languished again during the four decades of Franco's dictatorship. This changed with the arrival of democracy at the end of the 1970s. Spain was structured into 17 autonomous communities (similar to federal states) and Toledo became the capital of one of them, Castilla La Mancha. As a regional capital, it has successfully recovered some of its dynamic past.
Toledo offers tourists a broad range of accommodation, from cheap hotels and economic guesthouses, right up to the likes of the Parador Nacional and several four-star hotels offering magnificent views of this beautiful city.
Each year, thousands of tourists flock to the historical city, a great rock cradled by the Tagus River where Christians, Jews and Muslims have all left their mark. Due to tourist numbers, the past few months have seen the beginning of several hotel building projects - two luxury hotels in the Historical Quarter (Reyes Católicos and the Plaza del Juego de Pelota) and others in Cigarral del Bosque and Carreras de San Sebastián. There has also been renewed talk of converting the old Hospital de Tavera, which houses the Archivo de la Nobleza (Archives of Nobility), into accommodation. Other hotel chains, such as Meliá, Sheraton and NH, have expressed interest to the City Council in opening hotels in the city.
Many of the hotels already in Toledo are located around the Valle and Cigarrales, as well as on the city outskirts on the roads to Ávila and Madrid. There are also good hotels, both expensive and economical, in the Historical Quarter. Advanced booking is recommended, because on public holidays that are considered of tourist interest - Corpus Christi and Semana Santa (Easter Week) - hotel accommodation is at a premium.
Although there are currently no five-star hotels in Toledo, the Parador Nacional is a good choice for those who like luxury. Strategically situated and with splendid views of the city, it holds the honor of being where the acuerdo de las pensiones (lodging accord), better known as the Pacto de Toledo (Pact of Toledo), was signed six years ago. Among its frequent visitors are well-known personalities like football players Sanchís and Raúl, and singers like Sara Montiel and Juan Manuel Serrat. Very close to the Parador is the Hotel Doménico, more modern but no less beautiful nor less comfortable. In the area of the Valle, between the Puente de Alcántara and the Puente de San Martín and along a road running parallel to the river, there are many cigarrales - typical Toledo country homes - that have been converted into hotels. They include Abacería, Los Cigarrales (inexpensive) and La Almazara (very cheap), and all have panoramic views of the city. In the same area, but in a new building, is the AC Ciudad de Toledo Hotel, a popular conference venue.
On the city outskirts, along the road leading to Ávila, stands the Hotel Beatriz. With its 295 rooms, it offers the largest accommodation capacity available in Toledo. Its 23 conference rooms seating 2,000 people make it a popular choice for many national conventions. More moderately priced, and located on the outskirts of the city on the road leading to Madrid, are the hotels María Cristina and Mayoral, close to the bullring. There are two four-star hotels in the Historical Quarter, Carlos V and Alfonso VI. They are located right in the city center, beside the Alcázar (Fortress). Very handily located, they are within walking distance of places of interest, shops and the lively atmosphere of the Plaza de Zocodover, the city's nerve center.
The Hotel Pintor El Greco, located right in the middle of the Jewish Quarter, offers good value for money - although prices rise during Corpus Christi and Semana Santa. Close by are monuments like the Sinagoga del Tránsito, Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca, Iglesia de Santo Tomé (Saint Thomas' Church), the Palacio de Fuensalida (Fuensalida Palace) and the Cortes de Castilla-La Mancha (Castilla-La Mancha Parliament). Even more economical is the cozy