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.
It must be said that the streets of Toledo are not very lively during the week, because few places remain open until the wee hours of the morning. Your best bet for midweek entertainment is a trip to the movies in either the Multicines María Cristina or the Multicines Mayoral. It is also worth checking out whether the Teatro de Rojas has any interesting cultural offerings.
While Toledo nights can be full of energy and all-night drinking and dancing, days are reserved for more cultural affairs. You can spend the day walking through the twisted streets admiring the architecture of the city's many monuments, don't miss the beautiful, Gothic Cathedral that stores a large collection of religious ornaments and paintings. The Museo del Ejército is located inside Alcázar castle along with the library. The Casa Museo de El Greco, in the old jewish quarter has some spectacular pieces of art from this famous painter. Also in the vicinity is the Sinagoga del Tránsito, which houses the Sefardí Museum. The Iglesia de Santo Tomé proudly displays the most famous El Greco painting, El entierro del Conde de Orgaz. The Museo de Santa Cruz exhibits more of El Greco's art along with some archeological pieces and examples of popular art. For contemporary art, visit Museo de Victorio Macho and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, that features paintings from Antonio López, among others.
Everything changes on Thursdays. This is the day when students from the Castilla-La Mancha University hold their faculty parties, so if you are out on this night you will come across a lot of university students.
We will start off our night in the district of Santa Teresa, in the Plaza de Cuba, an area of the city that is constantly growing. There are several cervecerías (pubs mainly serving beer and tapas) to choose from, the best being El Pasito and El Hórreo. After this, you can stay in Santa Teresa and choose among several different options. For some quiet drinks in an exclusive establishment, there is La Embajada, located at the junction of Maestros Espaderos. In the same area you will find the only karaoke bar in Toledo, Fernando's, where they also have live shows. The following places have a more youthful atmosphere: Katanga and Otto Max. Modern music and young people are the essential ingredient of these pubs that usually stay open until about 4a.
The city's Historical Quarter has more to offer. A great place to go is the spacious La Taberna de Garcilaso, where, if you're lucky, you will catch live music, magic and comedy shows. The Pícaro is similar. It's worth a visit for their well-presented cocktails alone.
Jazz and blues buffs should go for a drink at El Último, where they also have the occasional concert.
For those who really like rocking it until late, Toledo has a small but varied and interesting selection of discotheques and after-hours bars. In the Historical Quarter is that doyen of discotheques, Sithon's; they have had Toledo citizens dancing for over 30 years. Outside the Historical Quarter is La Ronda, a disco with go-go dancers, striptease and lots of surprises.
For anyone with energy left to spare, you can always start over at the cervecerías in the district of Santa Teresa.
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.