“I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head.”
El Greco was born in 1541 in Crete. El Greco’s father, Georgios Theotokopoulos, was a merchant and tax collector. El Greco received his initial training as a painter of the Cretan school, the leading centre of post-Byzantine art. Crete came into possession of the Republic of Venice since 1211 and our young El Greco pursued his career in Venice. In 1570 El Greco moved to Rome, where he executed a series of works strongly marked by his Venetian apprenticeship. In 1577, El Greco emigrated first to Madrid, then to Toledo, where he produced his mature works. At the time, Toledo was the religious capital of Spain and a populous city with “an illustrious past, a prosperous present and an uncertain future”. Toledo is where his name resonates the most! And its no mean achievement in a city of glorious past with various artistic and architectural embellishments!
Toledo’s checkered history also is characterised by intermingling culture which can be evidenced by the buildings of various styles that can be found in the walled city.
The Visigoths (a Germanic tribe) moved their capital here from Sevilla during the 5th century AD. These tribes united under Christianity and had a more or less centralized government. Nevertheless, when the Arabs crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 AD, they quickly arrived in Toledo just one year later and easily conquered the city.
The Muslims shepherded in Toledo’s amazing medieval period, a time of unparalleled prosperity and cultural advancement. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in harmony from this time until the Inquisition, thus Toledo’s nickname “La ciudad de las tres culturas” (“the city of 3 cultures”). Remember this when you walk across the city. Its fun identifying which religion a building style belongs to!
Toledo is just over an hour’s drive from Madrid and most tours go back by evening. Though it is one of the best day trips from Madrid; do stay overnight to truly experience the whole place for yourself.
Must see in Toledo:
- The Alcazar: The name though resembles Alcatraz, it really has nothing to do with it. It was a crown Prison, military barracks of its own armies and strangers, or silk workshops, before hosting the infantry academy and finally is now an army Museum. During the reigns of Alfonso VI and Alfonso X ‘the Wise’ it was rebuilt and became the first example of a square fortress with towers on the corners. It was once again rebuilt under Emperor Charles V, on this occasion by the architect Alonso de Covarrubias. The façades are Renaissance in style, and it has towers that give it a great silhouette. You will need a couple hours at least to check it out and peek at the adjacent museum.
2. Toledo Cathedral: This highly under-rated Baroque-style cathedral is a definite must see. Not least for the two paintings by El Greco. Lookout for ‘The Disrobing of Christ’ on the High Altar. There is also a museum grade collection of works that hang on either wall. Art lovers will have a memorable experience. Make sure you spare enough time for this place too!
3. Monastery of San Juan de Los Reyes: It was built as a “dynastic mausoleum” of queen Isabel the Catholic, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, of whom the queen was a devout admirer. Also, note the hanging chains on the exterior walls of the church. They refer to the prisoners freed during the Granada campaign. This beautiful Church with immaculate architecture and sculptures is worth seeing and remembering!
4. Mosque of Cristo de la Luz: Earlier known as Mezquita de Bab al-Mardum, it is the only one of the ten mosques that existed in Toledo. It was converted into a Chapel once it was occupied by the Christians. This building is an amalgamation of traditional Arabic architecture and Christain decor. Its weirdly attractive.
5. El Greco museum: If you have an iota of fascination to El Greco and his work, do check out this museum that features some of his works. The Marquis of Vega-Inclán joined a building and an adjoining palace and furnished it to dedicate to El Greco’s works. This place was renovated and now houses his paintings along with a titular view of his history and his views. (Website)
6. Synagogue of El Transito: Also called Synagogue of Samuel ha-Leví, this is a beautiful coming together of Jewish and Christain artistry. Look out for Mudejar elements and beautiful geometric and floral motifs, and inscriptions in Arabic and Hebrew. Its a living proof of this city’s amazing cosmopolitan history.
I felt listing the must-see places even in a small town like Toledo would be a fruitless act. And that says a lot!
I’m only through six and there could easily be so many more on this list. So I will go ahead and just list them in no particular order. All are exemplary in their own right. So try and check out Santa María la Blanca, Museum of Santa Cruz, Castillo de San Servando, Victorio Macho museum, Cathedral Primada, Iglesia del Salvador Toledo and so many more.
- First things first. There are so many day tours from Madrid. Please don’t do one. Stay overnight and absorb all Toledo has to offer. Two days is just about OK.
- If you really intend to explore Toledo thoroughly buy a Toledo card and save. Check the website.
- When travelling in the city bus, do keep your camera ready. There will be amazing views of the city at every other corner!
- There is a cute little sightseeing train that runs from Central Plaza de Zocodover. Its stops at most spots including the stop for panoramic views over Tagus river. Check their website for details. Good option if you are short on time.
- Toledo is very popular for swords and do check out some shops that also give you a glimpse into sword-making. My little one though didn’t see too interested!
- If you are coming by train, get onto one at Atocha Station in Madrid.
- The nightlife starts early and be sure to eat those Tapas and you soak in the changing hues at night.
- Visa for Indians: As a part of the Schengen countries; you will need a pre-approved visa to get in. I used VFS global. Takes about a week.
- Do plan a visit to the beautiful Almeira in southern Spain. It has a similarly wonderful vibe like Toledo!
- Bottom line is if you go to Madrid, save up a day or two to visit this place for a trip back in time!