Toledo is one of the Spanish cities with the greatest wealth of monuments. Known as the “city of the three cultures”, because Christians, Arabs and Jews lived together there for centuries, behind its walls Toledo preserves an artistic and cultural legacy in the form of churches, palaces, fortresses, mosques and synagogues. This great diversity of artistic styles makes the old quarter of the capital of Castile - La Mancha a real open-air museum, which has led to it being declared a World Heritage Site. Read more
Toledo is also a city linked to deep popular traditions, as the procession of the Most Holy Corpus Christi, a festival declared of International Tourist Interest, demonstrates every year.
The city of Toledo has its origins in Toletum, the name the Romans gave to this settlement on the banks of the River Tagus after its conquest in 190 BC. The city maintained its importance for centuries and, in the Visigothic era, became the capital of Hispania (6th C.). The arrival of the Arabs in the 8th century, together with the presence of Christians and Jews, made Toledo the “city of the three cultures”. This was one of the Toledo's most splendid periods when, among other important events, the Toledo School of Translators was founded. Later, when Carlos V came to the throne in 1519, the city became an imperial capital.
The way that Christians, Arabs and Jews lived side by side for centuries has been reflected in the form of a great artistic and cultural legacy. The maze of streets making up the historic centre of Toledo is only bounded by walls in which many gates were opened. The Bisagra gate, presided over by two bodies and a great imperial shield forms the main access to the city within the walls. This noble gate, of Muslim origin, includes a central courtyard and was altered during the reign of Carlos I (Emperor Carlos V)I. The Alfonso VI gate or Vieja de Bisagra gate, built in 838, is one of the most faithful reflections of Muslim art in the city. The Sol gate was built in the 13th century in Mudejar style and contains the remains of a paleochristian sarcophagus.
Via these and other entrances you can reach picturesque places, like the Plaza de Zocodover. In the Arab period, this central space housed an important market, and festivals and all kinds of social events were held here. Nowadays the square, surrounded by buildings with porches, continues to be one of the busiest places in the city.
Synagogues, mosques and churches jostle in the narrow streets of Toledo, which is characterised by the mixture of artistic styles.
The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz, which predates the Christian reconquest, was built in 999 as a copy of the Mosque at Córdoba. It is an unusual building with a square floor plan covered by nine caliphal vaults (a type of groined vault leaving the centre free). To this, a Romanesque-Mudejar sanctuary was added in the 12th century.
Good examples from the Mozarabs (Christians who lived under Moslem rule) are the churches of San Sebastián and Santa Eulalia, while the Mudejars left in Toledo a style with rich Arab decoration. Horseshoe arches, lobed windows and other architectural elements can be appreciated in various buildings in Toledo. Santiago del Arrabal is one of the best examples of this style in the city, which has led this church also being known as the Mudejar Cathedral. The origin of its construction is uncertain, although it was probably in the time of King Alfonso VI when the church was built, taking advantage of an old mosque. The outstanding features of the early structure are a tower which recalls a Muslim minaret.
The same Mudejar style can be seen in the church of Santo Tomé, famous for housing El Greco's famous picture entitled “El entierro del Conde Orgaz” (The burial of Count Orgaz). A 14th-century Mudejar tower stands above the rest of the building, which dates from the 12th century and has Visigothic elements on its main façade.
If there is one person's name that defines Toledo it is that of El Greco (16th-17th C.). His House-Museum, a palace with the atmosphere of the period, exhibits some of the best works of the painter who made the city world famous.
Remains of the Jewish community are still preserved in the city in the synagogues of Santa María la Blanca and El Tránsito. The former, built possibly in the 12th century, is also a good example of Toledo's Mudejar art. It has five naves with decreasing heights as well as the characteristic geometrical and botanical decoration and horseshoe arches. Meanwhile, in the synagogue of El Tránsito, built in 1357, you can admire one of the best Mudejar coffered ceilings of all those preserved in Toledo, along with walls richly decorated with geometrical and botanical designs and Hebrew inscriptions. Nowadays, this Jewish place of worship houses the Sephardic Museum, in which an interesting collection of pieces of art and various objects used in Jewish ceremonies are exhibited.
One of the most outstanding buildings in the city is the Cathedral, considered one of the high points of Gothic art. The construction of this monumental building, with a basilica floor plan and five naves, because in 1226, although it was not finished until the 15th century. This is reflected in the great superimposition of styles in the building and the large number of renowned artists who left their mark on the church: from Pedro Berruguete, to Enrique Egás, Petrus Petri and Juan Guas. On its main facade the outstanding feature is the doorway, made up of three doors: Infierno (Hell), Perdón (Forgiveness) and Juicio (Judgement). The exterior is topped by the two cathedral towers, one of them in flamboyant Gothic style and the other in Gothic-Renaissance.
Inside, the choir stalls, located in the building's central nave, are outstanding. Other main features are the beautiful flamboyant Gothic reredos in the main chapel as well as the many minor chapels, like those of San Ildefonso and El Sagrario, where the Arfe Processional Monstrance is housed. This is a huge piece of precious metalwork decorated with 260 images and made of silver bathed in gold by Enrique de Arfe between 1517 and 1524. The treasure, at 2.5 metres high and weighing more than 160 kilos, takes the leading role in the procession of the Most Holy Corpus Christi, a festival declared of International Tourist Interest.
Meanwhile, the Cathedral Museum houses a rich collection of works by painters like Goya, El Greco, Lucas Jordán and Van Dyck.
Also Gothic are the San Martín bridge, which was built in the 13th century with its two characteristic defensive towers, and the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. This superb example of flamboyant Gothic was one of the masterpieces of Juan Guas, who carried out the scheme commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs. The building, in flamboyant Gothic style, has a church which is outstanding for its great ornamentation and for its cloister, of great sculptural value.
The Renaissance mark on Toledo can be appreciated in the Hospital de Tavera, turned into a museum housing pictures by El Greco, Ribera and Titian, among others. Important architects of the period, like Covarrubias, Berruguete and Bustamante took part in its construction. Inside, the outstanding features are its courtyard, the tomb of Cardinal Tavera, the work of Berruguete, and the pharmacy, which maintains its original appearance.
The palaces of Lorenzana, the site of the University, and Fuensalida are in Baroque style. Meanwhile, the Fortress, of medieval origin, presides over the whole city with its imposing image and contains a military museum and one of the largest public libraries in Spain. In its time it was an imperial residence, although the current building was later than the work carried out by Covarrubias and Herrera on the commission of Carlos I. Behind its thick walls it hides a large central courtyard and the imperial staircase. Meanwhile, on it southern façade, the oldest that remains, it has a viewpoint enabling you to see a beautiful view of the River Tagus and the city's surroundings.
Cuisine, festivals and surroundings
Toledo's cuisine has various specialities based on game products, like stewed partridge, Toledo-style quail or venison with wild mushrooms. With the other provinces of La Mancha it shares pisto (based on pepper, tomato and onion), Castilian soup and migas (dish made with breadcrumbs and pork products). To round it off there is the famous La Mancha cheese and marzipan (made from ground almonds and sugar). These dishes may be accompanied with the wines of La Mancha and Méntrida, each with a Denomination of Origin.
The most important date in Toledo's calendar is Corpus Christi, which is celebrated nine weeks after Easter. This festival, which has centuries of tradition and has been declared of International Tourist Interest, has its culminating moment in a large and colourful procession going round the historic centre of the capital of La Mancha.
There are many possibilities for accommodation in the city, although it is advisable to book well enough in advance at any time of year. One of the best options is the Toledo Parador, situated on the neighbouring Emperador Hill and from where you can get a wonderful view of the city.
Other interesting places in the province of Toledo are Talavera de la Reina, with its Collegiate Church of Santa María la Mayor; Ocaña, with its Gothic-Mudejar church of San Juan Bautista; Guadamur, with a beautiful castle; and Oropesa, whose 14th-century castle-palace houses the local Parador de Turismo.
In the south of the province, at the foot of the Montes de Toledo, is the Cabañeros National Park, a protected area that combines Mediterranean woodland in the mountains and meadows on the wide plains.
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