Spain / Travel

Tantalizing Toledo: A Blend of Cultures

Not a day passes without news of a religious conflict somewhere in the world. But there was a time and place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together peacefully – where ideas were exchanged on art, architecture, science, and yes, even religion.

Practiced for centuries, this religious tolerance created a path to common goals, and as a result, the city prospered. This place was Toledo, Spain and the time was the 11th Century.

Toledo is incredibly well-preserved and its labyrinth of cobblestone streets lined with medieval buildings highlight this mix of cultures.

The Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca is a Jewish synagogue that looks conspicuously like a mosque. Built in 1200 by Muslim workers, it’s simplicity and marvelous repetition of theme made it one of our favorite buildings in all of Toledo.

Mudéjar can mean a couple of things: it’s the word for a Spanish Muslim who stayed behind after the Catholic Reconquest, but it can also mean a style of architecture strongly influenced by the Moors. This Mudéjar-style ceiling is in the Chapter Room in the Toledo Cathedral, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important Catholic cathedrals in all of Spain.

Beautiful Mudéjar towers are another common sight in Toldedo’s old town. This tower with its intricate tile and brickwork stands on the same small plaza as the Church of San Ildefonso, named for the 7th Century Christian cleric.

There are many reasons to visit Toledo: the Alcazar, a Moorish fortress that dominates the skyline: one of the largest and most impressive Gothic cathedrals in Europe; Medieval churches, monasteries, and convents both large and small; and the Museum of El Greco, Spain’s most famous artists. But one of the best reasons to visit is wandering the higgledy-piggledy, uphill-downhill streets and alleyways. There’s a surprise around every corner.

Toledo is only a 50-mile drive southwest of Madrid and can be reached by AVE high-speed trains in 30 minutes. The short driving distance as well as ease of access by train make it a popular day trip destination. Our recommendation is: don’t miss Toledo. If you can only squeeze in a day trip then so be it. But honestly, if there’s any way to spend a bit more time, you won’t be sorry. Part of the reward will be seeing more of the city, but another bonus is having time for some quiet meandering after the tour groups leave.

We spent three nights in Toledo, and that worked fine for us. Thanks to Terri’s research, we found a small apartment on the tiny, well-hidden Plaza San Justo, which is a stone’s throw from the Cathedral. The compact plaza had the Church of San Justo, in case you needed a confession, as well as two small restaurants with tables al fresco for the hungry and thirsty. For supplies, it had a small, but well-stocked, don’t-come-knockin’-during-siesta market, and most importantly, a trickle fountain with well-placed benches for watching the day unfold. This is Toledo when you take the slow-down approach. As we said, don’t miss it.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

57 thoughts on “Tantalizing Toledo: A Blend of Cultures

  1. Great post. I was just there on a day trip from Madrid and I wish I had had more time to spend. You are so right. It deserves at least a couple of days. I think the synagogue might have been my favorite as well.

  2. What a beautiful place. Twice I took the road to go to Lillo on route to Toledo for a course and now I’m kicking myself for not continuing on to Toledo for a visit.

  3. “…this religious tolerance created a path to common goals, and as a result, the city prospered.” Why can’t we all learn from history? The only way to develop, to move forward, and to prosper is to unite. It looks like Terri did her research well — that apartment looks so pretty and peaceful. Speaking of her, I hope her recovery process remains on track. All the best for you two!

    • Bama, I’m sure that like any community, Toledo had its tensions, and the Jews were restricted to the “Jewish Quarter.” But even with this separation, it developed into a center of commerce and learning, which must certainly show that most of the people there were reasonably tolerant, and tolerance is the key. And thanks for inquiring about Terri. Our Spain trip was our first big trip since Terri’s surgery and everything went really well. Thanks for asking. ~James

      • Really great to hear her speedy recovery! And yes, tolerance is key. But I do wonder if we’ve been being too tolerant to those who continuously spread hatred in our society.

  4. We were just talking about our next trip to Spain and, yes Toledo is on our list! Loved your photo of The Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca with its multiple pillars and arches. It reminded me of a white version (the la blanca in its name) of the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba where the Muslims, Jews and Christians also coexisted peacefully for a few centuries while the city there prospered too. Toledo looks like a place where we could easily spend spend three days immersed in this glorious city! Anita

    • Thanks Anita. As we recommended, definitely spend at least a couple of days there. The city is compact, and even though there are tons of things to see, one of the most pleasant things to do is to put the map away and ramble. Also, they’re serious about siesta here so that sometimes takes a bit of planning. That was usually when we would go back to our apartment for a beer on a bench in the plaza and a quiet lunch. You’ll love it. ~James

  5. Your lovely pictures and commentary reminded me of a road trip in Spain many years ago. I agree Toledo is unmissable unless you’re just doing an in-out weekend hop to Spain. But you make no mention of the medieval workshops for the famed Toledo swords. Have they disappeared?

    • Yes Bea, they’re still there. Just about every tourist-shop window has a large collection for sale. And as a matter of fact, you can buy an entire suit of armor to take home! I should have mentioned the workshops because that was one of the things that made Toledo prosperous. Thanks for the reminder. ~James

    • Laura, the encouraging thing about Toledo is that the peace lasted almost 500 years. But then came Ferdinand and Isabella, the forced conversions to Catholicism, expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the Inquisition. Unfortunately, you’re right – we never learn. ~James

  6. Really love your pitch for Toledo — a city of fascinating architecture and, as you called it, higgledy-piggledy uphill/downhill alleyways (which I love)! Your pictures make me want to see what you saw and experience what you experienced. Thanks for posting!

    • Thanks Rusha. If you need any further proof of the higgledy-piggledy streets, go to google maps and have a zoomed-in look at the historic center. It was the Middle Ages and north-south-east-west had no meaning when it came to laying out streets. Thank goodness for the map app on my iPhone. It was a lifesaver. ~James

  7. I really loved Toledo! I was lucky enough to be there for a religious festival, and besides the procession, several houses had opened their doors so that you could see the inner courtyards.

    Sicily was another another place that benefited from a period of religious tolerance. Didn’t last long though.

    Glad to hear you are able to travel again.

    • Thanks Kathy. The Spaniards in this part of the country know how to do courtyards that’s for sure. I remember being on a tour in Malaga and was able to visit a couple of courtyards of older homes and they were fabulous. They are so private, and quiet, as well as having a natural solution for fighting the heat. And BTW, it’s great to be able to travel again. ~James

    • Lexie, thanks for forwarding our post along and I hope it works. I assume that she’s flying into Madrid, and Toledo is only 30 min away by AVE train. And if nothing else, it will give her an excuse to see Madrid’s very cool Atocha station as well as Toledo’s delightful Neo-Mudéjar 1920s gem of a station. I hope she can make it. ~James

  8. I only spent a day in Toledo but loved it! I plan to take a trip with hubby and spend a few days in this unique city. I made a note of where you stayed. Great pictures as always.

    • I’m sure that you won’t be disappointed Darlene. And since you live in Spain, you already know much of the history, which will make it even more meaningful. Terri reserved our apartment on booking.com and it worked out perfectly. ~James

    • It really was a nice visit Susan. We lucked out with the weather, which can be unpredictable in March. With a bit of planning to avoid the worst of the tour groups, it’s cobblestone streets and alleys can be idyllic. ~James

    • Thanks Alison. Toledo is the classic Spanish fortified hill town. The river wraps around on three sides and the hillsides are steep – very scenic and great if the bad guys are at the gate. ~James

    • Thanks Dustin. Toledo definitely maintains it original Medieval street layout. The streets were laid out haphazardly, and they continue to be today. They’re a wonderful place to wander around. ~James

  9. Perhaps a giant magic wand could be waved across the world and all be transported back in time to peaceful and tolerant Toledo.
    Thanks for the tips on visiting here. Can I ask if Terri uses VRBO or Air BnB for her research?

    • Sadly Sue, I think the animosities are here to stay. Despite all the talk of peace, I’m not sure that either side really wants peace. Prejudice engrained for generations is almost impossible to change. Re: rental – At some point we’ve used all of the agencies, but Terri now exclusively uses booking.com. We must have done 25-30 rentals and have never had a problem with them. And if at all possible, we try to rent from organizations instead of individuals, and we will never rent an apartment that doesn’t have good reviews. ~James

  10. Also worth noting, James, at the time of religious tolerance in Toledo, there was also a great respect for science and Islamic scientist led the world in scientific discovery and curiosity. –Curt

  11. If only the world could be this peaceful! One of these days I shall head over the border from Portugal and see the bits of Spain I haven’t managed…. well, a few of them 🙂 🙂 This is right up there.

    • Thanks for the link Jean. I forgot to mention the marzipan, which is delicious. It was interesting that your partner mentioned the small food portions. Of course, cyclists need lots of fuel, so portion size is a big deal. ~James

    • Juliann, if wandering narrow, cobblestone streets appeals to you, you should add Segovia to your list. It’s another Medieval hill town just north of Madrid, and it has a similar feel – well, and of course a cathedral. ~James

  12. I have never been to Toledo, but your post and beautiful photos have certainly made me think it should be high on my list of places to visit soon. I love Spain, the food, the pace of life, the weather. Sounds like you found the perfect place to stay during your visit? I hope the nearby Cathedral did not wake you up too early with the bell ringing? I like the sound of sitting down by a nice little plaza to do some people watching 🙂

    • Gilda, we didn’t have to worry about bells from the big cathedral, there was another about 50 meters from our doorway on the Plaza San Justo. The good news was that they didn’t start the bells too early, nor ring them too late. And our Plaza was prime people watching because there were no other tourists around and it was only colorful, locals – and their dogs, kids, aunties, etc. ~James

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