Andalucia 2012 – Toledo…

My travels have taken me from Venice to Florence, and to Genoa – centers of commerce during the medieval period, and of heightened artistic and scientific endeavors during the Age of Enlightenment. Istanbul presented itself to me as a counterbalance, with similar pursuits and advancements equal to their European counterparts, and in some cases surpassing them.

My next destination continues to trace a path through Europe as it existed under Muslim occupation. That pathway brings me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule.

My favorite flights are those that are uneventful, as this one was. My only memories of it are giving up my window seat so a mother could sit with her child (who had booked seats separated by a row and an aisle), and being woken up at midnight Madrid time for yet another white something sandwich. By the time we land in sunny Madrid, I’m dying for a salad. I find one with white beans, red peppers, and eggs with bright orange yolks, the first orange yolks I had ever seen.

I board a city bus to the Madrid train station — a large, clean, modern multi-platform affair with large airport-style screens showing arrivals and departures. It’s pretty easy to navigate as long as you pay attention not only to your train number and gate, but also if your ticket says “Baha” (lower floor) or “Plata” (upper floor).  I exchange USD for euros, and find a ledge to sit on, within sight of the reader boards. There are beautiful palm trees just outside of the double glass doors, which I thought led outside, until I stepped through …

I enter a wing that looks like an aircraft hangar, filled with a conservatory containing full size palm trees, and a pond filled with over a hundred turtles of various sizes and ages. There are shops along the sides and a couple of restaurants. It is serene and I look forward to returning here to make my connection between Toledo and Cordoba.

  • Toledo is a small but historically important fortified town, halfway between Madrid and Cordoba. This Iberian city served as a Roman trade hub, a Visigoth capitol during the 6th century, and a Moorish capitol in the 8th century before coming under Christian rule during the Reconquista in 1085. It was the capitol of Spain until 1561 when Philip I moved Spain’s political center to Madrid. It remained Spain’s religious capitol.

It is pouring rain when I arrive at the beautiful Neo-Moorish train station, and it takes me several tries to hail a cab for the winding, uphill five minute ride to my hotel, The Santa Isabel, located in historic Central Toledo.

  • The Santa Isabel was built inside the restored home of a Toledan noble, and dates back to 1388. It went through a series of remodels during the 15th, 16th and 20th centuries. If you follow my travel blogs you will note my preference for lodging in historic properties rather than mainstream hotel chains. I get a much better feel for the country that way.

I walk through its 15th century doorway and up a colorful ceramic-tiled staircase, and enter my room. It is spartan, with heavy carved doors on iron hinges. A mock balcony overlooks a niche carved into the building across the narrow street. It is very quiet here and I fall almost immediately to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning in the crowded dining room is bread with olive oil, tomato puree and prosciutto, orange juice, and a cup of very thick coffee served with a double-sized packet of sugar. It’s a far cry from the Turkish breakfasts that I am now completely spoiled by. I finish quickly so I can start my plan for the day.

I thought Florence was the home of brilliant sculpture until I visited the Cathedral of Santa Isabel, which houses floor to ceiling works carved from the most beautiful marble I had yet seen. Of equal workmanship were the wooden pews, which appear to be of mahogany, and depict the defeat of Granada. They are reputed to be the largest carved choir in all of Europe.

  • The Cathedral of Santa Isabel, also called the Holy Church Cathedral is nearby. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, building began in 1227 over the foundation of a 6th century Visigoth church, which itself had been built over a mosque. The church was not finished until the 16th century.

The Chapel of St. Blaise, with its lapis-blue ceilings and murals, was stunning. The halos of the saints, done in gold leaf, were in remarkable condition for frescoes dating back to 1397. It was also the first cathedral I had visited that had electronic votive candles. One of the treasure rooms is filled with vestments, and I see an alter cloth that had been woven by Muslims, who had included an Arabic border around the central lozenges.

The Cloister of St. John the Kings was begun in 1389 by Rodrigo Alonzo under the direction of Archbishop Don Pedro Tenorio. It was finished in 1425. Finely wrought archways surround a courtyard which is intensely lush and beautiful.

I start thinking how to incorporate gothic arches into my hat designs …

The orange trees in the courtyard are in full fruit. There’s a roof of bird netting, presumable to keep the trees in more pristine condition. This cloister would be among the finest example of Spanish-Arabesque Gothic architecture I would see on this trip.

The ceilings surrounding the gardens are done in marquetry, and I spy a pair of stone lions passant on one of the overhead arches. I take a myriad of photos of the floor tiles, a feature I would become fixated on throughout this trip.

I wander around the Plaza de Zocodover, in and out of the wide alleys, watching workmen hang lanterns and large sun shades. I walk pass the parliament building of La Mancha which is housed in an old convent, and along the Arabel – “between walls” – one of the oldest parts of the city, built by Muslims to protect Toledo. Further down, the Bisagra Gate, on a bridge over the Tajo River, offers an exceptional viewpoint for the city.

I will remember Toledo as the city where churches, synagogues and mosques all look the same. The Synagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca was built by Muslim architects in the early 13th century, and converted to a church in 1492. I was surprised to see Islamic script carved around the doorway. Its ceiling reminds me of the ‘upside down ships’ hull” from a church I saw in Alaska, and the interior is filled with arches like those I had seen in pictures of the Mezquita in Cordoba.  The Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, Toledo’s oldest mosque, dates back to the turn of the 11th century, it’s keyhole arches facing Mecca. It too, was converted to a church less than 200 years later. 

Synagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca

The Museo de Santa Cruz, as noteworthy for its architecture as its contents, was formerly an orphanage and a hospital. It is home to the famous Tapestry of the Astrolabes. Woven in Belgium in 1480, it combines mythology and science to explain the divine world as it was perceived during the Middle Ages. 

The Astrolabe Tapestry

Lunch choices are pasta, pizza and doner kebab. So I choose – gelato! But it was really good gelato, the best I’ve had outside of Venice …

I thought Florence was the most austere city of my travels until I arrived here. Toledo is rugged, but compact, and in spite of its’ hills it is a fairly easy walk as I traverse the entire outskirt of the city before heading back towards its center. I look for souvenirs to buy, but Toledo is a ‘trinket’ city, full of reproduction helmets from the Roman and Medieval periods; blades that are labeled as damascus but which do not bear the patterning; damascene plates and other items geared towards tourists.  I could not find English books, or in fact many books at all. 

English is not a language of choice here, and hard as I try, my limited repertoire of phrases fail, and yet people continue to speak to me in Spanish long after I have said “no habla Espanol,” a statement which is met with intolerance. It’s an interesting comparison to my trips to Italy, where nearly everyone speaks at least a smattering of English, or to Istanbul, where pantomime has evolved into an art form …

Dinner this evening is at the El Foro Cafe, where I point to a chicken and seafood paella on the photo-menu (a god-send when you have a language barrier). I think paella must be a national dish, and it is a specialty of this cafe. It arrives with seafood in shell, immersed in the rice and messy to eat, but the squid and calamari are very tender and flavorful. I am smitten by the violetta mojito, deep purple at the bottom of the glass, fading to the palest lavender at the top, and “like drinking candied violets.” I had been introduced to ‘cafe violetta’ in Genoa, and it would take me weeks of searching for the elusive elixer upon my return to Seattle …

After dinner I board a tour bus, which includes really great views of The Fortress, Toledo’s ‘castle’, perched on the top of the tallest hill in the city. It’s easy to see how difficult it must have been to have finally conquered this city …

I’m back on the road the next morning. There’s no direct route from Toledo to any other city, so it’s back to the train hub at Madrid. The landscape between Toledo and Madrid reminds me a lot of Eastern Washington, right down to the ridge that is the same shape and texture as Ahtaneum Ridge, and the red clay soil that lines the railroad tracks. About an hour outside of Toledo, olive groves give way to deciduous trees and more rugged mountains in the distance. The power polls are topped with glass transformers which make them masquerade as street lights …

Back in Madrid, the misting machines are at work in the conservatory, humidifying the court of palms. The pond is swarming with baby turtles clamoring up the cement ‘sunning’ platform, while adult turtles are vying for space at the bubbleator. At the cafe I am introduced to cafe con leche, which appears to be a shot of expresso served with half & half. The menu lists a ‘traditional breakfast’ as cafe, and either a croissant with jam, or some sort of fried pastry. I confuse the counterperson by ordering a club sandwich …

Finally, it’s time to board. The trains in Spain are newer, cleaner and much less industrial than those in Italy, and I watch a crew of men and women in bright orange coveralls, washing the outside of the windows on the train the next track over. My next destination is Cordoba, where the forecast is for 82 degrees. It’s raining back home in Seattle, and friends are pretty jealous …

For pictures of the day, please see my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

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