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 neighbourhoods, which are separated by the city walls. The Puerta de Bisagra (Bisagra Gate) is probably the most popular means of entry into the old city.
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 Plaza de Zocodover, which used to be the marketplace and is now the city’s nerve centre, both in social and geographical terms. Here the architecture of the impressive entrances that surround the plaza is blended together with that of the accommodation now built into the romantic arches. And just by the square you can visit Calle Comercio, the street with the greatest concentration of shops as well as typical Toledo craft workshops.
From Zocodover the Cuesta del Alcázar (Fortress Hill) leads up to the Alcázar itself, the military citadel built by Alfonso VI after the Reconquest. It now houses the Military Museum and the regional library and, in spite of its sombre and imposing appearance, the building’s magnificence is undeniable. From Zocodover, you can reach the Museum of Santa Cruz and the Tuesday market, by crossing through the Arco de la Sangre (Arch of Blood). From here you also have an impressive view out over the Tagus (Tajo) River.
Calle Comercio also leads to the Cathedral, after crossing the narrow but lively Hombre de Palo Street, which is also full of shops and restaurants that are quite popular with tourists and locals alike. The street ends at an intersection that leads to different areas of interest. Off to the left are places such as Palacio Arzobispal (the Archbishop’s Palace) and the cathedral walls, which rise up in front of the palace; these Gothic walls support one of the most important cathedrals not only in Spain, but in all of Europe, due to its architectonic majesty. Both of these sights are found in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (Town Hall Square), where you can also see the Renaissance style Casa Consistorial (Town Hall) itself.
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, Santo Tomé, which has recently been pedestrianised. Here there are arts and crafts shops, restaurants, as well as beautiful buildings like Palacio de Fuensalida (Fuensalida Palace) and El Greco’s House. This whole area is full of art, history and religion. From Santo Tomé Street you can also get to Museo Taller del Moro (Museum and Workshop of the Moor) and from there to Paseo del Tránsito, one of the city’s best lookout points, where you get a great view of the area referred to as El Valle (The Valley) where you can see the cigarrales, typical Toledo country homes.
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 Circo Romano (Roman Amphitheatre). The Covachuelas neighbourhood, too, is where the Roman Theatre is buried. Aside from these areas, the Buenavista and Avenida de Europa neighbourhoods offer shopping and leisure opportunities to the visitor, if not historical ones.
History of Toledo
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 BC. 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 Moslems living under Christian rule. They gave birth to a unique artistic style, the ‘Mudejar’, a synthesis of Christian and Moslem aesthetics and possibly the most characteristic of Spanish artistic trends that survived well after the Moslem 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 Moslems, 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 defence 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 rent the country between 1936 and 1939. At the beginning of the struggle, Toledo acquired crucial psychological and propagandistic 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.