A day out in El Greco’s Toledo

Toledo and Tagus River, Spain
Toledo sitting on a hill beside the Tagus River.

Degas was obsessed with ballerinas and horse races. Van Gogh had his landscapes of swirling brushstrokes and vivid colours. Dali enjoyed melting times pieces and fantastical elephants with spindly legs.

El Greco is most easily recognized for his paintings of twisted and elongated figures.

Although born in Crete, El Greco spent most of his life in Toledo, a small city less than an hour’s drive from Madrid. There, he produced one masterpiece after another. El Greco wasn’t known for his landscapes but he did create at least one painting in honor of his adoptive city.

In this painting, Toledo’s churches and bridges, surrounded by bright green rolling hills, sit under a stormy sky. The view is impressive and really captures El Greco’s love for the city. It’s been several years since I visited Toledo but I still remember how beautiful it looked sitting on the hilltop.

Entering the city from the western side you can see the grand arches of the medieval St.Martin’s Bridge, which is now a pedestrian walkway. It was built in the 14th century and then fortified with towers during the Renaissance. Parts of Toledo’s ancient city walls were also left standing — the most impressive are the different gates into the city.

At the center of the old city is the Toledo Cathedral whose Gothic spire pierces the horizon.

Work on the cathedral began in 1227 but it wasn’t completed until 1493. The Cathedral is huge and would take a couple hours to properly explore. There are numerous elaborately decorated chapels, a cloister garden, countless carvings and friezes, a collection of paintings by famous artists (some of which are by El Greco), fine stain glass windows and elaborate ironwork. The Toledo Cathedral is a visual feast full of beautiful architectural details.

In the summer it’s also a great place to escape the heat because the thick walls of limestone keep the inside of the cathedral nice and cool.

Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue inToledo, Spain
Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue

Another gorgeous Toledo landmark is the Santa Maria La Blanca, which is thought to be one of the oldest standing synagogues in Europe. Built in 1180, the building was later used as a Catholic church, a warehouse and an armory, before finally being restored and turned into a museum.

The inside of the synagogue is much more impressive than the outside. Wooden ceiling beams are supported by white pillars with dark decorative motifs carved into the tops. Horseshoe arches and earth colored floor tiles give the synagogue a Moroccan feel. The mixing of cultures is visible not only in the lavishly decorated alter with the overhead cross but also in the Star of David incorporated into the crown molding.

Not too far from the synagogue, the El Greco Museum is also worth checking out. It will immerse you in history and give you a sense of the times that he lived in. They have a good collection of his masterpieces as well as a selection of paintings by his peers.

I visited Toledo on a school trip, and although we only had a day to enjoy the city, I felt as though we managed to see quite a bit. I loved being able to just wander around the city’s intimate streets with my friends.

We were lucky to be there in the spring when everything was coming alive. Warm weather meant that trees were flowering in quiet little courtyards, adding pink splashes of color to the city. Charming balconies also livened up the city with potted plants trailing their vines down to the streets below.

And of course, I can’t leave out the food — Spanish cuisine is delicious! We stopped to have lunch at a restaurant called Mudejar, part of Hotel Carlos V Toledo. Elegant Moorish designs and beautiful archways in the main dining room made for a warm and inviting atmosphere.

Traditional cuisine from the La Mancha region of Spain, where Toledo is located, is very rich and filling. The restaurant’s menu is heavy on meat dishes but they also serve savory soups with fresh baked flatbread.

Once we had our fill of grandiose historic landmarks and mouth-watering food, it was time to shop. If you want a truly beautiful and unique souvenir from Toledo then Damascene wares are the way to go. These are objects made from black oxidized steel and gold foil inlays.

Toledo, Spain
The workshop where Toledo’s beautiful black and gold jewellery is created.

The craft originates from Damascus and goes back to the Middle Ages. In Toledo there are a number of workshops that produce Damascene jewellery, decorative daggers, plates etc. In some places you can even see how the pieces are made. It’s better to buy Damascene wares in a stores that specializes in them rather than standard tourist shops where they might just be selling fakes.

Although it felt like a busy day I know that we only saw a fraction of what Toledo had to offer. You can either pack your day full of cultural and historic sites or you can slow down the pace and sit in one of the city’s many plazas, sipping an espresso and people-watching. If I had more time I would do both.

 

 

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