Toledo: The City of Three Cultures

Toledo, once capitol of the Spanish Empire, is a beautiful medieval city perched upon a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River in central Spain. It is one of the best preserved historic cities in Spain, and is known for its grand palaces, fortresses, mosques, churches and synagogues. It is also famous for its diverse cultural influences, with a strong Jewish, Moorish and Christian past. With a population of around 75,000 people, Toledo is the capitol of its own province and also of the Castile-La Mancha region. Located only about 70 km south of Madrid, one can fly into the Madrid Barajao Airport, and then take either a train or bus on to Toledo. Once in the city, the public transportation system works well and includes a tourist train. Otherwise, Toledo’s historic center is easily explored on foot.

Toledo is believed to have been first settled around 540 BC by a Jewish colony. Around 190 BC it is was taken by Rome and called Toletum, becoming the capitol of Hispania by the 6th century. In the 8th century the city was taken by the Moors, and in this period Jews, Christians and Moors lived together in the city, each culture contributing its own flavor to Toledo’s unique architectural and cultural style with tolerance at its center. In 1085 Alfonso VI liberated Toledo from the Moors as part of his Reconquista of Spain. At this point Christianity dominated, and the period of tolerance was over. Toledo continued to be central to Spain’s history as it continued to be not only the country’s capitol, but also the Imperial Capitol under Charles V in 1519. Its importance diminished, however, when Philip II moved his capitol to Madrid in 1561. It could be that this shift saved the city from development and modernization, allowing it to remain one of the best preserved historic cities in the country. With over 2000 years of history, there are endless things to explore in this culturally diverse city. In addition, Toledo was the birthplace and home to one of Spain’s greatest artists of the Golden Age, El Greco, born in the 16th century. Evidence of his role in the city can be seen throughout.

While Toledo is always a great place to visit, it is especially exciting during the Corpus Christi celebrations, the most important festival in Toledo since the 15th century. The entire city participates in these festivities which include historic banners dating from the 16th and 17th centuries which grace the old houses as a procession from the Cathedral passes through the winding streets carrying the Monstrance which was made of gold and silver in 1515 and weighs 160 kilos. The streets are covered in fragrant herbs, bells ring from the churches, and giants, representing the continents, join in the parade. Even if you are unable to be there for this religious holiday, Toledo always offers a wonderful experience for its visitors with an abundance to explore. Be sure to visit the many historic mosques, synagogues and churches which testify to Toledo’s rich, diverse, and unique cultural past.


The City Gates

As you enter Toledo, be sure to note the beautiful historic gates. Bisagra Gate was the main access point to the city and was built under the Muslim regime. It included not only a door to the city, but also a beautiful central courtyard. It was somewhat modified by then Emperor Charles V, but is still spectacular. The Vieja de Bisagra, also known as the Alfonso VI Gate, was built c.838, and is considered the most faithful piece of Muslim art in the city. The Sol Gat, built in then 13th century in the Mudéjar style, is noteworthy for the paleochristian sarcophagus which sits within.

Puente de Alcántara

This bridge to the city was first built in Roman times, but was rebuilt in the 15th century in the Almanzor period. It has been one of the most important entrances to the city, where merchants and visitors would enter in the Middle Ages, and as the main entrance at that time, it was here that the guards kept track of who came and went.

Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz

Built in c. 999, this incredible mosque amazingly remains wholly intact. It was built in the Arabic style with a square base, and despite being converted to a Christian church in the 12th century, very few changes to the structure were made.

Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca

Like many mosques in Toledo, many of the Jewish synagogues survived in Toledo because they were converted to Christian churches rather than destroyed. This Catholic church, dedicated to Saint Mary, was first built as a synagogue in the 12th century in the Mudéjar style. It features five naves and pillars with horseshoe arches. It was converted to a Christian church by the Order of the Calatrava in the 15th century. Of note are the wooden coffered ceilings and the Plateresque altars.

The Cathedral of Toledo

In the 6th century, the Visigoth King Recaredo built the first church on this site where a mosque once stood. It was then rebuilt by King San Fernando in 1226 as the city’s cathedral, with numerous additions made over the following centuries. It now stands in its glory at 120 meters long by 59 meters wide, with 5 large naves and 88 columns that support its heavy roof. The Cathedral boasts amazing stained glass windows from the 14th-16th centuries and a breathtaking altar built in five sections from 1497-1504. In addition, there are numerous paintings within the Cathedral by artists such as El Greco, Goya, Raphael, Vasquez and Rubens. This is a cultural treasure trove well worth seeing.

Sinagoga del Tránsito

This is one of the most important examples of Spanish Jewish art in Toledo. This synagogue was built in the 14th century in the Mudéjar style, and features a geometric and floral motif throughout with both Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions on the structure. It is a great example of the cultural diversity of historic Toledo.

Museo de Santa Cruz

This art museum is housed in a 16th century hospital that was built in a combination of the Mudéjar and Renaissance styles. It has an amazing Plateresque façade by Cavarrubias and beautiful coffered ceilings. Within, the collections are dived into three sections. The first is Archeology, which features the Roman, Visigoth, Moorish and Mudéjar cultures. The second is the Fine Arts exhibit which has mainly 16th and 17th century paintings by artist from Toledo. The third features the Industrial Arts and includes pop culture and local crafts which include ceramics, glass, fabrics, wrought iron and precious metal works.

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Toledo

Toledo’s contemporary art museum is housed in the 16th century Casa de las Cadenas in the historic Jewish Quarter. Its collection includes paintings, drawings, engravings and sculptures by 20th century artists such as Antonio López and Alberto Sanchez. There is a great variety of styles, from landscapes to surrealist art, offering something for every artistic taste.

Casa-Museo de El Greco

This museum is dedicated to one of Spain’s greatest artists, El Greco, a native of Toledo. It first opened in 1911 and is housed in a 16th century home in the Jewish quarter, with a lovely courtyard and a 20th century extension. El Greco’s work which is representative of Spain’s Golden Age is featured here, but there are also works by other Spanish artists of the 17th century as well as furniture and ceramics from Talavera de la Reina.

Alcázar de Toledo

Toledo’s military museum is housed in a great fortress that dates back to the Roman occupation. Over time, many additions were made by Toledo’s many rulers including Alfonso I, Alfonso X and the Emperor Charles V. The fortress, made up of a castle and tower, sits strategically on a hill overlooking the city. It is a collage made over time in different styles with one facade in the Renaissance style, another on the Plateresque style, the east façade in the medieval style, and the last in the Churrigueresque style. Visitors who love castles will enjoy visiting this site.



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