For an unforgettable view of Toledo, first make time for a short taxi or bus ride to the Parador (state run hotel), across the river from the city. From the garden of the Parador you look north. The massive building looming to the right is the Alcázar; to the left stands the Cathedral. They encapsulate perfectly the impact of the church and military in both Toledo and Spain’s history.
When returning to the city, ask to be dropped at the Zoco, a perfect place to begin your ramble through the cobbled streets of old Toledo.
Plaza de Zocodover (Zoco): former Moorish souk and then the city’s Tuesday market until the 1960s, it has also witnessed bullfights and Inquisitorial autos da fe. Somewhat triangular in shape, the Zoco is Toledo’s main plaza, a place to sit and watch the world go by. It’s also the place to catch a Tourist Tram, or bus #7.1 that will take you to the Parador (you can catch the next bus to get back to the Zoco)
Hospital de Santa Cruz (near the Zocodover). A large, Renaissance building constructed in the first half of the 16th century, it has a magnificent Plateresque entrance, an elegant Plateresque staircase and beautiful Mudejar artesonado ceilings. It is now a museum, housing (amongst other things) an extensive collection of Brussels tapestries, several paintings by El Greco (including the Virgin of the Assumption), and the banner of the Holy League flown at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). The museum also has an impressive display of armour, swords and damascene crafts (plates, jewelry etc.), which Toledo is famous for.
Alcázar: A short step south of the Zocodover, the massive Alcázar stands on the highest point of Toledo and together with the Cathedral dominates the skyline. Romans, Visigoths and Muslims built forts here. The present citadel was originally built in the 16th century as a royal residence for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (ruled 1516-56). It is structurally imposing, befitting the power, dignity, and majesty of Charles’s imperial title, and is reminiscent of his Renaissance palace built in the Alhambra of Granada. The Alcázar suffered serious damage at the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries and was almost destroyed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It acquired mythical status with Franco Nationalists after it was besieged by Republican forces early in the Civil War. Its commander, Colonel Moscardó, refused to surrender despite threats by the Republicans to kill his captured son, Luis, within 10 minutes. Speaking on the phone to Luis, Moscardó told him to shout “Long live Spain” and die like a patriot**. The Alcázar now houses a military museum and a regional library.
Cathedral: A Gothic church, begun in the early 13th century but with later additions in different styles, the Cathedral is the seat of the Primate of Spain and its wealth legendary. One early 16th-century traveler
thought it the richest in Christendom. A popular 16th-century saying summed up four of the best known Spanish cathedrals like this: Toledo the richest, Seville the largest, Santiago the strongest and León the prettiest.
The cathedral is strikingly large, and magnificently adorned with sculptures, but if you are accustomed to Northern European cathedrals, you’ll miss their soaring height and impressive length. Like many great Castilian Gothic churches (e.g. León, Burgos), the Cathedral of Toledo has an imposing choir and chancel (capilla mayor) rising in the middle of the nave. The choir stalls have wonderful, detailed carvings in walnut, the lower tier depicting the conquest of the kingdom of Granada, the upper tier celebrating Biblical figures. Both stalls and chancel opposite them are closed off by magnificent wrought iron screens. The altarpiece in the chancel is one of the most awesome in Spain, a riot of carved, painted and gilded sculptures.
Behind the high altar, you’ll find another smaller, and extravagantly ornate, Churrigueresque (i.e. late baroque) altar (1732) made of marble, bronze and alabaster. Because of the dim light in the area, an aperture was carved out of the dome above to illuminate the altar. Sculpted figures, looking down, rim the edge of the dome, while painted biblical scenes cover the dome itself. Known as the Transparente, the altar and dome are garishly impressive, but are at odds with their Gothic surroundings.
Don’t miss the Sacristy, with paintings by e.g. El Greco, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez and Goya. The treasury boasts a 10 foot high, 16th-century, silver Monstrance (a vessel containing the consecrated Host), which is brought out for Spain’s most famous Corpus Christi procession. There are numerous side chapels. In the Capilla Mozárabe (Mozarab chapel) mass is still celebrated following the Visigothic rites practiced by Christians living under Muslims (i.e. from about 712 t0 1085, when Toledo was reconquered by Christian armies).
Church of Santo Tomé: Visit this church to see El Greco’s masterpiece, the 15 by 11 foot canvas of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, painted specifically for the altar where it stands.
It celebrates the life of Gonzalo Ruiz, Count of Orgaz, founder and benefactor of the church, who died in 1323. Bearing his body are a youthful St Stephen and a bearded St Augustine; the mourners belong to the aristocracy of Toledo (El Greco included his son in the picture –to the bottom left, his finger pointing to the Count, and probably himself, immediately behind the hand above St Stephen’s head). Don’t look for historical accuracy: the Count wears 16th-century armour and the mourners are dressed in the typical black of 16th-century Castilian nobles.
Casa de El Greco: There’s no evidence that El Greco actually lived here. The casa was restored in 1910 to look like a typical 16th-century house. It contains a miscellaneous collection of minor works by El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, Zurbarán and others.
Sinagoga del Tránsito: This 14th-century synagogue is one of two remaining of a once vibrant Jewish presence in Toledo. Its construction was financed by Samuel Ha-Levi, treasurer to the king, Pedro el Cruel (Peter the Cruel). It was consecrated as a church after the expulsion of the Jews (1492), and presented by Queen Isabel the Catholic to the religious Order of Calatrava. Later, it was dedicated to the Ascension of the Virgin Mary to Heaven (hence “Tránsito”). It is modest on the outside, and inside consists of a simple rectangular room.
Striking, however, is the Mudéjar stucco decoration around the upper part of the room and covering the east wall. Around the three arches of the east wall, the intricate stucco frieze is reminiscent of the inner chambers of the Alhambra or Pedro the Cruel’s palace in Seville, built at approximately the same time. The central panel around the three arches is surrounded by inscriptions in praise of God, the king, and Ha-Levi himself. The women’s balcony can be seen to the upper right of the photo.
There is a small Sephardic museum and library attached to the synagogue.
Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca: Built in the early 13th century, and beautifully restored, this synagogue was converted into a church in the early 15th century when it was seized by zealous Christians following the inflammatory sermons of the Dominican priest, St Vincent Ferrer.
It has in turn also been a refuge for reformed prostitutes, an army barracks and a carpenter’s shop. Inside, it looks like a small mosque with its striking rows of horseshoe arches.
Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes: A monastery church founded by Ferdinand and Isabel, the Catholic Monarchs, in 1476, to celebrate their victory over the Portuguese at Toro, on the River Duero, east of Zamora. The Monasterio was intended as the Catholic Monarchs’ burial-place, but following their conquest of Granada in 1492, they chose to be buried in Granada’s Capilla Real.
Beautifully elegant late-Gothic, the Monasterio’s light open interior –with no choir or capilla mayor in the nave— is a marked contrast to the sombre Cathedral. A large part of the church, including the stained glass, was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1808.
You can’t miss Ferdinand and Isabel’s complex coat of arms, repeated throughout the church. The lion represents León and the castle signifies Castile. The sheaf of arrows and the yoke to the side of the shield were emblems of national unity under Ferdinand and Isabel. (General Franco, a great admirer of the Catholic Monarchs, used similar emblems.)
Don’t miss the stunning two-storied Gothic cloisters, with beautiful, multicoloured Mudejar artesonado ceiling. Outside, on the exterior walls are lots of chains hung by Christians freed following their captivity during the conquest of Granada.
La Puerta Antigua de Bisagra: Part of old Arab walls, this 9th-century gate is also called Puerta de Alfonso VI since it was allegedly through here that Alfonso VI entered Toledo when the city was conquered in 1085. Popular legend has it that Castile’s greatest hero, El Cid, accompanied Alfonso, but it’s no more than that…legend.
Iglesia de Santiago del Arrabal: Mudéjar brick church probably built during reign of Alfonso VI (who reconquered Toledo in 1085) and later reconstructed in the 13th century. (Mudejars were Muslims who chose to remain under Christian rule; brick buildings were a characteristic of their style) The tower with its arched windows was the minaret of an earlier mosque.
Mezquita/Iglesia de Cristo de la Luz: Tiny mosque built in late 10th century, possibly on the site of a Visigothic church. It was converted to a church following the conquest of Toledo.
A brick apse in Mudejar style was added in the late 12th century.
Hospital de Tavera, popularly known as the Hospital de Afuera (Outside) because it is outside the city walls, a short walk beyond the Puerta de Bisagra. Construction began 1541 but it is still unfinished. Its austere, granite façade, the solidity of its walls and orderly arranged stonework convey majesty and dignity –like the Alcazar—befitting Charles V’s imperial adventure in the 16th century. Now a museum, it houses numerous paintings, the best known of which are probably Ribera’s Bearded Lady, Zurbarán’s Portrait of the Duke of Medinaceli, Tintoretto’s Holy Family, Titian’s copy of his Charles V on horseback at the Battle of Muhlberg (1547), and El Greco’s St Peter and The Holy Family. Particularly fascinating is the reconstruction of the Duchess of Lerma’s 16th-century palace: library, dining hall, bedroom etc.
Travelling from Madrid takes about 35 minutes by train, by bus somewhat longer. Driving in Toledo is difficult, and parking a major problem (and very expensive). Wikitravel appears to be up to date (2011) regarding details of travel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Toledo_(Spain). Also has some sensible suggestions, e.g. wear footwear appropriate for cobbled streets.
Excellent map of historic Toledo by Planetware: http://www.planetware.com/map/toledo-map-e-tol.htm
Images from Sacred Destinations: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/spain/toledo-synagogue-la-blanca and http://www.sacred-destinations.com/spain/toledo-sinagoga-del-transito
Images of Cathedral from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Toledo
Image of Burial of the Count of Orgaz from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:El_Greco_-_The_Burial_of_the_Count_of_Orgaz.JPG
Image of the Transparente: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Transparente_de_la_Catedral_de_Toledo.jpg
For more images of the interior of the cathedral and a very good summary of its contents, see: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/spain/toledo-cathedral
For a pleasant read by a tourist in Toledo, see http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/travel/in-toledo-layers-of-spanish-history.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0