Toledo is located in central Spain, only 70 km south of Madrid and is the capital of the province of Toledo and of the autonomous community of Castile-La Mancha. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage as one of the former capitals of the Spanish Empire and place of coexistence of Christian, Jewish and Moorish cultures.
Successively a Roman Municipium, the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom, a fortress of the Emirate of Cordoba, an outpost of the Christian Kingdoms fighting the Moors and the temporary seat of supreme power under Charles V in the16th century, Toledo is the repository of more than 2,000 years of history. Toledo was first settled in around the 7th Century BC and its masterpieces are the product of an environment where the existence of three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – was a major factor. It was the place of many important historic events such as the Visigothic Councils of Toledo.
Many famous people and artists were born or lived in Toledo, including Al-Zarqali (a leading Arab mathematician and the foremost astronomer of the 11th Century), Garcilaso de la Vega (a Spanish soldier and poet and the most influential poet to introduce Italian Renaissance verse forms, poetic techniques and themes to Spain), Eleanor of Toledo (a Spanish noblewoman who was Duchess of Florence from 1539 and is credited with being the first modern style first lady), Alfonso X (a Castilian monarch who ruled as the King of Castile, León and Galicia from 1252 until his death in 1284) and El Greco (a painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance whose nickname “El Greco” was in reference to his Greek origin).
Toledo has been populated since the Bronze Age. During Roman times it was known as “Toletum” and was an important commercial and administrative centre in the roman province of Tarraconensis. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Toledo served as the capital city of Visigothic Spain and was the capital of Spain until the Moors conquered Iberia in the 8th century.
Toledo’s golden age was enjoyed under the Caliphate of Cordoba and this period is known as “La Convivencia”, referring to the co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Under Arab rule, Toledo was called “Tulaytulah”. After the fall of the Caliphate, Toledo was the capital city of one of the richest Taifa Muslim Kingdoms of Al-Andalus and due to its central location in the Iberian Peninsula, Toledo played a key role in the struggles between the Muslim and Christian rulers of northern Spain. On May 25, 1085 Alfonso VI of Castile took Toledo and established direct personal control over the Moorish city, ending the mediaeval Taifa’s Kingdom of Toledo. This was the first step taken by the combined kingdom of Leon-Castile in the Christian Reconquista.
For some time during the 16th century, Toledo served as the capital city of Castile, and the city flourished. Eventually, however, the Spanish court was moved first to Valladolid and then to Madrid. Toledo’s relevance dwindled until the late 20th century when it was established as the capital city of the autonomous community of Castile-La Mancha. The economic decline of the city helped to preserve its cultural and architectural patrimony and nowadays, because of its rich heritage, Toledo is one of Spain’s foremost cities and a huge tourist draw.
The old city of Toledo is located on a mountaintop surrounded on three sides by a bend in the Tagus River, and contains many historical sites, including the Alcázar (a stone fortification once used as a Roman palace in the 3rd century), the cathedral (the primate church of Spain built between 1226-1493) and the Zocodover (a central market place). Toledo reached its zenith in the era of Islamic Caliphate and the Muslim scientists of this time were unrivalled in the world. Among their greatest feats were the famous waterlocks of Toledo. Toledo was famed for religious tolerance and there were large communities of Muslims and Jews until they were expelled from Spain in 1492 (Jews) and 1502 (Muslims). Today’s city contains the religious monuments the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, the Synagogue of El Transito, Mosque of Cristo de la Luz and the church of San Sebastián dating back to before the expulsion, all still maintained in good condition.
In the 13th century, Toledo was a major cultural centre under the guidance of Alfonso X, called “El Sabio” (“the Wise”) for his love of learning. The program of translations, begun under Archbishop Raymond of Toledo, continued to bring vast stores of knowledge to Europe by rendering great academic and philosophical works in Arabic into Latin. The Palacio de Galiana, built in the Mudéjar style, is one of the monuments that remain from that period.
Toledo was home to the artist El Greco for the latter part of his life and is the subject of some of his most famous paintings, including “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, which is exhibited in the Church of Santo Tomé. El Greco’s dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century. He is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. Toledo was famed for its production of iron and especially of swords and the city is still a centre for the manufacture of knives and other steel implements. When Philip II moved the royal court from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the old city went into a slow decline from which it never recovered. At Guadamur very close to Toledo the Treasure of Guarrazar, the best example of Visigothic art in Spain, was dug in 1858.
Toledo is the leading Spanish province in small game hunting and also one of the richest for large game. Quails and partridges feature on most local menus and three of the most typical Toledo dishes are “Perdiz roja estofada” (stewed red-legged partridge with garlic, bay leaf and pepper), “Cordoniz a la toledana” (Toledo-style quail) and “Perdiz con Pochas” (partridge served with white beans).
Roast meats are also very typical, particularly “Cordero asado” (roast lamb) and “Cochifrito” (deep-fried lamb made into a stew). Other dishes include “Sopa castellana” (a garlic soup), “Migas” (fried breadcrumbs seasoned with garlic and paprika), “Trucha a la toledana” (Toledo-style trout), “Venado con setas” (venison with mushrooms), “Jabalí” (wild boar) and “Tortilla a la magra” (potato-omelette with lean ham). A famous dish from Toledo is “Pisto manchego”, which is a medley of chopped tomatoes, courgettes, green peppers and eggs. “Queso Manchego” is one of the most popular of Spanish cheeses and is a semi-firm golden sheep’s milk cheese made in the La Mancha region of Spain.
Moorish influences can also be clearly seen in the gastronomy of Toledo. The marzipan of Toledo is considered one of its finest food products. It is made with sugar and almond, is evocatively Arab and is famous all over Spain. It is produced in extraordinary quantity and quality and is exported internationally. There is also a rich choice of “Mantecados” (a type of shortcake), “Bollos al Aceite” (buns fried in oil), as well as the “Bizcocha manchega” (a pancake soaked in milk with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon) and the “Bizcocho borracho” (a rum-soaked sponge cake). “Miel de la Alcarria” is a fine, locally produced honey.
Photo by dan taylor
Puente de Alcántara is a famous bridge in Toledo of Roman origin, reconstructed by the Muslims in AD 866. In 1257, an avalanche of water demolished the bridge, and it was reconstructed once again by King Alfonso X (Alfonso the Wise). The name “Alcántara” comes from an Arab word that means arch or bridge. It is the eastern entrance to the city over the Tagus River. At the western side, the bridge has a fortified gate with merlons of equilateral arches together with a horse shoe arch inside of it and decorated with the statue to Saint Ildefonso and the shield of the Catholic Kings.
There were further restorations to the bridge in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The masonry of the bridge contains stones of Roman, Visagothic and Arab origin, as do the nearby walls. The massive tower guarding the West end of the bridge is Mudejar work. The gate beyond was undoubtedly one of the oldest entries to the city, for the Roman Toletum, and subsequently the Visigothic Palace of Galiana and the Arab Medina crowned the slope behind it. It was however blocked by a toll-keepers cottage, and when at fell into disuse another set of steps leading up the outside of the walls took its place.
Puente de San Martín is a medieval bridge across the river Tajo. The bridge was constructed in the late 14th century by Archbishop Pedro Tenorio to provide access to the old town from the west, complementing the older Puente de Alcántara linking to the east. Both sides of the bridge were heavily fortified with towers, the more recent dating from the 16th century. Puente de San Martín features five arches, with the largest in the middle reaching an impressive span length of 40 m. Only very few bridges in the world had reached that mark until then.