While in Madrid, we took a private tour to Toledo, our second outing with Luis. He picked us up at our flat, in an impeccably clean sedan with a baby seat in the back – usually mutually exclusive worlds. On the hour ride to this old capital of Spain, he gave us enough background to help us appreciate what we would see, including a bit about the people who shaped it, King Carlos 1 of Spain (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), Queen Isabella, and El Greco. Because Luis spent two years in the United States as an exchange student, he speaks English with a breadth of vocabulary that rarely leaves him searching for words.
This ancient city has been ruled by Romans (captured in 192 BCE), Visigoths (becoming the capital of their kingdom in the 6th century), Moors (taken in 712), and Christians (1085). Some of these cultures tolerated, if not welcomed Jews, though they were forced to live in their own quarter. In fact it was Toledo’s “extensive cultural and monumental heritage and historical co-existence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures” that earned it UNESCO’s World Heritage Site designation in 1986, despite Queen Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews and Muslims in 1492.
Each of these cultures left their stamp, resulting in a grand mix of architecture. The Romans built baths, a circus, and roads through Toledo, linking it with Mediterranean ports. Visigoths brought an early Christianity, and along with it, churches. When the Moors claimed the region, they took over these churches, adding their own architecture. Christians retook the churches when they reconquered Toledo in 1085.
The church of San Salvador, now a Catholic Church, is a great example of these reversals. A unique Visigoth Christian column, showing scenes from Christ’s life, is clearly different from the other columns in the church. Later, the Moors chiseled the faces off the column because of their ban against depicting God, Muhammad, and Islamic prophets, of which Christ is one. Archeology on the site also found Roman ruins.
Luis’ overview was not some boring history recital. He brought it alive for us: a story of swords, great art, religious tolerance and intolerance, and the first gold brought back by Columbus from the New World. We planned our day from a high vantage point. “You see why Toledo had such an excellent defensive position: the river wraps around it and any invaders had to climb down to the river and then back up the hill to get into the city.”
It’s impossible to describe everything we saw, so I’ll focus on three: Toledo sword-making, the artist El Greco, and the Toledo Cathedral.
The swords: Toledo’s reputation for excellent sword-making and metalwork goes back to 500 BC. When the Romans conquered Spain, they recognized the unique hardness of Toledo steel, and began using Toledo swords as standard equipment. Today, city shops display “Lord of the Rings” swords and armor.
Luis knows the only remaining swordsmith still working inside the old city, who welcomed us to see his forge, quenching bath, and metal-working shop.
The smith, Mr. Zamorano, explained to us that the swords for knights were heavy and balanced, but not sharp. Their purpose was to break bones and plunge into chainmail, not slice through necks as depicted in recent films. He allowed us to handle both one-handed and two-handed swords. Even we novices could feel that they were balanced and of course, beautiful. The surprising thing was that they were reasonably priced.
El Greco: Stunning paintings by many masters hang in Toledo churches, but Luis focused his art history discussion on El Greco, who spent most of his life working in Toledo. Apparently El Greco was full of himself, saying about Michelangelo that “He was a good man, but he did not know how to paint.” In fact El Greco offered to paint over Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, a proposal that Pope Pius V declined.
Luis showed us ways to identify El Greco’s work (rhomboid halos, light from within, elongated figures and fingers, and pure colors), preparing us to see some of El Greco’s greatest works.
My favorite, El Expolio, (The Disrobing of Christ) hangs in the Toledo Cathedral Sacristy. This painting took my breath away the moment I saw it from a distance, mesmerizing me as I approached. The hushed murmurs of other visitors disappeared; I no longer saw them. It’s just me and the painting. The artist talks directly to me. These moments of being within feet of great art change me.
Toledo Cathedral: The importance of the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo goes back to the Visigoths, when its archbishop was designated “Primate of the Visigoth Kingdom.” Fifteen Church Councils convened in Toledo (580 – 688), cementing the city’s religious importance as the “Soul of Spain.” It was also the site of the Grand Mosque during the reign of the Moors. Even though the Christians retook Toledo in 1085, work did not begin on this impressive Gothic Cathedral until 1226. It was completed in 1493 under the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand.
From the back you can see the full length of the nave. But even this jaw-dropping view is just the central portion. Numerous chapels come off both the north and south walls, including a chapel where an early pre-Latin Visgoth service is still celebrated today.
The altar at the end of the nave stands behind a golden grill. Made of gilt wood, the altar stands the height of the Cathedral, and contains life-size figures of scenes from the New Testament. It took only seven years to complete (1497-1504), though many artists had a part in creating it.
The choir stall is ornate. The choir sits in two tiers of elaborately carved chairs, the large organ looms above, and a delightful statue of a happy Virgin Mary and Jesus looks on.
One could spend all day just exploring the Cathedral. The El Transparente altar, the whimsically decorated skylight with figures peering into the Cathedral, the stained glass windows, the Chapterhouse, all are worthy of study. The Chapterhouse contains paintings of all the Archbishops of this important Cathedral up to current. Of course, the artists did not know what the early bishops looked like, so they all have the same face.
The most astonishing artifact in the Chapel of the Treasure, is the great Monstrance of Arfe. It stands 10 ft tall, weighs 500 pounds, all pure silver (183 kg), gold (18 kg at 18 karats), and jewels. The gold is said to have been the first that Christopher Columbus brought back to Spain from the New World. It sits behind bullet-proof glass while on display, yet every year it carries the Host in the procession of the feast of Corpus Christi through the city.
What kept our tour of Toledo from being a jumbled bewildering tangle was Luis. He continually brought us back to main themes, weaving a story that made sense from beginning to end.
And he made sure we were at ease in other ways. When my daughter was cold, he gave her his jacket. When I was having difficulty negotiating stairs in the church towers, he assisted me. He saw that we were pooped at the end of the day, and asked if we’d like to drop the last site; we readily agreed. And he graciously answered all our questions on the way back to Madrid, so excited to share his love of Spanish culture and history.
When I return to Spain, I will definitely seek out Luis and his associates again. Besides Toledo and the Madrid Tapas Tour, Luis conducts private and custom tours of Madrid and a tour of the Prado and Retiro Park. He is adding a tour to Segovia in September. His wife, Maria, conducts the afternoon Tapas Tour for families with children. Mario leads a wine tour. They also do a free walking tour of Madrid. If you’re in Madrid, check them out. They’re a small group offering an intimate experience.
For more of my trip to Spain, see:
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