toledo

Toledo is an historic city due south of Madrid, and it has a vastly different flavor from the capital city. Indeed, because of its Moorish history it hardly seems European at all. It was frequently painted by an artist named El Greco. Centuries later the locations he painted still look much as they did in his paintings. Toledo is built on a hill, and the valley and surrounding hills were favorite subjects of his paintings. There are a number of ways into the city, all of which are breathtaking. I went in by way of one of the bridges, but there are also gateways on that side of the city once protected by its ancient walls. The gates, walls and bridges are all influenced in their design by the presence of the Moors, Muslims who settled Spain from Africa.

Walking through Toledo is like stepping into another country - indeed, onto another continent altogether. The influence of many cultures is apparent. Toledo was old even when the Romans came, and long after they skipped town the city was populated by a surprisingly harmonious mix of Christians, Jews and Moors, all of whom had an influence on the layout and buildings of the city. Some of the impressive religious buildings have been alternately churches, mosques and synagogues over the past thousand years. The Moorish influence is probably the most striking, simply because there is little else like it in Europe. As I wandered through the maze of arid narrow streets, the two- and three-story stone buildings bordering closely on both sides, I felt as if I were in the Middle East.

My visit was hampered by the fact that it was a Monday, and on Mondays most stores and tourist attractions in Spain are open for only limited hours, if at all. An added wrench in the gears is the daily siesta, a midday period in which the entire country shuts its doors and closes its eyes, and pretends that if it can't see you, you can't see it. I played along with the siesta, and spent the national nap-time wandering through the exotic streets and hiking around the river. Even without the tourist sites active Toledo is a worthwhile visit. I've never been in a city like it.

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Approaching Toledo, the city rises on a hill with the Alcazar towering above the other buildings. The hill is surrounded by a river on three sides and defensive walls on the fourth.
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A Moorish bridge spans the river valley often painted by El Greco.
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Toledo's main gate. I actually encountered it at the end of my visit, because the Moors didn't have the foresight to build it near their Medieval train station. (Assuming the Medieval train station was in the same location as the modern one, that is.)
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A narrow Toledo street. In the distance is the cathedra
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Another narrow street, this one right next to the cathedral.
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I hiked along the riverside for about half an hour during the siesta. The river is quite beautiful and dotted with many ancient ruins. Note the piles that once supported an old bridge over the river.
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A sword store. Toledo has long been known for its impressive steel industry. I was tempted to buy a sword; upon close inspection the weapons are not back-breakingly expensive. For a couple hundred dollars a traveler can own a fine piece of Toledo steel. But I decided that that Virgin Atlantic would hesitate to let me bring it on the plane. (In retrospect I would probably have had an easier time flying with a sword in 1998 than after 2001.)
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The owners of this sword shop couldn't make up their minds about film brands, much to the confusion of this Rochester, NY, native.