One of our favorite things when we’re abroad is a tour with Context Travel. The guides are usually excellent, the groups are small, and we learn a lot. For this trip we met at the Madrid train station, which features a wonderful botanical garden right in the middle of it (see earlier post), where our guide said people have been (illegally) dropping off their unwanted turtles!
Our guide, Barbara, is a young Polish woman with a PhD in art history, specifically in medieval manuscripts. During our 30 minute ride she gave us the highlights of our day.
We arrived at the Toledo train station, built in the early 20th century in the mudejar style, “a style of ornamentation and decoration in post-Islamic Christian Iberia that was strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship,” according to Wikipedia. I especially liked the flat screen TV bordered by traditional tiles. Toledo is built on 12 hills and protected on three sides by the Tagus River, so we needed to cross the river the get to the city. We got cabs and enjoyed the beautiful views of the city, stopping at a viewpoint for some great photos, then crossed the bridge and began walking uphill.
Toledo provides a great example of the layers of history in Andalusia. We saw a synagogue, a mosque turned into a church, and more. First up was one of the original gates in the wall around Toledo, displaying a combination of keyhole and Gothic arches.
Next we came to a a mosque that was turned into a church, Cristo de Luz, with the remains of a Roman road on display just below our feet. The columns inside were scavenged from Roman ruins. As evidence of the mixing of cultures, the Christian inscriptions were written in Arabic leading to this interesting juxtaposition of the shadow of Christ on the cross surrounded by Arabic text.
Outside again, the narrow streets were very reminiscent of Morocco. This one had a roofed room connecting two separate houses above the street. Only a few are left, since one of the kings decreed that these structures, resulting in dark tunnels throughout the city, should be destroyed. Then to a(nother) convent with cloistered nuns, where marzipan is said to have been invented – Toledo is famous for it – and then the spires of the San Juan de los Reyes Monasterio. Ferdinand and Isabella were to be buried here, but after they conquered Granada they changed their minds.
On the outside of the monastery are chains that once belonged to Christian prisoners liberated from Muslim Granada. (Click through for a good view on the bottom left.) Inside is a beautiful French Gothic structure, with soaring arches and a lovely cloister (all that’s left after a fire), featuring darling little carved animals and plants along with the saints.
Next on to a synagogue that was taken over by the Christians, leading to the odd name of Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca. The columns are newly repainted white, with beautifully carved decorations of pineapples. The floor was tiled (no Jewish symbols here), and the apses have been turned into Christian chapels. The wooden ceiling was again very Moroccan. The whole thing very clean, light and austere.
The Museum of The Sephardic Jews was our last stop in the Jewish Quarter. This was a former synagogue that’s been reconstituted as a museum of the Sephardic Jews, defined as Spanish Jews who have left the country (which they all did in 1492, and to say they left is to minimize the pain and terror of being thrown out). There are still some carvings and decorations from the original synagogue, and displays of Jewish memorabilia from ancient times up to now.
After a quick snack break (where we learned that the Spanish put cooked tomatoes on toast the way we would use jam), we came to the cathedral, the jewel in the crown of Toledo. Its Baroque altarpiece and Transparente are over the top, until you come to the enormous gold and silver Monstrance and you know that there’s always one step more in the gaudiness sweepstakes. Plus, the Monstrance is paraded through the streets during Holy Week, and I can only imagine how they do that.
It was a good day, and Barbara was a terrific guide, very knowledgeable but not overwhelming us with information. It turns out that she will be our guide at the Prada tomorrow, and Larry and Tatiana from this group will be along.
Dinner tonight was at a place recommended by RS for its cod. But, unfortunately, hearing bad news from Marshelle about Weezer’s situation plunged me into darkness. Plus, the waiter rushed us and our order was a mess! We ended up with two cod tapas, neither very good, and an enormous salad with big chunks of tomatoes (not terribly ripe) and tuna. We bailed at this point, after confusing the waiter with our order – first jamón, then not jamón, then jamón after all and then no jamón! – and went back to the Europa. A comforting bowl of soup and glass of wine did a lot to restore my spirits.