Wednesday 21 March 2018

Toledo: One El of a city


Chrissie Russell

Cervantes set Don Quixote in La Mancha because it was a byword for nowhere, a backwater no one would choose to visit, a sprawling Iberian midlands.

But when you enter Spain's heartland and see Toledo rising up from the sunbaked surrounding plains, you have to wonder if Cervantes actually just wanted to keep the stunning city a secret for himself.

It's just a 30-minute train ride from the bustle of Madrid, but once you step inside the walled city, you are stepping back in time.

Its battlements look like the backdrop from El Cid, leaving you half expecting to see Charlton Heston galloping round the corner, while inside the fortifications a labyrinth of narrow streets twist and turn into shady courtyard gardens or spill on to buzzing plazas. The cobbles, winding alleyways and non-existent parking means cars are gratifyingly absent.

At the heart of the city lies the Plaza de Zocodover, an oddly shaped quadrant lined by cafés, pricey for drinks but perfect for people-watching.

Cervantes wrote a portion of his hapless anti-hero novel here and a haughty looking statue of the great writer stands glaring at tourists from the corner of the square.

Towering over the city's skyline are Toledo Cathedral and its oft battered and burned castle Alcazar, once a royal residence and now home to an army museum detailing the city's rich, if somewhat tumultuous, history.

Be it Muslim, Jewish or Christian, religious influences are squashed into almost every square metre of this compact city. There seems to be a convent at every corner where sequestered nuns divide their time between prayer and marzipan-making.

Along with swords, the sticky almond sweets are Toledo's top souvenirs. Indeed, legend has it the sugary treat was invented by the local sisters of the Convent of San Clemente during a famine.

Sweet tooth satisfied, nourishment of the soul can be found at the El Greco museum in the south-west of the city. Newly opened in 2011, the refurbished mansion houses an impressive collection of the artist's haunting religious works and long-faced portraits of Toledo's bygone high society set.

El Grecos are almost as ubiquitous as swords and marzipan with examples of the artist's work are scattered across the city. His famed El Espolio hangs in Toledo Cathedral, an artwork that saw him jailed for depicting Christ on a lower level than onlookers.

While do-able from Madrid, it would be a shame to make a day trip of Toledo. By night, the city empties and locals congregate at cosy tavernas where sumptuous smells waft out of suckling pig, meaty stews and hearty peasant food only found this far inland.

Across the Tagus River, up a winding hillside road, the Parador de Toledo has breathtaking views of the biscuit-coloured city below and is a refreshing spot to retreat to after treading the streets.

Spain's paradores often occupy outstanding locations offering character-filled accommodation at a great price.

Fresh from a dip in the pool and sitting on the hotel's terrace with a plate of Manchengo cheese in front of me an a glass of Tempranillo in my hand, I watched the sun set over the spires and domes of Toledo and understood just why Cervantes might have wanted to keep this gem to himself.

Irish Independent

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