It's well worth going on a quest to unearth the ‘real’ Toledo hidden behind a breathtaking collection of tourist-trap monuments
There’s no getting away from it – Toledo is beautiful. All those elegant stone palaces and churches lining hilly streets and those tranquil little plazas combine to leave you with a sword-sharp idea of what this great city was like at the height of its glory. The thing is, Toledo’s glorious era passed 400 years ago. The city might still be home to some of Spain’s most spectacular and sacred Holy Week ceremonies, but its commercial and political clout has slowly ebbed ever since Felipe II moved his court and power base to Madrid.
That won’t stop a Spaniard from going all misty-eyed as he talks about the city closest to his heart. Give him a minute and he’ll take half an hour to explain that Toledo is the epicentre of Spanish civilisation and culture, the city that sits most deeply in his nation’s psyche. Foreign visitors may find it a little tougher to connect with Toledo. Wander around its cobbled streets and you may be left thinking it’s little more than an outsized national monument hemmed in by a three-sided gorge above the Tajo river.
The first time I visited Toledo that was my reaction. After a day and a night of bumping into other tourists and looking for something more essentially ‘Spanish’, I felt the city was overrated. I couldn’t get a sense of community, and I couldn’t see much evidence of the locals getting on with their lives.
So when I returned to Spain’s erstwhile royal city I was determined to find the Toledo hidden between the museums and tourist shops and 15th-century palaces. I knew there was one because a Spanish friend who grew up in the Castilla-La Mancha region told me there was. She also told me to find this ‘other’ Toledo for myself. “If I tell you where to go for nightlife and noise and all the normal things, you won’t see all the bits in between. It’s better to follow your nose and see where it takes you.”
I started at the central tourist office, in the shade of one of the city’s great sights: the vast Gothic cathedral, which took 250 years to complete. The tourism staff didn’t quite get my point about seeing the ‘real’ Toledo. Most of their visitors want to know about the well-worn trail through the city’s past – and it certainly is a path worth following: The cathedral, the Alcázar fortress, the two synagogues, the El Greco museum and the many beautiful churches.
It would be foolish to go to Toledo without taking in the greatest hits. The guidebooks and brochures are right to extol the physical virtues of the city, but they also point out that Toledo seems to have been dying a slow death for since Felipe II relocated.
I took my city plan and headed off the beaten track. Map or no map, it’s not hard to get lost among the winding streets and blind alleys. The Moorish influence is discernible in the street patterns and interior patios; the Jewish influence too, in the narrowness of the streets. An awful lot of money has been spent cleaning and tidying and prettying up Toledo – as befits a city with UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The good news for the people who live there is that there was clearly some cash left over for areas without a grand church or a museum.
The streets west of the cathedral are filled with crocodiles of schoolchildren and busloads of tourists waiting to file into one or other of the churches or buzzing around a souvenir shop: the last outlet for swords of renowned Toledo steel, which might have had a more murderous use a thousand years ago.
To the south, though, the sights and the crowds thin out. Above the Paseo San Cristobal I strolled through streets full of boys (and girls) playing football and pensioners firmly planted on their favourite bench to watch the world go by. And at the nearby mirador I watched the sun go down on the other side of the Tajo with only a clutch of feral cats for company.
Across the hill, the Plaza de Zocodover is where Toledanos meet to drink and chat as they have done for centuries. This was more like it – a row of street cafes, a balcony and colonnades of shops. As the night wore on, the locals came out to play and the few tourists were treated to a busy sideshow along with their glasses of wine or beer.
The Zocodover lies in the solid shadow of the Alcázar – another tourist-packed zone. But to the west lies the city’s commercial centre: a fan-shaped network of streets climbing the hill and lined with shops and bars and the odd gate or doorway leading to large blocks of flats. There’s plenty of noise here, and plenty of life. It may be true that most Toledanos live in the suburbs nowadays, opting for modern, purpose-built homes over centuries-old town houses, which cost so much to keep in good shape. But a hard core is still flying the flag in the old city.
Students are at the forefront of this drive to keep the city alive, and once the floodlights come on to highlight Toledo’s monuments, half-hidden doors are opened to reveal pubs and clubs and local restaurants. By midnight, when so many visitors are in their hotel beds, thinking about the following day’s checklist, there’s a faint but consistent hum in the streets of the old city. No rowdy behaviour, no drunken singing – just the suggestion of a city very much alive and quietly enjoying itself.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Cigarral El Bosque: five-star luxury in converted country palace with great views of the city from across the river.
Hostal Casa de Cisneros: old town house, well converted and just metres from the catedral.
Hotel San Juan de los Reyes: good location on the edge of the old quarter. Another well-finished conversion (of a flour factory).
Parador Hotel: unrivalled setting overlooking the city; tasteful and comfortable, excellent rooms and restaurant.
Hotel El Pintor El Greco: close to the Jewish quarter; a lovely old building and very comfortable.
WHERE TO EAT
Los Cuatro Tiempos: innovative cuisine in a historic buliding near the cathedral. Fish dishes and grilled kid are specialities. (Calle Sixto Ramón Parro, 5)
La Abadia: cosy nooks in a dining area below a cheery beer hall. Game is big here and portions generous. (Plaza San Nicolás, 3)
La Perdiz: a favourite with locals – homely fare at good prices and views of the old city. (Calle Reyes Católicos, 7)
Casón de los Lopez: feels like a museum, with walls covered in artefacts and a setting in a centuries-old building close to the Plaza de Zocodover. Good food, not too heavy. (Calle Silleria, 3)
Jacaranda Bar: tablas (slabs) loaded with cold cuts or fondues are the standard fare in this pleasant little bistro that’s worth tracking down. (Callejon Dos Codos, 1)
The legacy of El Greco is Toledo’s biggest draw. Examples of his paintings are scattered across the city, notably in the El Greco Museum in Calle Samuel Levi and the nearby Santo Tomé church.
The pretty streets of the Jewish quarter were once home to 11 synagogues, though only two exist now, neither in use but both open to the public. The Sinagoga del Tránsito, in Calle de los Reyes Catolicós, is more interesting and contains a Jewish museum, though the nearby Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca is also worth a visit.
It's easiest to appreciate the vast scale of the Gothic cathedral from the far side of the river. Interiors are inspiring – hundreds of stained glass windows, elegant chapels and some of the finest religious sculptures in Spain.
The daunting Alcázar, the former Moorish fortress, looms above the city as a reminder of a past full of conflict, most recently during the Spanish Civil War. A military museum occupies part of the building, which was once Spain’s equivalent of Sandhurst.