By Rick Steves
An hour south of Madrid, Toledo teems with tourists, souvenirs, and great art by day, delicious roast suckling pig, echoes of El Greco, and medieval magic by night. Incredibly well preserved and full of cultural wonder, the entire city has been declared a national monument.
Spain's former capital crowds 2,500 years of tangled history — Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, and Christian — onto a high, rocky perch protected on three sides by the Tajo (Tagus) River. It's so well preserved that the Spanish government has forbidden any modern exteriors. The rich mix of Jewish, Moorish, and Christian heritages makes it one of Europe's art capitals.
Perched strategically in the center of Iberia, Toledo was a Roman transportation hub with a thriving Jewish population for centuries. After Rome fell, the city became a Visigothic capital (A.D. 554). In 711, the Moors (Muslims) made it a regional center. In 1085, the city was reconquered by the Christians, but many Moors remained in Toledo, tolerated and respected as scholars and craftsmen.
While Jews were commonly persecuted elsewhere in Europe, Toledo's Jewish community — educated, wealthy, and cosmopolitan — thrived from the city's earliest times. Jews of Spanish origin are called Sephardic Jews. The American expression "Holy Toledo" likely originated from the Sephardic Jews who eventually immigrated to America. To them, Toledo was the most holy Jewish city in Europe...Holy Toledo!
During its medieval heyday (c. 1350), Toledo was famous for intellectual tolerance — a city for the humanities, where God was known by many names. It was a Sesame Street world of cultural diversity, home to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, living together in harmony.
Toledo remained Spain's political capital until 1561, when Philip II moved to more-spacious Madrid. Historians fail to agree why the move was made; some say that Madrid was the logical place for a capital in the geographic center of newly formed España, while others say that Philip wanted to separate politics from religion. Whatever the reason, Toledo was mothballed, only to be rediscovered by 19th-century Romantic travelers. They wrote of it as a mystical place...which it remains today.
Today Toledo thrives as a provincial capital and a busy tourist attraction. It remains the historic, artistic, and spiritual center of Spain. In spite of tremendous tourist crowds, Toledo sits enthroned on its history, much as it was when Europe's most powerful king and El Greco called it home.
Toledo sits atop a circular hill, with the cathedral roughly dead-center. Lassoed into a tight tangle of streets by the sharp bend of the Tajo River (called the Tejo in Portugal, where it hits the Atlantic at Lisbon), Toledo has Spain's most confusing medieval street plan. But it's a small town within its walls, with only 10,000 inhabitants (80,000 total live in greater Toledo, including its modern suburbs). The major sights are well signposted, and most locals will politely point you in the right direction if you ask.
The town's top sight is its magnificent cathedral, aptly located in Spain's leading Catholic city. The interior is so lofty, rich, and vast that it grabs you by the vocal cords, and all you can do is whisper, "Wow." The cathedral took 250 years to build, resulting in a mix of styles — Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque — seen in the elaborate wrought-iron work, lavish wood carvings, and colorful windows of 500-year-old stained glass.
Don't miss the cathedral's unique transparente. In the 1700s a hole was cut into the ceiling to let a sunbeam brighten the Mass. Melding this big hole into the Gothic architecture presented a challenge that resulted in a Baroque masterpiece. Gape up at this riot of angels doing flip-flops, babies breathing thin air, bottoms of feet, and gilded sunbursts.
The cathedral's sacristy is a mini-Prado, with 18 El Grecos and masterpieces by Francisco de Goya, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Giovanni Bellini. The treasury's highlight is a 10-foot high, 430-pound tower designed to hold the Holy Communion wafer (the host) during the annual Corpus Christi parade. Built in 1517 by Enrique de Arfe, it's made of 5,000 individual pieces held together by 12,500 screws. There are diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and 400 pounds of gold-plated silver. The inner part is 35 pounds of solid gold. Yeow. The base is a later addition from the Baroque period.
Near the cathedral is Santo Tomé, a simple chapel that holds El Greco's most-loved painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. It feels so right to see a painting left in situ — where the artist put it 400 years ago.
After mucho El Greco, try Macho — the Victorio Macho Museum. This early-20th-century sculptor's house and workshop, now converted into a small museum, offers several rooms of work interspersed with terraces overlooking the gorge, beautiful at sunset.
For a sweet and romantic evening moment, pick up a few pastries and head down to the cathedral. Sit on the Plaza Ayuntamiento's benches (or stretch out on the stone wall to the right of the tourist information office). The fountain is on your right, Spain's best-looking city hall is behind you, and there before you: her top cathedral, built back when Toledo was Spain's capital, shining brightly against the black night sky.