Highlights of Castile: Toledo and Salamanca
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, exploring more of the best of Europe. This time we're in Castile — the heart of Spain — exploring Toledo, Salamanca, Avila and Segovia. Ole!
The region of Castile — or Castille — is the birthplace of so much of what we consider Spanish: the great kings, the language, its castles and the grand empire which financed the great discoveries and ruled much of the world in its 16th-century heyday.
We'll two-step back in time, marvel at El Greco, pop some explosive pickles, check out Spain's most awe-inspiring medieval walls, drop in on a bacheleaorette party with the local troubadours, cut some jamon, join in the parade of people and then settle back and savor one of Europe's most enchanting scenes.
Europe's Iberian peninsula is shared by Spain and Portugal. Madrid, Spain's modern capital, lies in the region of Castile. We'll start in Toledo, drop by Segovia and Avila, before finishing in Salamanca.
Toledo is so well-preserved and packed with cultural wonder that the entire city has been declared a national monument — you'll find no modern buildings. It's an ideal place to savor the delights of Spain: cultural, historic and tasty.
Spain's historic capital has 2,000 years of tangled history crowded onto a high, rocky perch. It's protected on three sides by a natural moat (the Tagus River) and everywhere else by formidible man-made fortifications.
Toledo was for centuries an important Roman transportation hub with a thriving Jewish population. After Rome fell, the city was ruled first by the Visigoths and then by the Moors. Centuries later, when the Christians conquered Toledo, they made it Spain's political and religious capital.
In the 1500s, when the city reached its natural limits as defined by its river, the king packed up and moved his capital to more spacious Madrid. Toledo became a political backwater, only to be rediscovered by Romantic 19th-century travelers. Today, while small in population and of minor importance politically, Toledo remains a vital center of culture, art and religion. Physically, it survives much as it was when Europe's most powerful king called it home.
Lassoed into a tight maze of lanes, Toledo has Spain's most confusing medieval street plan. Major sights are well-signposted. Explore and remember, some of the best attractions come without signs.
Toledo's handy escalator gives those approaching the city from the bus station or car park a sweat-free lift into town — particularly welcome in the hot summer.
For centuries, Christians, Muslims and Jews enjoyed this city together. Toledo's history is a complex mix of these three great religions with an impressive record of peaceful co-existence.
Physical reminders of Toledo's multi-cultural history are everywhere. In the year 711, zealous members of the world's newest religion — Islam — conquered the Iberian peninsula. For seven centuries, these North African Muslims — called Moors — dominated Spain.
The Moors were impressively tolerant of the people they ruled, allowing Jews and Christians to practice their faiths freely. And, with cultural ties that stretched from here, across Africa to Arabia and beyond, Spain's Moorish culture was a beacon of learning in Europe's so-called "Dark" Ages.
Mathematics, astronomy, literature.and architecture.all flourished. After Christians took back Toledo in 1085, many Moorish craftsmen and builders stayed on leaving their Arabic imprint on the city for generations to come.
This looks like a mosque, but it's actually a Jewish synagogue. It was built in the 1200s for Jews by Moorish craftsmen. The decor, while Arabic in its style, comes with Jewish motifs — the shell is a Hebrew symbol calling worshippers to listen to the word of God. While the men worshipped in the main area, women worshipped behind the screen. Two hundred years later, the mosque-like synagogue was retrofitted to be a church.
The peaceful co-existence couldn't last forever. Spanish kings united Spain as a Christian nation. They gave Jews and Muslims a choice: convert or leave. In 1492, sure, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But that was also the year Spanish Christians expelled the Jews and successfully kicked the Moors back into Africa.
A tasty left-over from its Moorish days? Toledo's famous mazapán. Shops all over town sell mazapán goodies in ready-made gift boxes.but I like to select my own.
Toledo's main square is the inviting Plaza Zocodover. Tourists come here today for more than mazapán. Toledo was the 16th century home of one of Europe's greatest painters, El Greco.
Born in Greece and trained in Venice, Domenikos Theotocopoulos — tongue-tied friends just called him "The Greek" or El Greco — came to Spain to get work as a painter. He found employment in Toledo, where he lived the rest of his life and where he developed his unique painting style.
El Greco-philes will want to visit Toledo's Santa Cruz Museum. Originally an orphanage and hospital, today its wards house 16th-century art, including a superb collection of El Greco paintings.
His work mixes influences from all three of his places of residence..
.icon-like faces from his Greek homeland, bold color and twisting poses from Italy and the almost mystical spirituality from Catholic Spain.
El Greco painted supernatural visions — elongated saints.stretched between earth and heaven. He painted souls — not bodies. Faces flicker like candles. Thoroughly modern in its disregard of realism, his art feels contemporary even today.
This altarpiece, finished one year before El Greco's death, is the culmination of his inimitable style, combining all his signature elements to express an other-worldly event.
While on earth the city of Toledo sleeps, a vision takes place overhead. An angel in a billowing robe spreads his wings and flies up, supporting Mary, the mother of Christ. She floats through warped space, to be serenaded by angels and wrapped in the radiant light of the Holy Spirit. Mary is charged from within by her spiritual ecstasy. No painter before or since has captured the mystery of the spiritual world like El Greco.
Nearby, the simple chapel of Santo Tomé holds El Greco's most-loved painting. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz couples heaven and earth in a way only the Greek could.
Imagine.you're at the burial of the good count right here in this chapel. He was so holy, two saints even came down from heaven to help out. The funeral is attended by Toledo's leading citizens. Each face is a detailed portrait. El Greco paints himself looking out at us.drawing us into the scene. The boy in the foreground — pointing to the two saints — is El Greco's son.
The count's soul, symbolized by a little baby, rises up through a mystical birth canal to be reborn in heaven, where he's greeted by Jesus, Mary and all the saints. A spiritual wind blows as colors change and shapes stretch. Mary and John the Baptist welcome the arriving soul. Jesus points to St. Peter who controls the keys to the pearly gates. The painting's subtitle: "Such is the reward for those who serve God and his saints."
Our hotel, the Residencia La Almazara, while truly in the country — is just two miles out of Toledo. The summer residence of a 16th-century cardinal, it's a lumbering old place with inviting public spaces, a sprawling garden and simple but comfortable rooms. Fond of the cardinal and his view, El Greco hung out here for inspiration.
Holy Toledo! Spain's leading Catholic city has a magnificent cathedral. Shoehorned into the old center, its exterior rises brilliantly above the medieval clutter. And the interior — so lofty and vast — is celebrated as the most Gothic of Spain's churches and the most Spanish of Gothic churches.
Wander among the pillars and imagine when the light bulbs were candles and the tourists were pilgrims — when every window provided spiritual as well as physical light.
Marvel through the iron gate at one of the most stunning altars in Spain. The complex composition shows the story of Jesus' life.from his birth in the manger.to his death on the cross. While the centerpiece holds the holy communion bread and wine, the entire altar conveys the Christian message of salvation through Christ.
While the cathedral is primarily a place of worship, it's sacristy and treasury hold enough great art to put any museum on the map.
My Spanish friend and fellow tour guide, Carlos Galvin, is joining us for dinner.
All that art and history stokes my appetite for a special meal. Restaurante Casón López de Toledo, located in an old nobleman's palace, specializes in Castilian food — particularly game.like venison and partridge.
Carlos and I are heading for Salamanca with quick stops in Segovia and Avila along the way.
Segovia — an historic town of 55,000 with a rich history and a famous Roman aqueduct — is well worth a short visit.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Segovia was a Roman military base in need of water. So Emperor Trajan's engineers rerouted a stream into town by building this nine-mile long aqueduct. This massive structure — ingeniously constructed with no mortar — provided water to Segovia until modern times. While locals claim it could still function today, its primary function seems to be providing shade for family fun.
Segovia's main pedestrian drag is clogged with families enjoying a festive spring day out. While Romanesque churches and statues honoring 16 th century local heroes are ignored, kids get plenty of attention.
The Plaza Mayor marks Segovia's old town center.
It's early in the afternoon on a Saturday and, as on plazas all over Spain, people are out with family and friends. For this gang, it's prime time to enjoy an aperitovo before heading home for the main meal of the day — a late lunch.
Segovia's Plaza Mayor wasn't always so idyllic. It was long the scene of bull fights. Imagine spectators jamming these balconies screaming "Olé.Toro! Toro!"
In the 19th century bullfights in this square were stopped. When residents complained, they were given a more gentile form of entertainment — a bandstand.
Segovia's cathedral stands high above its main square. Embellished to the hilt with flying buttresses and pinnacles, it's a good example of that final overripe stage of Gothic called "flamboyant."
The Alcazar — or town fortress — still seems to defend the far end of Segovia. Once the king's summer retreat and palace, it burned down and was rebuilt. Like so many castle rebuilds in the Romantic 19th century, it's a fanciful exaggeration barely resembling the original.
A short drive through more of Castile brings us to Ávila.
Ávila is famous for its perfectly preserved medieval walls. For over 300 years, it was on the battlefront between Moors and Christians, changing hands several times. Built in around 1100, its wall is the most complete and best preserved in all of Spain.
Ávila's cathedral was actually built into the wall. And inside the ramparts, the peaceful streets give a charming look at small-town Spain.
The Convent of Saint Teresa is built upon the birthplace of Ávila's most famous resident. Teresa wrote the most popular spiritual devotions of her age and founded the Carmelite religious order. Pilgrims remember the saint in this gilded chapel and by pondering a case full of relics including her finger, complete with a fancy ring.
Local nuns cooked up the town's famous pastry and now anyone visiting Ávila enjoys its yummy yemas. These pastries are like a soft-boiled egg yolk cooled and sugared.
Heading east from Ávila, you feel immersed in the high and vast plateau of central Spain. It's a rough land steeped in history and tradition. And huge bulls on the horizon remind drivers — this is the land of bullfighting. These fun bullboards are all over Spain — built years ago to advertise a local sherry.
A Roman bridge leads to the sunny sandstone city of Salamanca, Spain's premier university town.
Salamanca is more youthful and less touristy than Toledo. Enjoy a paseo — that's Spain's traditional stroll — with the local crowd down Rua Mayor and into the main square.
Plaza Mayor, built in 1729, is the ultimate Spanish plaza — a fine place to nurse a drink and watch the world go by. It's a stress-free, multi-generational mix that to me is quintessentially European. The handsome town hall overlooks the square. While most squares honor a king or saint, this one is ringed by famous locals.
Plaques above the colonnade depict Castilian writers such as Cervantes — who wrote Don Quixote, heroes and conquistadors such as Cortez, popular saints like Teresa, kings and even dictators.here's Franco.
Plaza Mayor has long been Salamanca's neighborhood hangout. Each day old-timers gather, remembering an earlier time when the girls would promenade clockwise while the boys would cruise counter-clockwise.
On Sunday after Mass, old-timers get-together to shake their castanets.
While you'll pay a little extra to eat here, it's a bargain when you consider the ambience.enjoying the finest square in Spain, savoring some of Europe's best people-watching.
One of Salamanca's top sights is the Church of San Esteban — dedicated to St. Stephen (or Esteban) — the martyr. This is a fine example of Spain's Plateresque style — masonry so intricate it looks like silverwork The facade features the stoning of St. Stephen. The nave is stun-gunned by its over-the-top altarpiece. This is a textbook example of the 17th-century "Churrigueresco" style, named after Jose Churriguera.
Nearby, Salamanca's covered market is a marvelous place for a cultural scavenger hunt. Ham (or jamon in Spanish) — while a lowly lunch meat in the states — has a cult following here in Spain.
For lots more books, head for Salamanca University.
The oldest in Spain, it was established in the early 1200s and was one of Europe's leading centers of learning for 400 years. Today, while no longer as prestigious, it's laden with history and especially popular with American students enjoying its excellent summer program.
The university's ornately-decorated grand entrance is another example of Spain's fancy Plateresque style. The people studying the facade aren't art fans. They're trying to find a tiny frog on a skull that students looked to for good luck. Okay, here's the frog.
Now forget him. Let's follow the facade's symbolic meaning: The bottom part thanks King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel for the money to make the building. The middle section celebrates Charles V with the coat of arms of his Hapsburg empire — the world's only superpower in the early 1500s. Finally, as a statement of educational independence from the medieval Church, the top shows the pope flanked by pagan gods.
This venerable arcade leads to lecture halls where Spain's brightest minds grappled with issues raised by the dawning of a new age. Imagine Golden Age heroes paging through these books and pondering these globes. Cortez came here for travel tips.
The narrow wooden tables and benches — whittled down by centuries of studious doodling — are originals. Professors spoke from the church-threatening catedra , or pulpit.
It was here that the free-thinking monk Luis de León taught in the 1500s. He challenged the Church's control of the word of God by translating part of the Bible from Latin into the people's language — Castilian. Because of this, he was jailed for five years. When finally released, the professor returned to this pulpit and started his first lecture with, "As we were saying..."
Courageous men of truth like Luis de Leon believed the forces of the Inquisition were not even worth acknowledging.
University and church bell towers are graced by countless storks which nest here on their annual journey from northern Europe to Africa.
Traditionally, Salamanca's struggling students earned money to fund their education by singing in the streets. This centuries-old troubadour tradition survives today as musical combos — called Tuna bands — dressed in distinctive black capes and leggings, play lutes, guitars and sing. For a fee, they serenade fancy family gatherings. And, celebrating with a beer after their gig's done, they can't resist brightening a bride-to-be's bachelorette party. And this fun-loving tuna band — the oldest in Salamanca — gave us a memorable trip finale back on the Plaza Mayor.
Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our highlights of Castile. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hotel Conchas, Toledo
Hotel Las Torres, Salamanca
Restaurant Cason de los Lopez D Toledo
Tuna Universitaria de Salamanca, www3.usal.es/~tuna
J. Sanz, Jamones Ibericos
University of Salamanca images copyright University of Salamanca
Santo Tome church images copyright Santo Tome
Toledo Cathedral images copyright Toledo Cathedral
Santa Cruz images copyright Santa Cruz museum
DER Rent a car
Carlos Galvin - Spanish guide and consultant
Gene Openshaw and Risa Laib (script editing)