Highlights of Castile: Toledo and Salamanca
We roam the region of Castile, starting in Toledo — so well-preserved and packed with cultural wonder that the entire city has been declared a national monument, on to Segovia for a festive day out with the locals, then to Ávila for a dose of medieval architecture, finishing with a traditional stroll in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor.
Toledo's famous almond-fruity-sweet mazapán is sold all over town. The big mazapán producer is Santo Tomé (several outlets, including a handy one on Plaza de Zocodover). Browse their tempting window displays. They sell mazapán goodies individually (sin relleno — without filling — is for purists, de piñon has pine nuts, imperiales is with almonds, others have fruit fillings). Boxes are good for gifts, but sampling is much cheaper when buying just a few pieces.
This stately Renaissance building has a good permanent collection with eight El Grecos. Formerly an orphanage and hospital, the building was funded by money left by the humanist and diplomat Cardinal Mendoza when he died in 1495. The cardinal, confirmed as Chancellor of Castile by Queen Isabel, was so influential that he was called "the third royal."
This simple chapel holds El Greco's most beloved painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which hangs over the count's tomb. It feels so right to see a painting in the same church where the artist placed it 400 years ago. It originally filled the space immediately to the right of where it is now, but because the popularity of this masterpiece was disturbing the main church, it was moved. Church officials even created a special entryway for viewing it.
Carlos, a Spaniard who led tours for my groups for more than a decade, and his wife from Seattle, Jennifer, run Letango Tours, offering itineraries within Madrid and beyond, as well as customized tours (whether city, regional, or country-wide) and bookings anywhere in Spain.
In the Middle Ages, this fortified palace was one of the favorite residences of the monarchs of Castile, a key fortress for controlling the region. The Alcázar grew through the ages, and its function changed many times: After its stint as a palace, it was a prison for 200 years, and then a royal artillery school. It burned in 1862, after which it was remodeled in the eye-pleasing style you see today. Since the fire, it's basically been a museum.
Convent of St. Teresa (Ávila)
Built in the 17th century on the spot where the saint was born, this convent is a big hit with pilgrims. St. Teresa (1515–1582) — reforming nun, mystic, and writer — bought a house in Ávila and converted it into a convent with more stringent rules than the one she belonged to. She faced opposition in her hometown from rival nuns and those convinced her visions of heaven were the work of the devil. However, with her mentor and fellow mystic St. John of the Cross, she established convents of Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites throughout Spain, and her visions and writings led her to sainthood (she was canonized in 1622).
Salamanca's Plaza Mayor
Built from 1729 to 1755, this ultimate plaza has long been Salamanca's community living room. It's a lovely place to simply hang out, enjoy a cup of coffee, and watch the world go by. It seems to be continually hosting some kind of party. Imagine the excitement of the days (until 1893) when bullfights were held in the square. Now old-timers gather here each day, remembering an earlier time when the girls would promenade clockwise around the colonnade while the boys cruised counterclockwise. Perhaps the best time of all for people-watching is Sunday after Mass, when the grandmothers gather here in their Sunday best.
Church of San Esteban
Dedicated to St. Stephen (Esteban) the martyr, this complex contains a restored cloister, tombs, museum, sacristy, and church (tel. +34 923-215-000).
Established in 1230, Salamanca's university is Spain's oldest — Columbus came here for travel tips. The old lecture halls around the cloister, where many of Spain's Golden Age heroes studied, are open to the public (tel. +34 923-294-400, ext. 1150).
Traditionally, Salamanca's poorer students earned money to fund their education by singing in the streets. This 15th- to 18th-century tradition survives today, as musical groups of students (representing the various faculties) — dressed in the traditional black capes and leggings — sing and strum mandolins and guitars. They serenade the public in the bars on and around Plaza Mayor. The name tuna, which has nothing to do with fish, refers to a vagabond student lifestyle and later was applied to the music these students sing. They're out only on summer weeknights (singing for tips from 10 p.m. until after midnight), because they make more serious money performing for weddings on weekends.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re in Castile in the heart of Spain — exploring Toledo, Ávila, Segovia, and Salamanca. Ole!
The region of Castile — or Castille — is the birthplace of so much of what we consider Spanish — the great kings, the language, the castles, and an empire which financed the great discoveries and ruled much of the world in its 16th-century heyday.
We’ll 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 bachelorette party with the local troubadours, and then settle back into 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, then swing by Segovia and Ávila before our finale in Salamanca.
Toledo is so well preserved and packed with cultural wonder the entire city has been declared a national monument — you’ll see 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 formidable manmade fortifications.
Toledo was for centuries an important Roman transportation hub with a thriving Jewish population. When Rome fell, it was ruled first by the Visigoths and then by the Moors. Centuries later, when the Christians conquered the city, 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. It survives much as it was when Europe’s most powerful king called it home.
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.
Lassoed into a tight maze of lanes, Toledo has a confusing medieval street plan. But major sights are well-signposted. Explore and remember, some of the best attractions come without signs.
For centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims 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 Christians and Jews to practice their faiths freely. With cultural ties stretching from here, across North Africa all the way to Arabia and beyond, the Moorish civilization here in Spain 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 Christian church.
The peaceful co-existence couldn’t last forever. Spanish kings united Spain into 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 that Spanish Christians exiled the Jews and successfully kicked the Moors back into Africa.
A sweet remnant from its Moorish days is Toledo’s famous mazapán. Shops all over town sell mazapán goodies in ready-made gift boxes…but I like to select my own.
A great thing about travel is trying things you’ve never tried before. For years I’ve being looking at these fruity mazapán and I’ve never tried one…Hum, it’s actually good, but I’m going to stick with the purist’s: This is the sin relleno. Oh yeah, top-quality mazapán.
Toledo’s main square is the inviting Plaza Zocodover. Tourists visit today for more than mazapán. Toledo was the 16th-century home of one of Europe’s greatest painters, El Greco.
Born in Greece, trained in Venice, Domenikos Theotokopoulos — his tongue-tied friends just nicknamed him “The Greek,” or “El Greco” — moved to Spain to find work as a painter. He found employment here in Toledo, where he spent the rest of his life, and developed his unique style of painting.
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. It combines all his signature elements to express an otherworldly 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 the ecstasy of her faith. 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 ghost-like baby — rises up through the 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. 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 perhaps this view — El Greco hung out here for inspiration. [The hotel has since closed. –ed]
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. And for worshippers, past and present, the windows provide spiritual as well as physical light.
Marvel through the iron gate at one of the most stunning altars in all of 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, its sacristy and treasury have enough jewels, great paintings, and other 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 de los López de Toledo, located in an old nobleman’s palace, offers traditional Spanish favorites with a modern flair. [The restaurant is no longer listed in our guidebooks. –ed] Here they specialize in Castilian food — especially game, like venison and partridge. And it’s always artfully presented in a way that would have pleased the Spanish nobles who used to live here.
Carlos: So Rick, this is venison. Venison is very typical in Toledo. It’s like with partridge, everybody goes “pow.”
Rick: So historically this has been a hunting area?
And we’re drinking wine from the Duero region of northern Spain and Portugal, renowned for its vineyards. A meal like this is a fine way to cap another great day in Castile.
Carlos and I are heading for Salamanca, with quick stops in Segovia and Ávila 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 work today, its primary function seems to be providing a backdrop for family fun.
Segovia’s main pedestrian drag is clogged with people enjoying a festive spring day out. While Romanesque churches and statues honoring 16th-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. 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 bullfights. Imagine spectators jamming these balconies screaming “Toro! Toro… ole!”
In the 19th century bullfights in this square were stopped. When the residents complained, town fathers gave them a more gentile form of entertainment — this bandstand.
The town’s cathedral stands high above its main square. Embellished to the hilt with pinnacles and flying buttresses, it’s a good example of that final overripe stage of Gothic called “flamboyant.”
Segovia’s Alcázar — or fortress — still seems to defend the far end of town. 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 the fortified city of Ávila.
Ávila is famous for its perfectly preserved medieval walls. For over 300 years, the town was on the battlefront between Moors and Christians — changing hands several times. Built in around 1100, its wall is the most complete in all of Spain.
Ávila’s cathedral was actually built into the wall. And behind the ramparts, the peaceful streets give a charming look at small-town Spain.
The Convent of St. Teresa is built upon the birthplace of Ávila’s most famous resident. Teresa wrote the most popular spiritual devotions of her age and founded a Carmelite religious order. Pilgrims venerate the saint in this gilded chapel. A case full of relics includes Teresa’s 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.
Carlos: So in Spain, every town has its specialty. In Ávila, it’s yemas.
Rick: That’s good.
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 bull boards 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 its famous 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 also commemorates commoners from the region.
Plaques above the colonnade depict Castilian writers such as Cervantes — who wrote Don Quixote, heroes and conquistadors such as Cortés, popular saints like Teresa, kings, and even dictators…here’s Franco.
On Sunday after Mass, old-timers gather here to shake their castanets.
[People dancing with castanets]
Sure, 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.
Rick: Now, you come to a restaurant and you don’t want to deal with the menu, you just want a light meal…
Carlos: That’s right. And then you just order raciones. Raciones are a little larger than tapas.
Rick: OK. You go to a bar and get a tapa, it would be like a little tiny plate.
Carlos: Exactly, and then here you just get raciones. So these are patatas bravas. “Bravas” means brave, brave because they have a very spicy sauce.
Rick: Brave… and then of course the standard thing would be a little bit of jamón.
Carlos: Jamón serrano.
Rick: What kind of wine is that?
Carlos: Okay. This is a Rioja. Rioja is from the north of Spain.
Rick: Ah that’s good. Rioja. So if you want a strong Spanish wine, Rioja’s a good bet?
Carlos: Yeah, vino con cuerpo — full bodied.
Rick: Full bodied. that’s a good word. Vino con cuerpo — look at this view.
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 the region’s silver filigree. The facade features the stoning of St. Stephen. Inside, priests are dwarfed by the over-the-top altarpiece. This is a textbook example of the 17th-century style named after José de Churriguera.
Nearby, Salamanca’s covered market is a marvelous place for a cultural scavenger hunt. Here you’ll find all the things important to daily life in Castile: fresh local produce, Salamancan sausage, and ham hocks. Ham, or jamón in Spanish, has a cult following here in Castile.
Rick: So, tell me, Carlos, about this entire mechanism. Is this typical?
Carlos: Yes, this is totally typical. We have one of those at home and every family has one of these. We buy a jamón, every Christmas we have a jamón. And we just carve it like you do a turkey.
Rick: Is it difficult to cut?
Carlos: It’s not very difficult. Do you want to try it?
Rick: Can I try a little bit?
Carlos: [Requests in Spanish]
Rick: So what is the important thing? To make it…?
Carlos: To make it very thin.
Rick: Okay, so the thinner the tastier. Because you want to…
Carlos: There you go. That’s perfect. That’s great.
Rick: It’s not so bad. Jamón ibérico.
Carlos: There you go, that’s perfect. That’s very thin.
Rick: Okay, it’s coming. Okay.
Carlos: [Speaks in Spanish]
Rick: Wow. Look at that. And then when you’re working hard you can eat a little bit…
Next, for something with a little more kick we’re trying some banderillas — potent spikes of spicy pickles.
Carlos: This is an assortment of everything in this one banderilla. In one gulp.
Rick: What is a banderilla?
Carlos: It’s what you stick in the bull.
Rick: It’s a fancy little spear?
Rick: An explosion of taste?
Carlos: Exactly. You do it in one go.
Rick: Wow…that’s buono, yeah.
Rick: Wow…Ole!…Maybe a little wine…
Carlos: Vino is good.
Rick: Explosivo!… that helps.
A highlight of any visit to Salamanca is its famous 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 so prestigious, it’s laden with history and especially popular with American students for 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, up the column, take a left, find the skull. The frog’s on top.
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 Habsburg Empire — the world’s only superpower in the early 1500s. Finally, as a statement of the school’s open mindedness, the top honors the Pope while putting him in the company of 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. Cortés came here for travel tips.
The narrow wooden tables and benches — whittled down by centuries of studious doodling — are originals. Professors spoke boldly from the 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 of Castilian. Because of this, he was tossed into jail for five years. When finally released, he returned to this pulpit and began his first lecture with, “As we were saying…”
Courageous men of truth like Luis de León believed the forces of the Inquisition were not even worth acknowledging.
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 outfits, 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.
[Band singing, playing and dancing]
Thanks for joining us. I hope you’ve enjoyed our highlights of Castile. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Adiós.