la ciudad de las tres culturas

toledo's medieval city, as seen from the cathedral tower.

At the moment, I’m sprawled out on the couch in the living room, watching a movie about baseball dubbed over in Spanish. I haven’t been able to make myself leave the house today, aside from to go to class this morning. I’m not sick anymore (thank God) – I’m just taking advantage of finally being back home. In the last month, I’ve traveled every single weekend: Cordoba with my program, Lagos for three days of sunbathing, Toledo with my friend Michelle, and finally Barcelona these past four days. It’s been exhausting, but in the best way. But as much fun as I’ve had, I’m just so glad to be back in my flat for the foreseeable future. I was literally grinning the whole way to class this morning because I was so happy to pass all my favorite landmarks – the confiteria with the fabulous pastries, my post-siesta beer stop, the gorgeous designer bridal boutique with the feathered dress in the window…perfection.

Two weeks ago, however, I was getting restless in Sevilla. I was ready to get out and see some more of this country that’s my home for the next nine months. Cordoba was a brief day trip, and since my jaunt to Portugal (while fun) was with a company specializing in trips for American students I didn’t feel like I was seeing anything culturally significant. On Wednesday I mentioned this to my friend Michelle, who agreed, and on Friday morning at 1 AM we were boarding a bus for the first leg of an 8-hour journey to Toledo.

a view of the cathedral from the winding streets.

For those not in the know, Toledo is a small city about 20 minutes by train outside of Madrid. It’s famous for its medieval center, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. As in, the whole thing.

So as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s pretty awesome.

We got in around 9 or 10 on Friday morning, and since our hostel couldn’t check us in until noon, we went straight away to see the cathedral. Like Sevilla’s, the cathedral is from the Gothic period with a reclaimed minaret for a bell tower. But Toledo’s cathedral was built much earlier than Sevilla’s, as it was the first major Arab city in Spain to be reconquered by the Christians. I didn’t even realize the bell tower was originally Muslim; a nice security guard who ended up giving us something of a free tour told me. Overall, the church is a great example of Gothic style – I was pretty into it. And since we showed up right as they were opening the ticket booth, we managed to avoid the crush of tour groups. It’s always nice to see churches when they’re quiet; we even got to see part of a Mass going on in one of the side chapels.

the biggest bell in the tower. it's HUGE.

My favorite part of the cathedral was definitely the bell tower. The climb is actually terrifying – I can’t even begin to describe how tiny and twisty the staircase is – but it’s worth the effort. The bells are beautiful, as is the view. The biggest bell has only been rung two times. It’s cracked now so they don’t use it, but its smaller companions manage to make up for it.

One of the reasons Toledo is so famous is its history as “la ciudad de las tres culturas” – the city of three cultures. The Arabs first set foot in Spain in 711, and by 780 they had taken over most of the Iberian Peninsula. Toledo became a major epicenter during the first few centuries of Moorish rule, and the time became known as “la Convivencia” – the co-existence. Supposedly, Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in relative harmony. In reality, there were probably some tensions between the three, but Toledo still carries the mark of all three. See: la Juderia, the Jewish Quarter, and the two beautiful synagogues still in tact.

the arches of sinagoga de santa maria la blanca.

The more famous of the two is la Sinagoga del Transito, which now houses the Museo Sefardi. It’s certainly larger. But I liked the much-smaller Santa Maria la Blanca better (and yes, I realize it’s a bit of a misnomer). The courtyard was beautiful, and inside was a beautiful art exposition featuring drawings of a Judeo-Christian bend. A kindly older nun was selling them, and we got to talk to her a little bit. She said she was part of an order that helped take care of the synagogue (which was converted into a church, and now back to synagogue). Either way, both synagogues are worth a visit.

After all the sightseeing we did, Michelle and I were desperate for some good food. The first night, the guy working the front desk at our hostel gave us a recommendation for dinner: “Bar Enebro,” he said. “Cheap, delicious, fun.” I can’t even begin to tell you how true that is! We had originally thought about going to a real restaurant first and stopping by Enebro for drinks after, but I’m so glad we didn’t. You see, with every drink you buy, you get a HUGE plate of fries and bocadillos. So for 5 euros each, we both got two drinks and a full meal. The sandwiches were delicious – melty manchego cheese and either ham or bacon, depending on the bartender’s mood – and I couldn’t believe the amount of fries they served. Suffice to say, I was impressed.

outside of convento de san clemente.

On Saturday, we were really sick. No, really. But we still managed to get out and search for the two famous mosques in Toledo: Cristo de la Luz (you see how much things changed when the Christians arrived?) and las Tornerias. Incidentally, it is impossible to find these things a) without a map and b) when you’re drugged up on mystery medicine given to you by Spanish pharmacists. We managed to find la Mezquita de las Tornerias, but as it turns out, it was closed. Still, the walk was nice, and we managed to find el Convento de San Clemente, a working convent that sells the best marzipan in a city that bleeds the sweet almond paste. But lucky us, we arrived during siesta, and the nuns weren’t selling. At least the outside was pretty.

my meal at hamburguesa de ciervo!

After all that fruitless searching, I was not going to pass up on a great lunch. We ended up at Com.Es, a great little restaurant not far from the cathedral. I’d looked it up online and it had good reviews, so we thought we’d give it a shot. As soon as I saw this beauty on the menu, I knew we’d come to the right place. It’s a hamburger, yes…but it’s made of deer meat! Toledo is pretty famous for its wild game, and as hunting season just started here in Spain it’s on every menu. I saw a ton of partridge, hare, etc., but this was the lone deer dish I spotted. It was really tender and tasted a little like a camel burger I had in Morocco. I finished the meal off with a cheesecake on top of a brownie smothered in raspberry sauce. God my life is difficult.

mazapan from santo tome.

We might have missed out on the nun’s marzipan, but on Sunday we made it to Santo Tome, a sweet shop in Plaza Zocodover, the main square in the city. I was obsessed with the pretty little candies. They are so delicious; much better than the marzipan I’ve had in the States. I’d wanted to buy a box for my sister’s birthday, but I was worried about whether they’d keep until December. Oh well, sorry Addie!

Sunday also meant free entrance to the Alcazar of Toledo. Unlike the Alcazares I’d seen in Sevilla and Cordoba, Toledo’s fortified palace is purely Renaissance. Built in the 16th century, it’s taken quite the beating over the years, but a series of restorations left it looking shiny and new. It’s now a museum – mostly covering military history, but it includes some of the most random exhibits I’ve ever seen. Downstairs was a temporary exhibit on the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to give you an idea of what I mean. Still, it was cool to see, and since it was free I didn’t feel bad skipping out on some of the rooms.

the courtyard in the alcazar.

After the Alcazar, we had to get everything together to head back home. I won’t go into the hell that was my return journey (let’s just say I need to learn to keep better track of important documents like bus tickets), but in the end I made it home a little poorer, but no worse for wear. All in all, the trip to Toledo was a success. I definitely recommend it to anyone traveling to Madrid; it’s a 30 minute train ride and most of the important landmarks can be seen in a day, if you’re not sick and/or lazy like we were.

If you go…

Stay: Albergue los Pascuales
A brand-new hostel right in the heart of the old town. The staff was incredibly kind and helpful, and the room (while small) was comfortable and clean. Breakfast is included, but kind of sparse – magdalenas and instant coffee. Still, the location and low cost make it perfect for a weekend in Toledo.

Eat: Bar Enebro
Come hungry. Really. Small beers, wine, tinto de verano, etc. 2.50E with tapa; large beers (and I mean LARGE) with tapa 3E. Say hello to Jason for us if you see him; he’s the Columbian kid with a shaved head. He’ll bring you food refills if you’re cute and nice to him.

Buy: Black gold
Not ashamed to say it, I bought the super-touristy black gold jewelry they sell on every corner. Why not? It’s pretty, and you can get some good deals in the smaller shops.

Party: Circulo del Arte
It’s a club…IN A CHURCH.  The music was pretty bumping and I hear things get pretty wild later at night; Michelle and I ended up going to bed a little early thanks to our twin cases of plague. But it’s definitely worth seeing.

adios toledo!

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One thought on “la ciudad de las tres culturas

  1. […] out, Caceres’s medieval walled city is a UNESCO heritage site – just like Toledo. I immediately extended my stay a night so I could explore all day Sunday. All thanks to a lucky […]

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