Holy Toledo alright – all I can see around me are rows of steel knife blades, glinting in the light – am I going to need Batman to save me? Happily no, I am in a shop, a shop proudly displaying the centuries old tradition of superb steel blade-work, originating centuries ago with swords and now supplying quality knives to the world.
I am in the medieval city of Toledo, Spain, about an hour outside Madrid. And its a stunning place, an old walled city perched on a hilltop, circled on three sides by a river. This town has been here since the bronze age, and has seen off the Romans, the Visigoth and the Moors. For centuries it has been a melting pot of Muslims, Jews and Christians living side by side, and this has created a feast of beautiful old castles, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and monasteries around every corner, most built between the 10th and the 16th centuries.
Toledo, the Zocodover, the Alcazar and the Gothic Cathedral
The central square, the Zocodover, is as beautiful as any old european city square, and is a great ( but not cheap) place to nurse a coffee and take in the sights. I can’t help but think about how this square has seen everything from markets to executions over the centuries, and wonder what the previous inhabitants would think of the expresso takeover now?
The Alcazar is a must visit, a massive fortified palace-castle dominating the skyline, but inside it’s all pretty columns, courtyards and staircases. Its been rebuilt quite a few times since its first iteration in the 3rd century. And you can’t help seeing the large gothic Cathedral soaring over the rooftops, it started life in the 5th century as a church, then a mosque, then a cathedral from the 13th century.
I also really like the walk around the remaining ramparts of the old wall, seeing the old stone bridges over the river - only parts of it still exist and are accessible but the views are brilliant.
Toledo – Arts, Crafts and Food
Toledo has always been an artistic centre, and there’s lots of art museums to explore, including El Greco’s house, and his paintings also hang in many of the other public buildings. El Greco was so named as he was a Greek, who travelled to Spain in the 16th century to see if he could win the patronage of the King of Spain, and ended up in Toledo for the rest of his life.
While the city is most well know for its steel (a specialist knife makes a great souvenir but don’t put it in your hand luggage), but has a long history of ceramics. I have never been a Lladro fan (and Lladro started in another part of Spain anyway) but when I spotted one small piece in the big flash Lladro shop in Toledo, with a soft matt finish instead of the usual high gloss glaze, I had found my souvenir – and I still have it 22 years later (although my mother did “borrow” it for a long time).
My other favorite memory of Toledo was their Manchego cheese – as a backpacker, the delicious cheese and a big slab of bread made a fantastic meal or two. I was much less impressed with their local marzipan, why have that when you can have cheese?
Franco’s Fascist Monument
A very different but intriguing place to visit, also just outside Madrid, is the Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen. It is a grandiose and controversial monument to the fallen from the Spanish Civil War, built by the victor and Marxist dictator General Franco.
I start to realise just how grand a scale it was built on as we approach it through huge carved statues at the gates, the road sweeping a further 5 km through more countryside to the esplanade, a large paved terrace the size of several football fields. There is a gigantic basilica carved out of the mountainside, and it is topped by the tallest memorial cross in the world. The scale is overwhelming – the esplanade is 30,000 sqm, the nave in the basilica is 262m in length, and the grounds total 3,300 acres.
Apparently a bit of the structure had to be sectioned off before it could be designated as a basilica, otherwise it would’ve been larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, not something the Pope was going to be happy about. It now also contains the tomb of Franco, as he was interred here after his death, and many believe that it was always his intention for this to be his lasting memorial. The scale and design of the whole place does suggest a certain size of ego. Today the majority of Spaniards are not comfortable with the idea of such a grand memorial to fascism, and there is a lot of controversy about what to do with the monument to make it more politically neutral.
In recent years the government has banned any fascist political rallies from the site. The valley in front of the esplanade contain tens of thousands of buried bodies from both sides in the war, with a debate still raging about the how many of the losing side were used as prisoners and forced labour for the construction and died during the build. Its one place where I would recommend hiring a guide, as I found the history and ongoing debate much more interesting than the architecture is, once I got over the sheer size of the place, and the debate has increased dramatically since I was there.