Toledo, Spain: Traveling into the Past

May, 2019

It’s 8:00 am, and I’m wandering a mostly empty airport terminal looking for the bus stop. Or maybe this is a bus station, I’m not sure which. There are lots of barely staffed counters with illuminated signs. My wife and I exchange weary looks and keep walking.  After wandering for a few minutes, we spot the Exprés Aeropuerto parked across the driveway outside. Our bus takes us on the highway and through sprawling suburbs, past massive apartment complexes and shopping centers. It looks a lot like Ohio, actually. 

We eventually make it to the main train station, which has a more confusing layout than the airport. It turns out we’re way ahead of schedule, so we take our time and figure out where the train platforms are. Unfortunately the only thing to do at this hour is drink coffee at the café. We wait for what feels like hours until it’s time to board our high-speed train into the countryside. 

Still exhausted and the buzz from my espresso fading, I stare out the window at the farms whizzing by.  I wonder, what’s it gonna be like in this country? Half an hour later, we’ve arrived. Grab the bags, get ready to navigate again, and we’re off. Welcome to Spain.

* * *

When we arrived in Toledo, I was immediately swept up by the romantic medieval city. Clusters of buildings perched on the hillsides, hemmed in by stone walls that loom above the wide River Tajo. Tall spires stretched skyward, capped by the imposing alcázar that stands guard over the city. We felt pretty stiff from the hours of transportation, so we opted to walk to our hotel. This naturally took longer than anticipated, and before long we were sweating and tired in the warm Spanish weather.  The setting made it an enjoyable walk though. We approached the stone arches of the city gate like knights of yore and marched inside with our luggage.

It’s a cliché to say, but exploring the streets of Toledo transports you into the past. The city’s street plan and many of its buildings all date from the 13th and 14th centuries, when Toledo was the capital of a much younger Spanish kingdom. The roads wind up and down, with little regard for efficiency, logic, or navigational considerations.  They’re narrow too, so it’s hard to keep an eye on any distinctive landmarks. I resigned myself to going full tourist-mode and keeping my phone out, map app at the ready. 

With this chaotic wayfinding, everything you see in Toledo feels like a discovery. You walk past a doorway and see a courtyard decorated with brightly colored tiles.  You stumble into a small square with café tables beneath an old tree.  If you turn down the right street, the heavy stone arches of a church appear. There’s normal stuff too—a bank with glass windows tucked beneath the fancy iron balconies, a tiny grocery store squeezed in among the cobblestones. (I made a note of that one for later. It’s always good to know where the grocery store is!). Also, knife stores. So many knife stores for some reason. 

The overall effect is interesting. Toledo feels so genuine in the way it preserves history, the stories of each conquering kingdom are there for you to see in the buildings themselves. It also feels touristy, a bit like a giant movie set or Disney attraction, with modern life hiding just behind the fairytale exterior. 

After an evening of jetlagged roaming, we headed to the main cathedral in the morning. La Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo is the top sight in the city, and it was surprisingly easy to find owing to the steady stream of tour groups headed there. We picked up our audio guides and headed inside.

I have to say, I love a good audio guide. You get perfectly clear, concise descriptions at your own pace, illuminating the details of the place while you silently judge the uncultured heathens wandering aimlessly without audio guides. Or perhaps following sheep-like behind their tour guides, barely understanding the wonders before them. I digress—travel tip: get the audio guide!

I won’t attempt to catalogue the beautiful artwork and opulent religious objects of the Toledo Cathedral, treasures collected through centuries of work (and, let’s be honest, a fair amount of pillaging) by church and monarch. There are a lot of pieces. They are quite beautiful.

For me, the highlight was the rear altarpiece known as El Transparente. It’s an exuberantly detailed collection of Baroque sculpture that stretches to the cathedral ceiling, then climbs overhead to meet a round skylight that literally reveals the heavens above, with sculpted angels perched around. Bronze details gleam in the sunshine, while the marble statues seem frozen in time, ready at any moment to continue their graceful movements. I lingered as I stood before such an artistic and technical achievement.

 * * * 

It’s almost noon, and I’m sitting in the shaded cloister of a cathedral. Rows of stone columns border a courtyard with neatly trimmed trees and shrubs. It looks like something from a Harry Potter movie. My wife and I wait for our tour of the cathedral bell tower with a small group of others. After a few minutes, our guide arrives. He seems nice, but his tour is entirely in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. We go through a series of dark stairs, then outside along the cathedral wall, then up some narrow wooden stairs.

Eventually, we make it to the top of the cathedral bell tower, which gives us a 360 view of the old city. We’ve seen the medieval buildings and tiled roofs already, but the view from above is still spellbinding. It looks nothing like Ohio. We savor our few minutes in the tower until it’s time to make our way downstairs again. I stop to take some pictures before we leave.

Energized from our visit, I head outside. I think about how far we’ve come, how many miles of flying across the ocean, riding in trains, and walking through cities it’s taken to see this place. I realize it’s lunch time. Consult the guidebook, check my phone, and we’re on to the next part of our adventure.

Further reading

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