Monday, August 16, 2010
Toledo: Romans, Muslims and Jews
When I told my good friend John Swift we would be spending a few days in Madrid, before taking the non-stop flight back to Vancouver, he said, well of course, you'll be going to Toledo. So Saturday morning we set off by train.As soon as you arrive at the Moorish styled train station with its highly decorative stone and brickwork, combined with intricately carved wood and stained glass, you know Toledo is a different kind of place. Thirty minutes by train from Madrid, this hill-top city with a population of 57,000 is one of Spain's most visited cities. And for good reasons.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since the mid 80’s, the city was first settled by the Romans before the CE, and subsequently conquered by the Muslims in the 8th Century. Around the end of the 11th century the Vatican established Toledo as a centre for the Catholic Church. Toledo was also an important centre for Jews who had migrated there from Rome and the Middle East, and for the next 4 centuries Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted reasonably well, generally within their own sectors of the city.
However shortly after 1492, Spain's Muslims and Jews were ordered to convert or flee. Their buildings and places of worship were converted to Catholic facilities, and the succession of religions has left its mark on this city. Many of the buildings have a very unique medieval architecture and other related styles which combine patches of brickwork and stone in amazing patterns.
Important buildings in the city include the Alcazar which dominates the city skyline, the 16th C Museo de Santa Cruz, the Cathedral which is also very visible on the skyline, and the Iglesia San Ildefonso. The old Jewish quarter, with two remaining synagogues is today celebrated as a tourist attraction.
While I do not regularly attend the synagogue in Vancouver, I regularly visit synagogues in other cities, especially when they are old. Toledo's Sinagoga del Transito is very old. It was built in the mid 14th Century and is surprisingly intact despite its subsequent use as army barracks, Catholic Church and residence. Today it has been renovated and refitted as a Jewish Sephardic Museum. It is very well done, and appeals to both Jews, and non-Jews interested in learning about the history and culture of Sephardic Jews, who lived in Spain. Admission is free.Close by is the Sinagoga de Santa Blanca which is even older! It was constructed in the 12th century. Here there is a modest admission charge. While photos are not permitted, I could not resist taking a couple of pictures of the large vaulted ceiling which is unlike any synagogue I have ever seen.Unlike the Sephardic Museum, there was no real display. Instead, there was a very modest exhibition of Jewish-style art, overseen by a gentle and smiling nun who sat at a table. At first I was a bit shocked by the lack of activity, and the presence of the nun, but then realized the Jews had long been banished, there really is no need for a functioning synagogue there today, and the Catholic Church has now taken over the facility. Sally suggested the nun was there to suggest to Jewish visitors that the community hopes there are no hard feelings.With its steep terrain, very narrow streets and unique architecture, Toledo is a delightful destination for a day trip. However, sadly tourism is overwhelming the town and as Sally rightly noted, it does not really have the charm or beauty of Cadaques or Pals on the Costa Brava, or so many of the beautiful places we have visited while in Spain.
So at 6:30 we managed to trade in our 9:30 return train tickets for 7:30 tickets and as I write, we are heading home for a last night in Madrid. It's a holiday weekend, and if last night was any indication, the city is going to be hopping.