Toledo is about an hour south of Madrid. An old Roman city, it first rose to prominence as the capital of Visigothic Spain. It would later be the capital of Christian Spain until supplanted by Madrid in the 16th century. Like Segovia, Toledo is situated on a rocky outcrop set in a river bend. The river carves a deep gorge around three sides of the city, forming an impenetrable barrier. A huge wall pieced by enormous gates emblazoned with Hapsburg double eagle crest encloses the old city. The best view of the city comes from a park across the valley on the north side of the old town. There, a mounted statue of King Alfonso VI looking suitably heroic, casts his steely gaze at the city he ’liberated from Muslim oppression.’ The statue conforms to the 19th romantic view of the Reconquista but bears little resemblance to reality.
For a start, Alfonso was no religious fanatic fighting for the glory of a restored Christian Spain. He was fighting for himself. He had lived in Muslim Toledo for three years while in exile and knew the city’s wonders for himself. Like almost everyone in this era of city versus city, he’d sided with the Muslims against Christians and against Muslims, depending on whatever advantage he could gain for himself. By 1085 he knew the emir of Toledo, who had been his patron and protector during his exile, had had enough of politics and so he made him an offer. After lengthy negotiations Alfonso took possession of Toledo and its emir took his money and retired to Morocco.
With Toledo in his possession Alfonso had gained both a jewel and the keys to northern Spain. The Visigoths had made few enhancements to the city and it had been a fairly rundown place when the Muslims first took over. For a couple of centuries Toledo remained a run of the mill, Muslim frontier town until the Ummayad Caliphate imploded at the beginning of the 11th century. As in Renaissance Italy, Spain splintered into a kaleidoscope of waring city states. In the long run it was fatal to the survival of Al-Andalus but in the short term it resulted in a cultural efflorescence as each emir tried to make their city more impressive than their neighbours. Toledo expanded to become an important city renowned for its university that drew scholars from the Islamic, Jewish and Christian worlds. At a time when the great libraries of Christendom might have a thousand books, Toledo university had a collection of over 100,000. There were also several public libraries and numerous private collections. The city also sported public baths - unheard of since Roman times - sewers and public street lighting.
We arrived on Sunday afternoon so the city was quiet. We entered through one of the massive gates emblazoned with the Hapsburg double eagle. These gates were built in the aftermath of the Reconquista to advertise BOLDLY that the city was under new ownership. Inside the outer all they link up with the old Moorish wall and a lonely Moorish horseshoe gate, now sporting a statue of the Virgin Mary. We weaved our way up a steep street past chaotic road-works and scaffolding. A quick glimpse of distinctively patterned brickwork behind the scaffold revealed one tiny reminder of the city’s Islamic past - the Church of Cristo de le Luz. Built as a mosque in 999AD it currently being restored after years of dereliction.
The city’s streets wind up and around the contours of the land while tall, ancient brick apartments loom over the street blocking out the sun. The city is reminiscent of Siena in Italy or Fez in Morocco. We could not find our way in the maze of unnamed streets. Eventually we stumbled on a square marking the university. It is still here after a thousand years. Alfonso understood well the importance of the university and its collected learning and placed the libraries under his personal protection. For almost two hundred years Toledos translators would make available to the west this vast corpus of ancient and eastern knowledge before the Inquisition arrived.
From the university, whose facades still carry the faintest traces of Islamic calligraphy, we found our way to the cathedral in the centre of the city. The current cathedral replaces the mosque that replaced the cathedral that replaced the original Roman temple. Construction started in the 11th century and continued with modifications and additions through to the 16th century. The cathedral’s most notable feature is an oculus that allows light to stream directly onto a baroque altar. Several Castilian kings are buried in the cathedral but we could not find their tombs. The cathedral treasury contained an impressive collection of artwork (especially works by El Greco) along with a captured Muslim war banner (12th century) and the robes of Toledo’s arch bishops stretching back to the 13th century.
It was a short walk to the Alcazar, the main palace of Toledo (currently closed for restoration). The Muslim palace that stood here was torn down and replaced by a very stark, very cold palace by Phillip II (of Armada fame) in the 16th century. It has all the grace of a Soviet office block, which says much about Phillip’s grim personality.
Although it was getting late, we decided not to stay in Toledo but would press on south into Andalucía proper. It was a long drive of over three hundred kilometres but we felt that any distance we covered that afternoon was distance we would not have to make up tomorrow. We bought some supplies (Red Bull, cheese, bread), filled the tank and set off. Less than an hour later we reached Cuidad Reale - the Royal City. This was the last major city before Cordoba and had been a Christian staging point for attacks on the Muslim south. We decided to risk making a dash across the mountains that cut divide northern and southern Spain.
The fall of Toledo spelt the end of Al-Andalus in the north so the Muslims defended themselves the simplest way possible. They withdrew south of the mountains. The mountains aren’t high but they are wide and largely uninhabited. As medieval armies needed to plunder supplies en-route this meant any invading army needed to transport all its own supplies across 100kms of difficult terrain and an army slowed down by wagons is an easy target for ambush. 600 years later this region is still a no-mans-land.
When we finally crossed the mountains it was after 9pm at night and the road was pitch black. We decided to stop at the first town we came upon, which turned out to Montoroso. As we turned off the highway we turned onto what seemed a single lane road that wound down a precipitous mountain side, leading us to immediately question the logic of our decision. We eventually arrived in a rustic Spanish town clinging to a hillside above a raging river. We drove around the town for almost an hour but could not find any sign of a hotel so eventually turned back towards the highway to Cordoba. Fortunately, just outside the old town there was a busy truck-stop . Even more fortunate - they had a room.