Historic city of Toledo, Spain
At the back of Toledo Cathedral, behind the altar, there is an elaborately decorated skylight in the ceiling. Angels float around its edge, ushering in a beam of sun that blasts through, brightening the cavernous area.
It is a highlight (no pun intended) of a building that is considered to be the finest Gothic buildings in Spain and one of the most magnificent churches in the world.
Try to imagine the size of it for yourself: 120 metres long, 60 metres wide and 45 metres high. There are 88 interior columns supporting the roof and large stained glass windows in the upper sections of the walls. Close to the entrance is an impressive choir gallery that fills the central axis. A bit further in, the enormous altarpiece of gilded wood is an artwork in its own right. At the rear of the building, smaller chapels ring the wall.
Toledo Cathedral was the centre of the Spanish church and the detailed artwork inside it represents this. It would be easy to spend hours seeing everything and appreciating the centuries of history within the walls.
Interestingly, I find that the cathedral is not as impressive from the outside as it is inside. I think this is because it’s surrounded by other buildings in this dense hilled city and it’s hard to find a viewpoint to get a good perspective. Toledo was never planned properly from an urban perspective and much of it feels like it’s been placed on top of something else.
Toledo has a history of diversity and tolerance that is quite rare in this part of Western Europe. Christians, Muslims and Jews all lived together in Toledo for hundreds of years. It’s true that often one of the religions exerted more influence in the city than the others, but this was normally a matter of politics and economics, not religious persecution.
As I walk away from the cathedral and through the streets, I find myself winding my way around corners, climbing steps, dipping down to a lower terrace, and occasionally hitting an unexpected dead one. If it reminds me of the old medinas of Morocco, that’s no coincidence. These streets (better described as alleys probably) were laid out by the Muslims from about the eighth century. Glance through a doorway into a house and you’ll likely see a beautiful oasis of a courtyard inside, similar to the riads of North Africa.
Down the hill slightly, I come across the Jewish Quarter. Even if you weren’t exactly sure what you were looking for, you would know when you are here by the small tiles throughout the streets with Jewish symbols like the menorah.
While the Jewish quarter doesn’t feel remarkably different to the rest of the city, it does have its own story and traces of history. There are two old synagogues you can visit and plenty of other historic buildings. I would recommend learning a bit more about the area before you visit or going with a guide to really appreciate the significance of this neighbourhood.
Actually, that’s probably not bad advice for exploring all of Toledo – at least the historic part enclosed within the walls, rising up and over the mountain. It’s too easy to wander the streets and admire the architecture and think you have seen the city. But it’s the hundreds of years of history here that make it so significant.
It’s the ebb and flow of religions that are so special, and the relative peace in which they let the tides turn. Even today, that tolerance is not common everywhere in the world. There’s something to be learned from Toledo.
For accommodation, I stayed at the Fontecruz in the centre of Toledo.