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Holy Toledo!

7 April 2008

Our school excursion this weekend was to the Medieval fortress city / former Spanish capital of Toledo. Overall it was a great trip, though our overly tired state—the result of staying up waaay too late Friday night saying goodbye to our American friend who left early Saturday—combined with a pair of overly obnoxious, loquacious and culturally retarded German girls tainted this outing slightly. The city was inspiring, however, and we figure we’ll make a return trip by ourselves, when we’re more rested, more well-educated on the city and sans Ger-tards.

At any rate, our day began again at the crack of dawn, as we rushed thru the park with throbbing headaches to catch our tour bus. Our journey was soothed, however, by the early morning sounds of nature, namely the cooing of every pigeon in the park. Given that it’s mating season, we assumed they were all doing it, and that made us smile.

We made the bus, passed out, and awoke on a switchback road winding thru the river gorge on the edge of Toledo. The vista was quite breathtaking, as the city rose out of the craggy valley, with a high Medieval curtain wall surrounding the Alcázar, Cathedral and warren of clay-tiled buildings within. After pulling over at the scenic overlook and doing our best imitation of Japanese tourists (there was a busload of them there too, by the way, taking pictures of everything. And I mean EVERY. THING. Toledo, the gorge, their tour bus, the little snack shop next to the overlook, each other, gum wrappers, plastic bags blowing in the wind, you name it.) we rolled into town and made our way to the Cathedral.

The Cathedral, a French Gothic / Mudéjar style building in the middle of town, is unique in construction in that it has five naves (the main aisleways running lengthwise thru the church), a rare characteristic among Gothic cathedrals (most have three). Though impressive, I must say I was a bit underwhelmed (sorry, Señora). I think it was the fact that it had been turned into such a tourist attraction that the austerity of the place had been sacrificed to the point that it felt a bit like a theme park (Bienvenidos a JesúsLand!). It could also have been because I was exhausted, or it could have been because the fat, loud German girl in our group wouldn’t shut her shnitzel hole the entire damn time, making it nearly impossible to follow the Spanish explanations of our guide. In the words of Al, “that b!tch is making me think un-churchlike thoughts.” Just more support for my universal course on museum etiquette. At any rate, the Cathedral in Segovia felt much more “holy”. I’d be willing to go back to Toledo after researching it further, as I’m sure there’s unique features I missed.

All in all, however, it was still an interesting piece of architectural achievement, and the Rococo addition of the “Stairway to Heaven” (that’s what I’m calling it; I’m sure it has an official name, but I never caught it. Probably because the whole tour was in Spanish. Oh well.) behind the altar was impressive: lots of swirling sculptural movement and frescoes giving the illusion of people looking down from heaven. There’s also a window directly opposite the sculpture which illuminates a gilded dove in the center, suggesting an inner divine glow. It’s similar to Bernini’s Gloria for St. Peter’s in Rome, but a little less impressive, at least in my humble opinion (what can I say, I’m a sucker for Italian Renaissance / Rococo). The choir, however, was quite breathtaking, as it’s adorned from top to bottom with intricate wood carvings and reliefs showing a combination of the history of Toledo, the saints, the life of Jesus and a variety of beasties warning of the perils of straying from the faith. Even the bottoms of the seats had carvings. We also toured some of the back rooms and gallery spaces where it became clear to me where all the booty from the New World ended up. I don’t think there was a single item on display that wasn’t either solid gold or gilded and bejeweled to the point of ridiculousness. There were also a couple of hand-illuminated Bibles on display that were absolutely awesome. The type geek in me had the mind to smash the glass and make a run for the door, but the horde of slow moving Japanese tourists made me reconsider the facility of that plan.

After the Cathedral, we visited La Sinagoga del Tránsito, a museum housed in a former church / synagogue in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Originally built as a synagogue, it was later repurposed into a church, following the expulsion of all the Jews from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, and has since been retrofitted as a museum of Sephardic Judaism. Interesting side note: prior to the expulsion, Toledo was a model of religious tolerance, with Islamic Moors, Christians and Jews living in relatively peaceful coexistence. Hence the city was a center of learning, creative arts and the other such cultural contributions of a peaceful existence. Apparently it was too good of an idea to just let it be. The museum was interesting, but again, all in Spanish, so I was a bit lost. The Mudéjar architecture though, was very intriguing, however.

The next stop was the Iglesia de Santo Tomé, where El Greco painted the Burial of Count Orgaz, considered among his finest works. It was quite impressive, especially when you consider his particularly Mannerist / Proto-Impressionistic / Expressionistic style in the context of his very precise Renaissance peers (think Caravaggio). Aside from this church, the town is literally covered with his work, as he lived and painted there for nearly 40 years, if my math is right. Though not a personal fan of his, it was still impressive to be so close to a work that I’ve seen in art history books for years; that whole “he stood right here” / living history kinda thing.

We then took a lunch break and Al and I found a nice little outdoor café where, if it weren’t for the need to get back to the tour bus by 4:00p, we probably would have stayed and “wasted the whole damn day.” I had a pretty good steak and Al noshed on some eggs and blood sausage combo. That’s the one interesting thing about Spanish food: you can have “breakfast” all day long, if you want, and it’s not like that crap at Waffle House or IHOP, but like the stuff your mom fixes for you on Sundays. Dee-lish.

Our final stop was the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, a church / Franciscan monastery dedicated to the city by Ferd & Izzy (we’re on a first name nickname basis at the point) to commemorate the defeat of the Portuguese at the battle of Toro in 1476, and to serve as the royal burial place (remember that Toledo used to be the capital until Phillip II moved it to Madrid ). It was a very interesting building, featuring some of the clearest examples of the Mudéjar style for which I had been searching all day. The outside also featured manacles and chains anchored to the building, and I’m still trying to figure out their significance.

After this, it was a quick trot across the main access bridge across the Rio Tajo, where once again, the entire tour was waiting for me to finish shooting my complement of photos before getting back on the bus and going home. Once again I protested that if they didn’t have such visually interesting cities, I wouldn’t feel compelled to shoot them. In my defense, however, I: a) wasn’t the only guy on the bridge from our group; there was also a trigger-happy German kid with us (who also happened to have museum manners—a surprise) and b) I didn’t shoot the 600+ photos I did last weekend. Only 300.

So, long story short, Toledo was cool, we’ll probably go back, there’s some photos on Flickr.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Countess of Cava permalink
    8 April 2008 10:16 am

    A return trip to Toledo is a must…as you said, when you are rested and not a bit hungover. I always told my students that the manacles on the walls were for students who did not learn their irregular verbs! I warned them that many a sorry American teen-ager had been hung by the wrists for not using Spanish in Spain. I also professed to have a key!!!

    The spirituality of a church or cathedral has much to do with the number of tourists present within the building. If the tourists would just display some respect for the palce it would help. I remember seeing graffiti in the cathedral in Toledo and I was appalled and sick to my stomach. The most spiritual places I visited in Spain were the smaller Romanesque churches, many of them now abandoned, in the north. Listen for God in the holy silence, my dear ones.

    Your “adventure” with the international party sounds like something I am glad I missed. I have always thought it rather difficult to communicate and be drunk at the same time. I have never been into recreational vomiting.

  2. Spirit of 73 permalink
    9 April 2008 6:53 am

    Did you see La Calle Toledo, Ohio?

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