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Toledo: Spain's Historic, Spiritual, and Artistic Capital

Toledo, Spain

When Toledo was the capital of Spain, it was known for its tolerance. Today the rich cultural legacy of Muslim Moors, Jews, and Christians is reflected in Toledo’s historic buildings (including its stunning cathedral), museums, and tasty souvenirs, like the famous mazapán.

Complete Video Script

Toledo is so well preserved and packed with cultural wonder the entire city has been declared a national monument — you’ll see no modern buildings. It’s an ideal place to savor the delights of Spain — cultural, historic, and tasty.

Spain’s historic capital has 2,000 years of tangled history crowded onto a high, rocky perch. It’s protected on three sides by a natural moat — the Tagus River — and everywhere else by formidable manmade fortifications.

Toledo was for centuries an important Roman transportation hub with a thriving Jewish population. When Rome fell, it was ruled first by the Visigoths and then by the Moors. Centuries later, when the Christians conquered the city, they made it Spain’s political and religious capital.

In the 1500s, when the city reached its natural limits as defined by its river, the king packed up and moved his capital to more spacious Madrid. Toledo became a political backwater, only to be rediscovered by Romantic 19th-century travelers. Today, while small in population and of minor importance politically, Toledo remains a vital center of culture, art and religion. It survives much as it was when Europe’s most powerful king called it home.

Toledo’s handy escalator gives those approaching the city from the bus station or car park a sweat free lift into town — particularly welcome in the hot summer.

Lassoed into a tight maze of lanes, Toledo has a confusing medieval street plan. But major sights are well-signposted. Explore and remember, some of the best attractions come without signs.

For centuries, Christians, Jews, and Muslims enjoyed this city together. Toledo’s history is a complex mix of these three great religions with an impressive record of peaceful co-existence.

Physical reminders of Toledo’s multi-cultural history are everywhere. In the year 711, zealous members of the world’s newest religion — Islam — conquered the Iberian Peninsula. For seven centuries, these North African Muslims — called Moors — dominated Spain.

The Moors were impressively tolerant of the people they ruled, allowing Christians and Jews to practice their faiths freely. With cultural ties stretching from here, across North Africa all the way to Arabia and beyond, the Moorish civilization here in Spain was a beacon of learning in Europe’s so-called “Dark” Ages.

Mathematics, astronomy, literature…and architecture…all flourished. After Christians took back Toledo in 1085, many Moorish craftsmen and builders stayed on, leaving their Arabic imprint on the city for generations to come.

This looks like a mosque, but it’s actually a Jewish synagogue. It was built in the 1200s for Jews by Moorish craftsmen. The decor, while Arabic in its style, comes with Jewish motifs — the shell is a Hebrew symbol calling worshippers to listen to the word of God. While the men worshipped in the main area, women worshipped behind the screen. Two hundred years later, the mosque-like synagogue was retrofitted to be a Christian church.

The peaceful co-existence couldn’t last forever. Spanish kings united Spain into a Christian nation. They gave Jews and Muslims a choice: convert or leave. In 1492, sure, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But that was also the year that Spanish Christians exiled the Jews and successfully kicked the Moors back into Africa.

A sweet remnant from its Moorish days is Toledo’s famous mazapán. Shops all over town sell mazapán goodies in ready-made gift boxes…but I like to select my own.

A great thing about travel is trying things you’ve never tried before. For years I’ve being looking at these fruity mazapán and I’ve never tried one…Hum, it's actually good, but I’m going to stick with the purist’s: This is the sin relleno. Oh yeah, top-quality mazapán.

Toledo, Spain’s leading Catholic city, has a magnificent cathedral. Shoehorned into the old center, its exterior rises brilliantly above the medieval clutter. And the interior — so lofty and vast — is celebrated as the most Gothic of Spain’s churches and the most Spanish of Gothic churches.

Wander among the pillars and imagine when the light bulbs were candles and the tourists were pilgrims. And for worshippers, past and present, the windows provide spiritual as well as physical light.

Marvel through the iron gate at one of the most stunning altars in all of Spain. The complex composition shows the story of Jesus’ life…from his birth in the manger…to his death on the cross. While the centerpiece holds the Holy Communion bread and wine, the entire altar conveys the Christian message of salvation through Christ.

While the cathedral is primarily a place of worship, its sacristy and treasury have enough jewels, great paintings, and other art to put any museum on the map.