Toledo, city of swords and marzipan

Toledo may well be an UNESCO World Heritage Site, but take away the dramatic location, intense history, beautiful architecture and superb culinary scene, and what are you left with? Tourist shops selling bizarre collections of swords and foodstuffs crafted from marzipan. That’s what. I will come clean, I hate marzipan. Its intense almond flavour ruined almost every Christmas I had as a child. I still have issues with Xmas cake. I’m not especially fond of swords either, but have less experience of them, and in Toledo’s defence it was once renowned for making the finest steel (and swords) in Europe.

Toledo’s choice of confectionary may be unfortunate, combining it with swords plain bizarre, but I can forgive wonderful Toledo just about anything. This is after all a city National Geographic described as “suspended between heaven and earth”, a description that you can only truly appreciate when you view the town from outside the city. Built on a hill and surrounded on three sides by the Rio Tejo, the city builds upwards until it peaks with the spires of the Cathedral and towers of the Alcazar.

We didn’t have long in Toledo, just enough time to get a flavour of what this former Spanish Imperial capital city has to offer and to make a note in the ‘places to return to’ column. Walking the narrow medieval streets it is hard not to feel like you’ve slipped back in time, something reinforced by the lack of modern architecture. Toledo may have cars crammed down impossibly narrow roads, but new building is restricted by its status as a National Monument – given to it by General Franco and sparing it the ravages of 1970s urban planning.

Toledo had a special place in Franco’s heart. During the Civil War, Nationalist forces withstood a vicious siege by Republican forces. The fight centred on the Alcazar, where Franco’s forces held out desperately; the bombardment from the Republicans reduced the building to rubble. Franco sent a relieving force to Toledo, an act now credited with prolonging the war. Had he headed straight to Madrid years of bloodshed might have been avoided. After the war Franco had the Alcazar rebuilt, and the town’s Civil War role and long history saw it declared a National Monument in 1941.

Toledo was founded during the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsular and its history is glorious. Conquered by the Moors in 711, the town grew and flourished as a strategic crossroads and a centre of learning. The town fell to Christian forces in 1085, upon which it was made the seat of the Catholic Church in Spain, giving it a status that ensured it grew ever more important and wealthy. It became the seat of the Spanish monarchy until Felipe II decided to move to Madrid. History has left behind a superb architectural legacy, including buildings like the Alcazar which date from Moorish times, and a wealth of incredible churches.

There are also some remnants of Toledo’s third defining culture, Judaism. The Iglesia de Santa María la Blanca was the oldest synagogue in Toledo, but was eventually turned into a church following religious persecution in the 14th and 15th Centuries, prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. During Islamic and early Christian rule, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully and reasonable harmoniously. This ended in the 15th Century, and Toledo stopped being known as the city of ‘three cultures’. Today Santa Maria la Blanca is a museum preserved as a synagogue by the Catholic Church, as if that isn’t weird.

The city is something of a maze, and one of the joys of being here is just getting lost in the alleys and lanes; finding yourself in small plazas, occasionally getting splendid views over the city and discovering some of the multitude of churches. If you’re ever in Toledo try to find your way to the Iglesia de San Ildefonso, which as well as having a lovely interior has spectacular views over the town. It’s a bit of clamber to get up there, but worth every breathless step.