Broken fragments of ice hovered motionlessly over a dreadfully frigid Tagus. It was a somber sight all around; the cheerful Spanish glow I had grown so accustomed to was nowhere in sight. On the ground, brown tamarinds lay trampled and suspended between a state of decay and perpetuity under the morning frost. Suddenly, out from the dense fog, a lone jogger burst forward. Swishing silently past in Stygian polyester tights, he vanished as quickly as he emerged, disappearing down a smoky slope. Had I arrived in Toledo, or had I awakened in Homer’s Meadows of Asphodel?
It must have been around half past nine when the first rays finally peered through the thickly veiled valley. In seconds, the world transformed: gentle, curving hills revealed themselves, bedecked with rustic stone buildings and towering cypresses. The air glistened with a diamond-like radiance as the sun melted through the mist, and day broke over a city unperturbed by time.
Toledo is an illusory city, a stark contrast to the sprawling concrete boulevards of nearby Madrid. Perched above a plateau in the heartland of Spain, it seems to float on sea. Its architecture is a compression of time, merging Roman, Moorish, Gothic, and Mudéjar. From a distance, its silhouette harks back millennia and evokes a mythical presence, a blend between a fine Flemish landscape painting and one of Scheherazade’s vivid tales. Once a capital of the Germanic Visigoths, Toledo—like much of the Iberian peninsula—ceded to the Arabs in the 8th century. In 1085, it was recaptured by Christian forces—the first major city in Al-Andalus to be “reconquered” by the Crown of Castile.
Medieval Toledo after the Reconquista grew into a cultural and religious center. During this period, the city came to be known for its steelwork. Hard, flexible, and resilient—Toledo steel was prized across the continent for its superior quality, and blades made from this precious alloy were sought after by many a crusader and warrior. Meanwhile, a more pacific form of metalwork also flourished within the city walls: damascening, the art of encrusting blackened steel with gold, silver, and copper.
The city eventually became the imperial seat of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Although Madrid was later established as the capital of the Spanish Empire in 1561, Toledo remains Spain’s sole Imperial City (as Charles’ son, Philipp II, did not inherit the Holy Roman Empire).
With an illustrious grandeur that can be appreciated from afar and from within, it’s easy to imagine why master painters, sculptors, and architects such as El Greco flocked to this city upon a hill. Stroll along the Tagus to the Mirador del Valle and its parador, cross into the city over the arches of the Alcántara, stop for a piece of mazapán—Toledo’s special marzipan—at the central Plaza de Zocodover, and take in all the splendor of this historic Spanish burg.
Getting to Toledo
The high-speed train departing from Madrid Puerta de Atocha to Toledo takes approximately 30 minutes. Tickets may be booked in advance directly from Renfe. A round trip costs around €20.