In this journal:
- 13 different churches;
- Dali and Picasso;
- a knight in shining armor.
Finally, the family returned to Madrid for one last time. Marrakesh was still fresh in our minds, and we wanted some new adventures before the family splits up again. Sure, I pulled out the map and designated a few points of interest around the Spanish capital for my parents to choose, and they picked wisely.
Just 45 minutes away from the city center of Madrid by very frequent direct buses, Toledo is often dubbed as the imperial town, as it has been the seat of Visigothic kingdom and many other rulers after its fall. It offers a nice retreat away from the crowded Madrid streets, and the change of sceneries from mostly tall buildings to 1000-year-old cathedrals and mosques was certainly a welcomed one.
The most prominent feature of the town is as usual, a cathedral. However, for Toledo, this religious headquarter is quite different from many other comparable ones. A high Gothic classic, this masterpiece is widely considered by many experts to be the epitome of Spanish Gothic architecture, as it was finished during the 13th century, and has not been damaged or altered since.
What is especially outstanding, however, are the paintings adorning the walls, naves, and altars in this cathedral. Numerous famous artists have graced this religious establishment with their fine skills, including the most numerous collection of El Greco in any church. He practically lived his peak of life in this royal city. There are 15 paintings by him in total hanging in the sacred halls, and the high altarpiece is the marvelous The Disrobing of the Christ. You can also find other painters such as Francisco Goya and Anthony van Dyck, among dozens of others.
As if we had not seen enough religious establishments during this trip, the next stop was the tiny building called Cristo de la Cruz. Built during the Moorish rule of Iberia Peninsula in 999, this tiny mosque symbolized the city’s Islamic heritage once the Visigoths were defeated by the southern invaders. After the reconquista, this mosque was turned into a church, and a statue of Christ bearing the cross was featured. Yet, due to the centuries, you can see the painting covering the old Islamic ones are slowly falling off, allowing us a look through the history, as prophet Mohammad slowly shows his holy visage from behind the tortured Christ.
Finishing up the western theological trifecta, we had Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca. This is the oldest synagogue still standing in Europe. Interestingly, this was built by Islamic architects during the Moorish rule in mid 12th century for the tolerated Jews living on the land, and now is managed by the Catholic church as all sephardic Jews were expelled in 16th century. This is one of the finest examples of Almohad style buildings since it was built more like a mosque than a synagogue: there is no women’s worshipping place inside!
World’s most confusing history lesson continues in Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador, a tiny 12th century chapel built on top of an 11th century mosque, which is an extenstion of a 9th-century Umayyad mosque built with Visigothic elements, and its old Roman materials are still visible. Then there is another church called San Tome nearby, which housed El Greco’s most famous painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. This is widely regarded as the best Mannerism work, which is a style that exaggerates in any way possible in order to form an unnaturally beautiful composition. In this painting, El Greco pushed Renaissance to its peak by contrasting the heavens with the earthly realm.
We continue our tour of infinite churches to Church of San Idelfonso, a Baroque one featuring two large spires. It is dedicated to the patron saint of Toledo, and is located on the top of the tiny hill that the town sits on. As a result, the view from the top is absolutely stunning.
But wait, there is more! I have yet to show you the most beautiful church in Toledo yet! Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, you are like me and getting sick and tired of churches, but trust me, this one is great. Remember the Belem monastery in Portugal? There is one almost as gorgeous right here! Excited? Well, let me introduce you to Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes.
This is a world class monastery built by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. They used this piece of art to commemorate the birth of their son, as well as the triumph in the Battle of Toro over the Kingdom of Portugal, even though the battle result was inconclusive. It is built in a style of late-Gothic unique to this area during that period called Isabelline, and features a mix of old Baroque, Gothic and Mudejar style, which you are going to witness here.
Same as its counterpart in Belem, this monastery is used by the Franciscan friars, and has a beautiful cloister. It has two floors, which feature intricate carvings on the lower floor, and Islamic style wooden boards on the upper floor. The church attached has ceilings over 30 meters high, yet sadly I cannot provide any picture due to the fact that photography is prohibited inside.
Finally, no more churches, I promise. This is Alcázar, a Spanish fortress used for such purposes ever since the Roman times during 3rd century. Its most famous time was in Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. The Republicans laid seige to this building with overwhelming forces, and they captured the son of the defending Nationalists’ leader, José Moscardó Ituarte. The Republicans threatened to kill his son if he does not surrender, and during a phone call, José told his prisoner son:”Shout ‘Viva España!’ and die like a hero!”
The Nationalists were the group that fiercely supported Spanish Nationalism similar to Hitler’s idea of German Nationalism, so they are not exactly the least crummy people out there. This story became a famous propaganda piece in the latter times, widely used by conservatives, fascists and racists as a tale of heroism in Spanish history. Nowadays, this marvelous building houses the Spanish Army Museum with a stunning view.
I took my parents and wandered around the old town. Most of the roads are narrow and shaded, so they were perfect for a stroll. Tons of souvenir shops dotted around the touristy parts, and they all were hawking the same stuffs. Swords are everywhere because the town was the premier location to get an outstanding steel sword ever since the middle ages, and there were a ton of painted plates, as they are a classic tradition here as well.
For an old town like Toledo, it is not about impressive towers or dominating mountains. It was not built for that kind of scrutiny. It was built as a medieval capital, and intends to stay as a medieval capital. The kings and caliphates may have gone, the town itself survives the identity crisis. I would love to stay a bit longer, but even I myself cannot resist the unrelenting time, washing me away from this safehaven like a leaf clinging to the riverbank. It is okay, though. I know Toledo will remain the same, with or without me.
To fully appreciate the royal city, one has to step back for the bigger picture. I took my parents onto the hill overlooking the city, on the other side of Tagus River. Sun was starting to set on the Iberian Peninsula, and the dusk light perfectly captured the enigmatic beauty of Toledo. You can see every single building I have brought up in this journal in the below picture, and that kind of vantage point is very rare, as this was a first during my years on the road.
We made our way back to Madrid after watching the sun slowly setting onto the ancient town. For the final day in Spain, I first took my parents to the Royal Palace. I have already visited the palace a few times ago, so I will not detail it here. And finally for the last point of interest: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
Every day after 4p.m., the museum is free, so there was a gigantic line snaking all the way around the corner. This is Spain’s best contemporary art museum, and houses some of the most famous paintings ever crafted by Spanish masters, including Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. The most famous painting done by Picasso, Guernica, is exhibited here in a special hall. Sadly I was not allowed to take a photo of this anti-war symbol admired a world over. You can google it if you have not heard of this piece, and please read up on the story behind this seemingly random yet emotionally traumatizing piece. Also note its dimension: it is bigger than most rooms!
Museum hopping usually makes lame blog articles, so I will spare you the pain. However, Reina Sofía is a brilliant museum, and should be appreciated by every visitor in Madrid. There is no way to savor the brilliance of contemporary art of 20th century, except by participating in it first hand.
To sum it all up: Toledo was nice. I was worrying that my parents would find the 3rd time in Madrid in the same trip tiresome, but it turned out to be a non-issue. Toledo was the full package, or in Spanish, todo. Large cathedrals, tiny monasteries, imposing castles, slow-flowing rivers, all check. I guess you can say we loved it with all our heart, or in Spanish, todo.
It was time for the family to go our separate ways. My parents wanted to head back home after a trip that was too long for them, but for me, it was barely half way. We arrived back to our second home, Madrid airport, and bid our goodbyes. I would board a flight towards Rome on my way to New York, and for them, one bound for Shanghai. Thankfully everyone was on business class, so it was not too difficult of a farewell. This time, I was rather surprised that I managed to survive taking my parents around Spain and even to Morroco. Who knows where the next family trip will take us?
Well, that is for the future me to worry about. What was ahead of me was a nice big business class seat, and a big city. Its name, is Big Apple.