Toledo, Spain – tourism in Spain’s (former) medieval capital

May 19, 2024

I’m in Toledo.

This was once the capital of Spain, and it’s been many years since I was last here.

It’s beautiful. A nearly-perfect medieval town, and just a short trip from Madrid. (It’s only 35 minutes by train.)

Actually, I think the reason I stopped coming here was the high-speed train.

See, there used to be a bus to Toledo that cost a few euros and took an hour. It left from some reasonably central part of Madrid, and it made Toledo a nice, cheap day trip suitable for broke English teachers and their girlfriends.

When they added the Madrid to Toledo high-speed train route about 10 years ago, I found that I was not in a position to pay 26€ round trip in order to save a bit of time on the journey. The bus moved down to Plaza Elíptica, which was already an hour away from everywhere.

toledo spain skyline

Staying overnight in a hotel was out of the question. So I stopped coming.

But now I’ve got a bike tour of La Mancha to go on, and the logistics involve a night in Toledo. Tomorrow morning I’ll be picked up at the hotel, and I’ll start cycling from a nearby town.

So this morning, for the first time, I got on the expensive high-speed train, and spent the time reading all about the history of Toledo on my phone.

Welcome to Toledo, Spain

After a quick 35 minutes, we’re here.

The train station is done in the Neomudéjar style, with stained-glass windows an elaborate brick clock tower. Toledo, the city of three cultures. A lot has changed since I was last here. In my life, I mean.

Toledo looks basically the same, but my priorities have shifted. If you’re 24 and someone suggests you visit the Santo Tomé church to see El Greco’s painting depicting the burial of the Count of Orgaz, you’ll laugh them off and save your four euros to buy beer.

But the current-day aging and perennially sober Mr Chorizo would like nothing more than to see El Greco’s painting depicting the burial of the Count of Orgaz.

And so, after a lunch of carcamusas (that’s a local stew made of pork, sausage and ham – very Iberian) I head off to Santo Tomé, where I pay the four euros and walk in to find a huge group of Asian tourists huddled in front of El Greco’s masterpiece. Okay, no hurry. I walk around the interior of the church while I’m waiting.

carcamusas typical food toledo

La Iglesia de Santo Tomé is from the 14th century, and it’s done in the old Mudéjar style – a mashup of Christian and Islamic architecture typical of Spain in the Middle Ages. Inside, there are pro life posters on the walls. An image of the virgin of Guadalupe, dark-skinned. A huge gold altar.

The red lamp to the right of the altar represents “la presencia eucarística de Jesucristo en el sagrario”. Multiple signs tell me this. The English translation on one of them does nothing to clarify what that actually means.

Later, on Wikipedia, I discover that the “real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” refers to the belief in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine used in communion are literally (not figuratively) the blood and body of Christ. The red lamp is lit to show that Christ is always there in the church.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz

Making my way back towards the Count of Orgaz, I pass a sign naming all the priests from that church who were martyred in 1936. I’ve written about the Spanish Civil War, and read extensively, but the sources I’m consulting don’t usually use the word “martyr” for the priests and nuns killed by the Reds. In any case, I guess it’s accurate.

I find myself alone in front of El Greco’s painting before the next group of Asians floods in. The Count of Orgaz funded the construction of this church – he’s buried below the painting – but he wasn’t really a Count. (Orgaz was not officially a county, back in the 1320s, so the subject of the painting was just a sort of lord, if I understand it correctly.) In any case, local legend says he was buried by Saints Stephen and Augustine, who came down from heaven to lay him in his grave.

entierro conde orgaz toledo
That’s the bottom part of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz. For the rest, you’ve got to go to Toledo.

The painting, done more than two centuries after the event, shows the body of the Lord of Orgaz in armour, held by the two saints, as well as a crowd of people from El Greco’s time – El Greco himself is there, as is his son. Above their heads, a heavenly scene with Jesus, Mary, Saint Peter holding the keys to heaven, and numerous angels. In the middle, Orgaz’ soul floats up towards eternal life.

That was four euros very well-spent.

“Sin novedad en el Alcázar”

Back out in the sun, I contemplate my next steps. The Army Museum is across town, but the town is small – much smaller than (for example) Toledo, Ohio. I walk, stop for coffee, walk some more.

There’s the Jewish quarter, with Stars of David on the corners of buildings. A big barracks with TODO POR LA PATRIA over the door. And finally the army museum, which turns out to be free to enter, and located in part of the old Alcázar.

There’s not much inside the museum. The car in which conservative head of government Eduardo Dato was shot, by anarchists, in 1921 – the back still riddled with bullet holes. An old tank, a howitzer gun and a small helicopter outside.

The building, though, is impressive.

During the Civil War, the Alcázar was under siege for two months. The left-wing militia outside did everything they could to get at the soldiers and Guardia Civil holed up inside, almost destroying the building before Franco’s army showed up. The Reds turned and fled. The propaganda victory for the National side was immense.

Today a very large monument to the siege stands on the hillside, depicting a woman in a long dress standing in front of a cross, holding a broadsword up like an offering.

I head back towards the center, and Toledo’s famous cathedral.

Inside the Primatial Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo

The twelve euros for the ticket to the cathedral would have seemed obscenely expensive back in the day. Twelve euros was a whole day’s budget of falafel for lunch and tortilla de patatas for dinner, with enough to spare for a few coffees or beers as well. Broke-ass vegetarian Daniel from 2005 would have been shocked at what was in store for him – in more than one way – if he had known.

Anyway, the cathedral in Toledo is considered to be the best example of Spanish Gothic architecture.

Apparently it’s the “primate of Spain” as well, which means that the archbishop here is in some sense the head archbishop in Spain… or something. Lots of previous archbishops are buried inside, as well as a couple of kings. There’s a “processional custody” made of gold, a few meters high.

Under the floor in a small crypt I find the remains of Saint Ursula, who, according to legend, was massacred (along with her entourage of virgins) after rejecting the sexual advances of Attila the Hun and his barbarian army.

Saint Ursula, virgin and martyr. (Painting by Anonymous.)

The details are unclear, but allegedly, the girls preferred to go to their mass grave with virginity intact. Some sources say there were eleven of them. Others say 11,000. All this in the year 451, up in Germany.

The story is historically dubious, but the Basilica of Saint Ursula in Cologne has a chapel with entire walls covered in bones, in theory those of Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. The Toledo Ursula has been in this cathedral for hundreds of years, in any case, and there are often conflicts between churches over whose relics are the real thing – it’s possible that none of them are.

Walking around the cathedral in a huge circle, I find another sign commemorating the martyrs of 1936 – one of them is entombed right there, in a little chapel off the main hall.

The Catedral also has a sacristy and museum with more paintings by El Greco and others. I especially like one of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus – the baby Jesus looks out at the viewer, with a knowing, adult expression.

That was 12 euros very well spent.

When I leave the cathedral it’s raining. I stand under an awning with a family of Italians. It sprinkles for 5 minutes and then pours for five minutes, then it stops.

The Tagus River and the snailpocalypse

The sun is back a few minutes later, and I decide to head down to the river. The Tagus – or, as they say in Spanish, El Tajo. It’s the same river that you can see in Lisbon, Portugal, where it reaches the Atlantic.

On some stairs leading down I find snails, thousands of them, that have come out after the rain. They’re doing whatever snails do, out on the rocks and the stairs. There are so many, in fact, that some are losing their slimy grip and rolling downhill with a quiet rattling sound.

I try to step around them but they’re on every step, blending in with the grey cement. They crunch under my feet all the way down.

Sorry, snails.

tagus river in toledo

At the riverside I find some signs for a GR path following the Tajo, as well as la Ruta de Don Quixote, parts of which I’ll be following starting tomorrow.

I walk along the riverbank for half an hour, while the sun drops towards the horizon.

Back in town, most of the tourists have vanished by 7 PM or so, and I have the city to myself. This has been a pretty full day. Madrid, now just 35 minutes by train, seems a world away.

Tomorrow I start the Route of Don Quixote.

Stay tuned.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I realize I didn’t get around to much of the history of Toledo here. Suffice it to say, it’s a long story, which has Visigoths, Moors, Christians, Jews, Knights Templar, Philip II, and much more… and I didn’t want to write (or research) all that. Maybe some day I’ll get seriously into the medieval stuff, but for now it just sounds a bit exhausting. For more places I like in Spain, check out Santander, Cuenca, and (here in Catalonia) the mountain town of Puigcerdà. Enjoy!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Hi Daniel. I hope you love La Mancha.
    Do visit if you can Lagunas de Ruidera. And the little medieval village (with a huge church, almost a cathedral) of San Carlos del Valle.
    I always think both Castillas are quite underrated. These regions have wonderful landscapes and a very rich artistic heritage.

  2. Hi Daniel, I really enjoyed your visit to Toledo. It is the same tour my husband, Stephen, and I, took in 1972, when we visited Madrid. We took day and evening tours of the city, El Escorial, La Granja, and even saw a FLAMENCO dinner show. You have brought me a wonderful memory.
    Thank you very much for your great writings about the cities you visit. I visited Barcelona in 1962, arriving in an Italian transatlantic and stayed for 16 days with relatives, so I could see everything there was to see. I had left from that city in 1956 with my mother & brother, also in an Italian ship, to unite with my father in Brooklyn.
    Thank you again for being such a great writer. My best regards,
    Pilar Navarro Smith

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