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Notes on the Geography of Spain: Toledo

For a time the imperial capital of the Visigoths, Toledo fell to Tarik in 712 and became the capital of the Muslim Taifas. It was taken back by Christians in 1085, and it then served as the capital of Castile for almost five centuries, until the capital moved to Valladolid and subsequently to Madrid. Toledo then began a long decline, which explains why it survives largely as it was five centuries ago.

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A model of Toledo on display in the newer of the city's two surviving synogogues shows clearly the natural moat formed by the Tagus. It shows the city wall (doubled on part of the city's north or land side), the city's intricate street network, the cathedral at the city's center, the fortress or Alcázar at the far side of the city, and house by house the Jewish neighborhood. The bridge in the distance is the Puerto Nueva de Alcantara.

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Here's that bridge as of 2012. Richard Ford, author of A Hand-book for Travellers in Spain, and Readers at Home (1845), mocks the name of the bridge, which means the New Bridge of Alcantara, which is to say "the new bridge of the bridge." The Spaniards, he mocks, "did not even understand the name of a thing which the Moors made for them." The Moor's bridge was the second on the site and replaced a Roman one destroyed during a siege in 854. That bridge survived from 866 until 1257, when it was rebuilt.

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In 1721 Philip V added this gateway.

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A zoomed image of the city seen from the hills south of the river. The octagonal tower on the left is the Chapel of Santa Catalina; the black dome in the center belongs to the Church of San Juan Bautista; on the right is the massive cathedral. Ford writes that "when seen from afar, nothing can be more imposing," but he goes on to say that "there is rottenness in the core...."

What did he mean? The city's population had declined from 200,000 to 15,000, but Ford probably was referring instead to the behavior of the remaining residents. He doesn't comment on this explicitly, but an American naval officer, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, came by a decade before Ford and wrote, "Toledo furnishes a striking epitome of the national decay. Here you may see the monuments of past magnificence crumbling to pieces, and ready to crush the squalid habitations of modern times... Instead of the noise of the loom and shuttle, and the voice of cheerful labour, announcing the presence of an industrious and happy people, you may now hear the tinkling bell of the host, or the louder tolling of some convent clock, calling the lazy inmates to the daily duties of the refectory...."

Then he comes to the heart of the matter. "But though there is much religion in Toledo, there is very little morality. There is, on the contrary, a vast deal of libertinism in this same sainted city. Indeed, how can it be otherwise, when so large a number of men are interdicted from the open enjoyment of domestic and family endearments, and, at the same time, provided with money to purchase the gratification of every desire?" (A Year in Spain, 1836, II, 70).

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Ford refers to "the Tagus, boiling through the rent." The river doesn't do much boiling now, but here's a bit of froth, along with a length of city wall. Up top is the Alcázar, an ancient fortress rebuilt many times, most recently after its destruction in 1936.

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A more tranquil view of the river from the northeast corner of the city. On the near-side bank of the river in the distance is a modern waterwheel, a reminder of the hydraulic mechanism that once lifted water to the Alcázar. Madrid lies some 40 miles to the north.

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The walls have tempted homebuilders delighted to find that one side of their house is already built.

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A modern road entering the city on the north side bypasses the Gate of the Sun. Ford suggests that visitors should begin their exploration of the city here at the "Puerta del Sol, a rich Moorish gate of granite horseshoe arches, with an upper intersecting one of red brick...."

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Close-up. The gate was built before 1400 by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who adopted the architectural forms of Muslim Spain. Until the cathedral was undertaken in the then innovative Gothic style, this Muslim or Mudéjar style prevailed in Toledo.

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The triangular medallion is the scutcheon of Toledo's cathedral and shows the ordination of Ildephonsus, the bishop of Toledo and a disciple of Isidore of Seville. The sun and moon appear to keep watch as Eladio, a monk and later a saint, conducts the ceremony.

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The crenelations of the same gateway can be seen in the middle distance on the left. The slope continues down to a second gate, marked by tiled twin towers.

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Here are those towers, part of the Puerta Nueva de Bisagra. Parts of the gate are old, a fact hinted at by the name Bisagra, which is a corruption of the Arabic Bab-Sahara, the "gate of the country." The tiled towers and the decorated entrance, however, were added in the mid-16th century by Alonso de Covarrubias, an eminent and prolific architect.

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Covarrubias worked for Philip II, who added this eagle and shield in honor of his father, the Emperor Charles V.

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Just to the west is the 9th century Bisagra Viejo, blocked in Ford's time but now open.

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Close-up. This is a double gate, but it is oddly straight, without the right-angle twist that provides greater security.

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A bit of old road runs uphill from the old gate smack into the base of a former mosque, the Mezquita Cristo de la Luz.

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Here's the mosque seen through another gate, the 10th century Puerta de Valmardon, the former Bab-el-Mardon. A modern tourist center abuts the mosque.

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Ford writes: "In the Calle de Cristo de la Luz is a very curious Moorish mosque, which was afterwards given to the Templars." The structure--the oldest building in Toledo--consists of a tiny mosque on the right, completed in 999, and an apse added after 1186. At that time the mosque was transferred from the archbishop to the Templars, or Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, builders also of the Puerta del Sol.

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Ford writes that "the roof is supported by four low square pillars, each having different capitals, from whence spring double arches, like those at Cordova." Indeed, the design is almost a miniature of the vastly bigger mosque there.

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The hemispherical apse has very poorly preserved Romanesque paintings.

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The mosque garden is laid out in the quadrapartite design common across the Muslim world.

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The Muslim or Mudéjar tradition was carried over spectacularly to churches such as this one, San Roman, now the Museo Visigotico.

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Dating from 1221, the church fuses Christian and Muslim design.

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The horseshoe arches, for example, come from the Muslim tradition, the representational Christian art from another.

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The massive 13th century church of Santiago del Arrabal, or St. James of the Outskirts, stands near the Bisagra Nueva and was completed in the late 1200s. The blind arches belong to Mudéjar tradition.

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So does the horseshoe arch over the main entrance.

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The interior, on the other hand, anticipates the Gothic style with its emphasis on height and its reliance on pointed arches.

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Another view, showing the peaked roof of timber.

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Anticipating the Gothic in yet another way, the church has a transept and a vaulted masonry roof over the crossing.

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Toledo has a commercial side, of course, and it is centered on the Plaza de Zocodover, near the Alcázar. The Mudéjar tradition lingers in the Arco de la Sangre, once a gate in the city's wall. (The Arch seen here is new, a 1948 replacement of a building destroyed during the Civil War.) Arab tradition lingers in the name Zocodover, too, because it comes from the Arabic suq ad-dawab, or cattle market. The square was later cleaned up but was never quite as symmetrical as Philip II wanted.

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A street leads from the square to the cathedral; it is perhaps the widest street running through the heart of the old city.

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Ford writes: "Now a long and almost the only widish street in Toledo leads to the Gothic cathedral." Its spire looms early on a wet morning.

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Ford writes that "the streetology is difficult, for... none run in a parallel or straight course, but twist and turn each after its own fancy, coming to its most illogical conclusions."

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Photos of empty streets must be contrived, because by midday there are lots of visitors.

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Shops to suit.

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Traffic is controlled by motorized bollards that drop for motorists with the right transponder.

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Here one is lowered early in the morning.

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Tourists lured by the famous Alcazar will be disappointed by what one historian calls "one of the most unfortunate and ill-fated buildings in the history of Spain." (Fernando Goitia, Toledo and Madrid, 1972, p. 138). Charles V had rebuilt the ancient Roman and Muslim fortress and had intended to make it his primary residence. His taste ran to rigid symmetry, and so the building was designed by Covarrubias with a square courtyard surrounded by a square building with identical corner towers. The Alcazar was destroyed in 1710, however, during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was rebuilt, then destroyed by the French in 1810. It was rebuilt by 1857, only to be burned and rebuilt a third time. It was then destroyed in a siege during the Spanish civil war. The present building is the fifth since the Emperor Charles.

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Ford saw it in ruins in the 1830s and wrote: "the French never forgave his [Cardinal Lorenzana's] assistance to their priests...[and] burnt [the fortress] as a last legacy by Soult's troops when evacuating the half ruined city. The crumbling walls of the quarters in which the soldiers lodged were, when we were last there, still defiled with the most obscene writings and drawings." Still, ruins can be more evocative than intact buildings. Here, an entrance carries the motto imposed during the Civil War: "Everything for the fatherland."

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Here's the latest incarnation of the courtyard, formally correct but grim, perhaps because it serves no purpose other than to stand as a symbol. Even that it does poorly, because though part of a military museum it is seen by few visitors.

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Despite the archaic dress, the figure is Alfonso XIII, king of Spain from 1886 until 1941. Here he stands victorious over a chained African captive. Translated, a plaque on the base says, "I will enter Tunis as a victor or I will remain dead in Africa." A plaque on the other side slightly varies the motif: "Let me fall before my flag."

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On the other side of the city, there's a more arresting sight. The sign suggests a church, but that's only because the synagogue within became a church after the expulsion of Spain's Jews in 1492.

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The facade isn't promising.

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Which makes the interior all the more a surprise. It dates from about 1200 and is clearly in the Mudéjar tradition.

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Asymmetry above the altar.

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The roof over the altar.

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An aisle.

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Ford writes of "aisles divided by polygonal pillars, which support horseshoe arches, springing from bastard Gothic capitals...."

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The "bastard" capitals are taken to represent pine or cedar cones.

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A Star of David is subtly hidden in one spandrel.

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Close by, there's a newer synagogue, also converted for several centuries to a church. Funding came from Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, an adviser to Pedro the Cruel. It was not a secure position. Ford writes that Pedro in 1360, "being in want of cash, and knowing the value of a Jew's eye, tortured and killed poor Levi, and then seized his money-bags."

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The synagogue consists on a large but simple rectangular room, spectacularly dressed. The stuccoed wall, which seems almost embroidered, was for centuries covered by an gilt altarpiece removed after 1888, when the building became a national monument.

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The view from the women's gallery.

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The elegant timber roof was never lit so well in the old days.

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The same wall's exterior.

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The synagogue appears here in the background and nearly adjoins the Museo del Greco, here in the foreground.

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The museum was once a house, never inhabited by the painter but presumably similar to the one in which he lived. It survives because it was acquired in 1905 and restored by Benigno Varela, the Marquis de la Vega Inclán and the first Royal Commissioner for Tourism.

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View of the upper floor.

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At last the cathedral, begun in 1227 on the site of the city's central mosque, notoriously seized during the absence and against the will of Alfonso VI, who had promised to respect it. Peace was negotiated, and work on the new building continued for over 250 years, until 1493. Fernando Goitia calls it "a superb example of Gothic architecture" but Ford dismisses the facade as "neither beautiful nor symmetrical." He does not explain his dissatisfaction, but there is certainly a major stylistic clash between most of the facade and the neoclassical pediment added in the 18th century by Eugene Durango, on orders of Cardinal Lorenzana. Apparently the original stone was disintegrating and had to be replaced.

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Only one tower was built. It rises, Ford writes, "in a thin spire, encircled as with crowns of thorns."

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There can be little disagreement about the building's size, which measures 113 by 56 meters. Nor can there be much disagreement that the Gothic style of the cathedral is a huge departure from the rest of the city. The archbishop who laid the cathedral's foundation stone in 1226, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, had five years earlier consecrated the Mudéjar church of San Roman. Jiménez, however, had been to France and seen the cathedrals under construction there.

The main entrance is sealed tight except on special occasions. The sculpted figures over the central portal represent the Last Supper.

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The tympanum of the central Puerta del Perdón or Door of Forgiveness shows the Virgin Mary bestowing a chasuble or vestment on Bishop Ildefonsus.

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The door on the right is the Puerta del Juicio, or Door of (the Day of) Judgment.

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On the south side of the cathedral, the Door of the Lions (sometimes called the Puerta de los Apostoles or Icones) was executed by Hannequin of Brussels in 1459. It too is shut tight. Besides the lions atop the columns, the Virgin at her Assumption is shown on the central mullion, where she is supported by angels.

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Finally an open door: the Puerta del Reloj or Door of the Clock. It is, however, nominally reserved for those attending services, and it leads only to a small, fenced portion of one aisle and a chapel. Above the door, which is the oldest of all the cathedral's doors, there is another 18th century neoclassical addition.

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And yet another, in this case the door used by ticket-waving tourists.

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Before we go in, here's a view of the same side of the church. The flying buttresses are shown well, in addition to the entire length of the building. The opposite side cannot be shown this way, because a large cloister abuts the nave, while secular buildings abut the far side of the ambulatory.

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Like many Spanish churches, the nave is blocked midway by a low but elaborate wall. On the other side is the choir, which looks toward the Main Chapel, whose altarpiece or retable rises here in the distance. The windows in the background are part of the chancel wall, but the cathedral continues with a wide ambulatory behind that wall.

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Massive piers, with compound attached columns, divide the nave from its aisles. Ford wrote that "fatal whitewash has been unsparingly laid on..." but it seems to have been removed since his time.

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Here's the view west from within the choir and looking toward the rose window in the main facade.

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The carved stalls in the choir, from about 1540, recount the conquest of Granada, which at the time would still have been remembered by the elderly.

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The rose window.

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A view from an aisle of the reja or screen before the main altar.

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Behind the screen there is an immense wooden altarpiece, built by many hands to a design by Felipe Vigarny. The commission was by Cardinal Siliceo about 1550.

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The central panels show a Virgin and Child at the base, above it a tabernacle, then a Nativity scene, then the Ascension and, at the top, Christ on the cross.

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On a side wall and in an incongruous Renaissance style is the tomb of the eminent Cardinal Mendoza, a close advisor of Ferdinand and Isabella.

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The most peculiar feature of the cathedral, the Transparente, is glimpsed on the left here, behind the altarpiece and chancel wall.

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Bishop Don Diego Astorga y Céspedes was responsible for this unwalled chapel, the work of Narciso Tomé. Ford calls it "an abomination of the 18th century, but which is the boast of the Toledans, and their disgrace." Goitia begs to differ and calls it "the most spectacular example of Baroque...."

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High above, a window has been opened and walled with flamboyant ornament. Ford dismisses it as a "fricasee of marble" and "much depraved invention." Goitia calls it "an elaborate exercise in Baroque illusionism..."

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Light pours in.

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The apse and nave are rimmed with conventional chapels, too, in this case of St. Eugenio, unusual, as Ford noted, because it contains bits of the mosque that stood on the site.

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The Chapter House or meeting room is wrapped by portraits of Toledo's archbishops. Through the door is the panelled anteroom or antesala.

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The cabinets there were designed for vestment storage.

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The coffered ceiling of the Chapter House.

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A door leads to the large cloister on the north side of the cathedral.

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The original paintings were effaced in 1775 and replaced, Ford writes, with "commonplace academical inanities."

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The cloister was erected by Archbishop Tenorio between 1389 and 1425 on the site of a Jewish market. Ford is not shy about commenting on the bishop's tactics: "As they [the Jews] would not sell the ground, he instigated the mob in his sermons to burn the houses of the unbelievers, and then raised this beautiful enclosure on their foundations."

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A bridge connects the cathedral to the Archbishop's palace.

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The palace began as a hospital funded by Archbishop Juan Pardo de Tavera, but, as Ford writes, "was appropriated by his successor, whose charity began at home."

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Another hospital stands near the Alcázar. The founder in this case was Cardinal Mendoza. The designer of the doorway was the prolific Covarrubias, who in the tympanum over the doorway shows the cardinal praying before the cross. The building today is a museum.

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The courtyard.

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The Alcázar rises behind it.

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Another cloister, this one adjoining the church of San Juan de los Reyes, built to commemorate the victory of Ferdinand and Isabella at the Battle of Toro, where they consolidated their power. Both planned to be buried here but were not. The building was in near-ruin by the late 19th century and stands here completely rebuilt.

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The chains hanging on the church walls were struck from Christian prisoners liberated after the battle for Granada.

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The church, in a style called Isabelline Gothic, has always been a bit hapless because it has never served its primary intended function as a tomb for Ferdinand and Isabella.

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The 17th century Jesuit Church of San Juan Bautista is in the style developed by the Jesuits at Rome's Gesú church. After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain, it became a parish church.

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The interior.

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Another glimpse of the interior but this time looking away from the altar.

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From the church towers, there is a fine view of the cathedral.

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And of the Alcázar.

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Another rooptop offers a view of both the cathedral and the church of San Juan Batista.

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