An Afternoon in Toledo


Toledo is known as the “City of Three Cultures”; since it embraced Christians, Jews, Muslims for many centuries. All of these religious groups have left their mark on the architecture of the city, where you can visit a synagogue and mosque as easily as a church or cathedral.

Andrew and I spent last Sunday running around this beautiful historic city. My coach Miguel, lives just outside of Toledo and gave me directions for the easiest way to get to the city – by bus. It is a short trip since the city is approximately 70 km south of Madrid. Originally, it was the capital of Castile until Felipe II moved the seat of power to Madrid in 1561. The are many different suggestions for the reason behind this change; however, scholarship has not come to a definite conclusion; and therefore, it suffices to say that in 1561 the capital moved from Toledo to Madrid.

We did not have a map and in many ways were relying upon my memory from visiting the city with my class in 2009. Fortunately, my memory held rather well. Below are our first glimpses of the city as we passed through the outer wall of at the Habsburg arch.

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Toledo is built upon a hill. The streets wind around up and down, with houses being built almost on top of one another. Without any clue of where we were truly headed we followed the second wall around until we found a side street to cross.

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As in many of these old towns, activity stems from the Cathedral. If you can find the Cathedral you should be able to find the rest of the city. We wandered for a ways and then stopped into a cafe to ask for directions. Of course, we were only a few yards from the Cathedral and here was our first glimpse of this majestic building.


When we arrived it was not open for tourist visits, which in many ways played in our favor. Instead of walking around the entire building we were restricted to a small roped off quarter. Additionally, we were able to enter one of the side chapels. Our gift was that photos of the Cathedral are prohibited; however, I stood there and watched the man next to me snap a photo of the light streaming through the skylight. The guard watched him take the photo and said nothing. To me this was license to capture some of the beauty of the Cathedral. Technically, we were limited to one side, but seeing as I am the lover of Cathedrals and have been before I do not think anything was lost. And now I can share some of the images of the Cathedral.

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After the Cathedral we attempted to find the tourist station of the city to get a free map of the city. There I found the bakery that Tom Cummins took our class to in 2009 and seeing as we needed a little sweet treat I stopped inside to grab Toledanas (sweet almond pastries native of the city) and marzipan (the other sweet treat of Toledo). We made sure to bring a few Toledanas back to Daniela who absolutely loves them! Map and goodies in hand we continued on our journey.


Above are the views through one of the archways of this plaza.

Along our route to the Jewish district we stopped in the Chapel Santo Tomé. Here is buried El conde de Orgaz, which is commemorated by the painting, El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz , by el Greco. It was placed in the chapel by el Greco and is a glimpse at how he envisioned his works to be presented and viewed. El Greco is thought to have included a self portrait and is the one man staring out at the viewer.


From there we headed to the Santa María la Blanca, a synagogue in the Jewish quarter. It is an unassuming small building from the outside. Set back from the street by a small courtyard; yet, as the detailing on the main door exemplifies it was intricately and finely decorated.

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This is the difference of view once you step inside the synagogue. And yes, under the basilica there is a cross, this space was at one point held a small christian chapel. An interesting reminder of how each of these spaces have a colored religious history and were utilized and re-utilized by the different religious powers to prove their preeminence at a particular moment in history.

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After viewing the synagogue, we decided to stop for lunch before continuing our tour of the city. We walked almost to the end of the city looking for a place to eat, passing by both a monastery and the Jesuit Church.

Here is a picture of Andrew in front of the Jesuit Church! J is for Jesuit of course!!


Upon finding nothing desirable, we decided to head back in the Jewish district. That being said,  we wanted to see something new instead of following the known path. This led to a large staircase from which we could see the whole side of the city and its surrounding countryside. Such a beautiful site that we would not have been able to have seen otherwise.


We finally wound our way back to our original restaurant where we ordered a menu of the day (paella and quail) and a plate of the day (Grandmother’s stew). We split the three dishes so that we could each try the different dishes of the city. We were especially fortunate to receive two small quails, which made our sharing even easier.  I did not win any wishbones, so all that luck was placed in the hands of Andrew. All in all, it was a delicious meal and nice to get out of the heat for a little while.

One of the more interesting parts of Toledo is not located in the buildings or up high, but rather right below your feet. These three images below give a hint at what you can see intermixed with the street pebbles if you keep your eyes peeled. Personally, I loved locating the small blue and white tiles intermixed throughout the whole city, as they crept up in the most peculiar places.


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We then headed to our final major stop on our religious quest : Cristo de la luz, a mosque formerly known as Mesquita Bab-al-Mardum.


This small square mosque was constructed in 999. There are four main columns that divide the space of worship with a vaulted dome off to one side. With recent excavations a mural depicting Christ has been unearthed along with the phrase “this is the shield which the King Alfonso VI left in this chapel when he conquered Toledo, and the first mass was held here.”

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Outside the mosque there is a beautiful garden, which added to the original religious complex. Being here brought back some wonderful memories from my first trip with the HAA department to Spain in 2009. Below I have placed the photo from last weekend first and then one from my last trip, you can see not too much has changed.

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This trip was a formative part of my education at Harvard and my decision to continue and pursue colonial latin american art history. We made many memories as group: “Rockefeller Skank”. It was an experience that imprinted the importance of studying a culture and its art in situ rather than just in a classroom. I hope that as a professor I carry forward the lessons that my professors and classmates taught me on this trip and can inspire someone as they have inspired me.


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