Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Holy Toledo!

Last Saturday I went to Toledo, a half an hour trip by high-speed train. It was such any easy trip to make, part of my wishes that I had gone sooner. The sensible part of me is glad I waited until the weather started to cool off*, because it would have been a miserable trip in the summer heat. The joke is that all of Toledo is uphill. That's not entirely true, there are some flat bits on the other side of the river from the bits that you come to see**. So, for the most part Toledo is all up hill, add in streets that are almost all cobblestone, and walking three blocks becomes a serious hike.

I caught the first train from Madrid, which was itself an adventure. I had help from a professor who has been living in Spain for the past 30 years in buying my ticket Friday afternoon, for which I was extremely greatfull, as I don't think I could have found the correct ticket counter on my own. Fun fact: the main train station connects the metro with two (unconnected) train networks, a food court, more magazine stands than you can shake a stick at, and a greenhouse complete with turtle pond. You can't buy an AVE ticket at the RENFE counter, and you're just expected to know which trains are which. When you take a number and wait 15 minutes for your turn, the ticket minion will tell you that contrary to what the time-table says, the first train on Saturday leaves at 8:20. After you've bought the ticket, getting on the train is comparatively easy. There's no line at security, where your luggage goes through a metal detector but you done. There's a short wait in a departure lounge, and boarding begins twenty minuets before your flight train leaves. Your ticket is checked by a minion before you're allowed down the gangway to the platform. Arrivals are in a different part of the station, if you want to change trains you have to leave the secured area and come back in. The whole deal is pretty neatly run, but feels more like getting on an airplane than a train.

I arrived in Toledo at 9:50 and took a bus up the hill to Plaza Zocodover. The plaza is the city center, not because it's particularly central or nice to look at, but because it's the largest open area left up there. One of the results of the Moorish occupation is the labyrinthine street plan. The streets are almost all twisty little alleyways that would not be out of place in Morocco or Algeria. The sub-folder Side Streets and Go Betweens is full of pictures off some of the little buildings and streets that aren't anyplace particularly special, but caught my eye anyway***.

I started my guerrilla tourism in the Cathedral. The local legend is that one day as Saint Ildefonsus(d.667) was saying mass the Virgin Mother herself came down from heaven and presented him with a chasuble. A story that the diocese has used ever since as its claim to primacy in the Spanish Catholic church. Even in Visigothic times, there was an important church on the site, which was knocked down in order to make a mosque when Toledo was captured by the Moors in the 8th century. Because the city was so important to the church, Toledo was the first city to be taken by the Reconquista (in 1085, for those of you playing at home). The mosque was then re-converted to a church and the current cathedral was built between 1226 and 1493. The cathedral has been remodeled more or less continually ever since (the current work is cleaning the exterior). The most dramatic change was the addition of el Transperente, essentially a giant hole in the roof behind the main altar, with a clear window, and a huge baroque painting/sculpture/altar/thing-that-doesn't-fit-at-all-with-the-Gothic-architecture showing an assortment of saints and angles descending form heaven, unless they're ascending. Mary is near the top, with St. Ildefonsus and the chasuble just in case you forgot where you are. The second most interesting bit of the cathedral# was a collection of 16th and 17th century vestments. The plainest of the group are just silk with more silk embroidery. The fanciest each have enough precious stones on them to start a jewelry store.

The vestry has painting of every bishop Toledo's ever had starting with in the late 300s and going up to the present day. The portrait's have been painted from life since the early 1500s, so it is interesting to see the development of both art history and clothing. There are red hats hanging throughout the cathedral (I counted 4, but I might be forgetting one): according to local tradition when a cardinal dies they hang his hat above his grave until it rots his soul arrives in heaven. I found enough to see in the cathedral## to keep me occupied for two hours. I have pictures only of the outside because "It is not allowed to make photos or film inside the cathedral". As crowded as it was in there, I probably could have gotten away with it, but I didn't think I would have difficulty finding postcards of the largest building in town.###

I went to the Alcazar next. It's an old fortress that has been many things over the years: it was the Spanish military academy for over a century. In the 30s, Republican (that's Franco's buddies) forces were besieged there by the Nationalists (not Franco's buddies), until other Republican troops arrived to break the siege. Because Toledo was rescued* the Nationalists were able to fortify their positions in Madrid, thus dragging the war out for several more years. Reconstruction on the Alcazar began almost as soon as Franco's rule was secure. Currently, it's closed for remodeling but it will open next year as a military history museum. If you visit now, there's a big monument to the civil war outside, some bits of the original Moorish architecture, and some nice views over the river in a nearby park. The 8th floor houses the local library, so it's also a nice place to use a free public restroom and do a map recon in a quiet air conditioned place with comfy chairs.

Then it was back down to Plaza Zocodover, past the statue of Cervantes at the top of the page, to the Museo de Santa Cruz. It's an old monastery with free admission to see a bunch of things that don't have any thing in common other than coming from Toledo. The courtyard has interesting architecture and some bits and bobs left over from a recent reconstruction. Photographs were allowed in the courtyard, but not inside, and the guard-to-tourist ratio was about 1:3, so they were able to enforce that ruling pretty well. There's a museum on the ground floor with some processional crosses and other assorted religious articles, along with the one El Greco** that another church in town didn't claim. Up stairs there's a little museum about the history of the ceramic industry in Europe. The explanations were all in Spanish however, so while I found the recreation of an artist's studio interesting, the rest got the reaction of "meh".

After an early lunch (1:30 is early in Spain) I made the hike (uphill both ways) to the other side of town for a marathon tour of the remaining sights.

The Church of St. Thomas (Santo Tomé) hosts the "Burial of Count Orgaz", one of the few El Greco paintings to be left in situ, or at least it's in situ until someone thinks of a way to move the wall it's painted on without damaging the painting. I don't like El Greco (he starts off in Manarism, and ends up with something like Surrialism, two art styles that have both made my Top 10 least favorite art movements list), but I do like this painting. [N.b.: I don't necessarily agree with the interpretation on this page, but it has a good copy of the painting and some nice close ups)The scene of the Count's body being lowered into the coffin is balanced perfectly by the scene of his soul (that's the ephemeral baby the angel in the center is holding) being carried into heaven. The count's body and one of the clerics look up towards the scene in heaven, the rest of the earthly figures look at the body. (Except El Greco -- in the back row -- and his son -- the boy in the very front -- both of whom look straight at the viewer, inviting you into the scene.) Meanwhile, in the heavens, the attention is focused to Jesus at the very top of the scene, in the center with the brightest light. Jesus and Mary both look down towards the earth, showing their care for those who must remain below while Count Orgaz is able to rise (with the help of an angel).

The rest of the church looks like any other parish in Spain, which is to say, it received a lot off money up until the last century, and every available surface is either marble or gold-plaited. The other surfaces are either carved wood, or painted wood. As the Vatican apparently demands nowadays, there is a pro-life poster on one of the confessionals, and a rack of fliers in the back. I risked a photo of one of the side chapels, where they had not one but two statues of Mary that caught my eye.

I then went to the Synagogue of the Transit, which is now a memorial to Spain's Jewish heritage. Jews first came to Spain with the Romans, and established large communities after the destruction of the Temple by Titus. They were tolerated by their pagan Roman neighbors, then their Christian neighbors after Constantine changed the official religion, then their Visigothic conquerors#, then their Moorish conquerors, then their Christian re-conquerors. In 1492## the Christian Monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I captured Granada, the last remaining Muslim territory in Spain (freeing up funds to allow a crazy Italian to take three ships on a long cruse to the Dominican Republic, but that's another story...), and they turned their attentions to solidifying their rule of Spain. As a result of the Inquisition, 1/3 of Spain's Jewish population remained and converted to Christianity, 1/3 refused to convert and were killed, and 1/3 left Spain. The last third, called Sephardic Jews, mainly went to large trading centers in England and the Low Lands and got rich in banking and the far east trade, so it worked out mostly all right for them. The synagogues (and mosques as well, the Muslims faced the same persecution, but those who chose to leave went to North Africa, not central Europe) that were left behind where converted to churches or demolished, which is why Toledo has a Sinagoga Santa Maria la Blanca (Synagogue of St. Mary the White) and a Mezquita del Christo de la Luz (Mosque of Christ of the Light).

The Synagogue of the Transit was interesting architecturally, but you can see that same style of architecture anywhere in town. The exhibits of the museum were only explained in Spanish, and no audio guide was available. There were explanatory sheet in other languages (I spotted English and French, I think there were more) offering poor translations full of misspellings of the text at each exhibit, but nothing to indicate when it was referring to which displays. If it hadn't been randomly free admission day, I don't think it would have been worth the price. The Sinagoga Sta. Maria la Blanca definitely wasn't worth the 2.30 I paid to get in: one room, empty except for part of the altar piece (the rest has been removed to another museum), and the only signs were a floor plan and a "No Photo" warning.

The House and Museum of Victor Macho was a pleasant surprise though. I'd never heard of Victor Macho before making this trip, but Rick Steve gave the place a nice write up and he usually has pretty good judgment (even though he does like El Greco). He described the house as having good views of the river, and the art as being art deco, so I gave it a go. It was not very crowded (unlike the cathedral, St. Thomas's, and the Synagogue of the Transit), and a short film of the history of Toledo was included in the ticket price. The lady even put the English version on for me, even though I was the only person there. (A Spanish-speaking couple came in as I left.) I found it very informative, and at that point my feet welcomed the break. The promised views of the river where indeed there, as was the art deco statuary scattered all over the buildings and garden.

My last stop was the Monastery of St. John of the Monarchs (Monasterio de S. Juan de los Reyes). It was originally built to be the burial place of Ferdinand and Isabella, but after the capture of Granada they chose to be buried there instead (as a symbol that they were not going to give up the territory again). The outside of the church is hung with chains belonging to Christian prisoners freed from Granada. In the courtyard there's a nice opportunity to play the guess the saint game, in addition to some other fun carvings. The church itself is technically no-photo, but there was no one to enforce that ruling, so I rebelled along with most everything else. The walls are covered in giant eagles (the symbol of St. John, for those of you playing at home) carrying Ferdinand and Isabella's coat of arms, just in case someone forgot which monarchs had the place build. The side chapels have most of the color: such as St. Peter facing down a rooster (the one that crowed after he denied Jesus three times) or this painting of a group of 30 Franciscans martyred during the civil war (they're buried in the crypt).

At this point, this point it was time to hike back to Plaza Zocodover (uphill both ways) for the bus back down hill and a walk back to the train station. I was back in Madrid just in time for dinner.

Total cost of the trip: 65 Euros, including 14.40 for a round trip train ticket, 18 for a damascene rosary, and 10 for lunch. The rest went to admission fees, postcards, and gelatto.

My pictures are all up in the photobucket, but they got scrambled when I uploaded them, so they're more or less in the reverse of the order in which I took them, except for where they're not. Sorry for any confusion. The good news is the foot notes now have links so you don't have to go scrolling up and down.

Ely, or Elise, or Isabella
no one can quite agree on what the Spanish equivalent of Elizabeth ought to be

*yes, dear reader, fall is starting to arrive in Spain. [back]
**the ruins of a Roman horse-racing stadium with a 10,000 person capacity are also in the flat bit, but I ran out of time and had to skip them in favor of catching my train [back]
***It's also part of my ongoing quest to make an absurdly long, but still logically arranged, URL [back]

#at least to my eye [back]
##the 5th largest in the world, according to a tour guide I eavesdropped on for a while[back]
###I was wrong, I found two. The Spaniards are really missing out by not selling a photo license. I would have been willing to pay the admission price (7 Euro, no negotiating) again in exchange for photos. [back]

*and Franco made Toledo a priority for the same reason it was a priority for the Reconquista: Toledo is the cultural heart of Spain [back]
**El Greco was a Cretin who studied art in Italy, who came to Spain to work on El Escorial but was turned down because Phillip II didn't like his work***, and who made it big in Toledo
***for the record, I think Phillip was right [back]

#Fun fact: the last place in the world where the Visigothic Catholic Rite (they're in communion with Rome, they just never followed the same service as the one in Rome because the one they had was just fine, thank you) is still held is Toledo Cathedral, in the Mozerabic Chapel at 9:15 in the morning. Mozerabic chant is also one of the ancestors of Gregorian chant. [back]
##Conveniently for Americans who don't want to learn anyone else's history, 1492 is also a very important year in Spanish history. [back]

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