Thursday, March 20, 2008

Toledo 2 - mineral, animal, vegetable

Today we took a high speed train to a medieval city. OK, it wasn't the AVE (Alta Velocidad) but it was definitely pointy and shiny, and got us from Madrid to Toledo in half an hour.
Then we caught the No. 22 bus outside the railway station, at €1.80 for the two of us. If it had been a roasting hot day, I might have gone for the plush coach in the station forecourt, at €2.50 each, which I presume provides a mini-tour. On our 10-minute bus ride, we had the old city - the Casco Viejo - rising on our left, the Rio Tajo (River Tagus) on our right, and beyond the river, the modern city of Toledo spread across the plain and up and between the hills.

Hills. I was glad we were wearing comfortable shoes, and had left the fat guidebook at home. The old city is no urban sprawl, nor are its roads clogged with traffic, so although there is much to see, you can take your time visiting the churches and synagogues, the cafes and restaurants, the marzipan shops and the souvenir shops, as you wander up and down, and up...... and down........ and up....... and down the streets and alleys of this fascinating place. There's even a MacDonalds for emergencies.

I can't remember whether it's Toledo or Sevilla that's known as 'the frying pan of Spain', but the narrow lanes and tree-filled plazas suggest that shade is quite important here! We enjoyed the sun and shade on our springtime day out.

The guidebooks cite two 'must see' buildings in Toledo: the Alcazar, and the Cathedral.

Actually, it would be difficult to miss the imposing Alcazar with its four elegant turrets, but unfortunately, you can't go inside at the moment, because it is in the process of being turned into an army museum.

However, you can walk round the outside. The bus has one stop only, in Plaza Zocodover, the old souk; and the Alcazabar - everything, in fact - is just up the road. At 10 a.m. the street, Cuesta de Carlos V, was cool, and the facade rather glum and unappealing (medieval Barclays Bank just across the road!), but round the corner there's a plaza overlooking a small park, the river, and the Academia de Infantería. and if you keep going round, you find this turret, perched incongruously on the fourth corner,
and then the new front entrance, in a really handsome modern facade, and a plaque announcing the Museo del Ejercicio (Army). Like most alcazas (Moorish fortresses) this one has been altered and extended with the passing of centuries and the fortunes of war. Most recently, Toledo was besieged by Franco's Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War.
The Cathedral is the other landmark on the skyline. It has the ugliest spire I have ever seen, all lumps and nobbles, prefiguring Gaudi's Sagrada Familia (great church, shame about the spires). So, no photo here! Buuuuut, here is part of the cloister. where restoration continues.
I despatched Habibi to a bar (poor henpecked husband), and spent €7 and an hour and a half in the Cathedral. I'd have been at least another hour, but we had a train to catch!

It's a remarkable place, though too full to be appreciated as a whole. History again: the cathedral, which took centuries to build, replaces the original mosque, which was demolished after the Reconquista; and the spectacular Coro (choir) was plonked down in the middle of it some time later. Certainly, if you appreciate craftsmanship in carved wood and alabaster; wrought iron, gold and silver; stained glass windows and painted ceilings, go see.

Usually, I am struck by the scale and airiness of cathedrals - massive man-made caverns of rock, full of cool shadows and glowing with coloured light - and by the craftsmanship and devotion of the generations of artesans whose work has gone into realising these monuments to the glory of God. On this occasion, no. I realise, now, that it wasn't just because of the Coro, but because my only experience has been of Gothic cathedrals, and the aesthetic is quite different. Not only that, England experienced the Reformation, and the smashing and desecration of churches and cathedrals. You can still see the headless statues and empty niches of pre-Reformation churches, but who knows how much gold and silver was looted, how many windows were smashed, and frescoes painted over, never to be restored?

Even so, the Spanish monarchy and nobility famously poured the fortunes of the New World into their churches, and Toledo was the capital of Catholic Spain until 1561 (when Philip II presumably took the AVE to Madrid). A different aesthetic. A different climate too. Sun bad. The cathedral would be very dark if it weren't for the Transparente - basically a hole in the ceiling, which directs sunlight onto an enormous altar. (And electricity.)

And yet. This is Semana Santa (Holy Week), commemorating Christ's suffering, death and resurrection, and there are masses and processions taking place all over the country, from Wednesday to Sunday, with public holidays on Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. In a corner of the cathedral, you could see the floats (?) (palanquins?) for the procession. They were massive. The first had lifesize carvings of Christ and his two companions in the Garden of Gethsemane, with the apostles asleep on the rocky ground, and Christ gazing up at an olive tree. I thought that this was a wagon, with two heavy wooden shafts at the front and red velvet curtains covering the wheels, but of course, it couldn't be, not with steps, doorways and winding, crowded streets to negotiate: there must have been two more shafts behind. The second palanquin had Christ in a loincloth, tied to a whipping post; the third, the crucifixion; the fourth, his mother in sky blue cloak, and under a canopy, reaching forward beseechingly; the fifth, Christ on the cross, dead, with one arm dangling. I was brought up Catholic, and went through two Catholic schools, so this imagery - quite apart from the appalling suffering represented - is part of me, but again, while Christ's death and resurrection are central to the Catholic faith, you don't see anything like this in post-Reformation England.


OK, hands up if you know what a monstrance is? As in demonstrate, or show. It's basically an ornamental stand for a symbolic wafer (Christ as the bread of life). I have never seen anything on a par with the 16th Century monstrance in the cathedral sacristy, named the Custodia de Arfe after the goldsmith who made it. This thing is a vertical cathedral in itself, taller than me, made entirely of gold and silver, and weighing over 200kg, with saints like model soldiers in niches all over it, and a statuette of Christ up high. Apparently it is brought out for the annual Corpus Christi procession; they must mortgage the city to cover the insurance.


The Coro is magnificent, and I was lucky to be in there when an English speaking guide brought her group in. I recommend the guides!


One of my favourite rooms was the Capilla de la Torre (Chapel Tower) containing portraits of all the bishops of Toledo, going back to the 7th Century (as I recall). The earlier bishops are painted straight onto the wall, in chronological order, by a single artist; with framed portraits of their successors below them. It's interesting to see how the portraiture has changed in style and - I think - purpose. The most recent portrait is not just photo-realistic, I suspect that it was painted from a photo; and yet the sitter is made to appear as secondary to his office. All the faces are fascinating. The anteroom is also lovely, the upper walls painted with an orchard of many different kinds of fruit tree.


The other beautiful room, decades into painstaking restoration work, is the sala capitular (chapter house) which represents stories from the New Testament in pictures. The walls and curved ceiling show the effects of time, with some paintings completely gone, and others partially damaged, partially restored. One corner is devoted to the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to tell Mary that she was going to have a child. Beautiful.


Embroidery fans takes note: there is also a suite of rooms containing bishops' copes and mitres going back to the 16th Century, with tapestry bible scenes, and angels with really celestial satin stitch wings in rich greens, blues and reds on the copes, and stylised carnations and birds on the mitres. And sinuous gold work half a centimetre thick on both.

No photos indoors, but here's a very handsome doorway!





There's a lot more to enjoy, even if you never set foot indoors. Round the corner from the cathedral is the Museo de Santa Cruz,
and its cat,
and its cat lady.
In fact, Toledo is full of handsome stone churches and other buildings,
interesting flora,
and fauna.

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