Travelogue Iberia 9: Toledo

20 September 2013

We must have gotten quite an amount of good luck from spotting the frog in Salamanca as our trip to Toledo started off with a nail-biter. We left Salamanca with 20km worth of fuel according to our digital fuel gauge and wrongly assumed there would be a service station on the outskirts of town. It was only with the dumbest of luck that we freewheeled through a little town about *thirty* kilometres from Salamanca… having been holding breath since the range number tripped to zero several kilometres earlier!

From there we could at least start to enjoy the scenery. Not that there was much to see as a drive through the Spanish heartland is akin to a drive through the Free State at home.

We’d initially considered an overnight stop in Avila based on recommendation in the Lonely Planet guide, but it wouldn’t have been justified. The town is so small that it’s easy to crisscross and see all the sights in half an hour (assuming you’re happy with a “walk past” the churches and monuments and a few snappies of the prettier relics, as we are). It was definitely worth a stop though, since it is so well preserved and looks every inch a fairytale.

Its real history sounds a little more dramatic than a “once upon a time” though, tributing the foundation of the town to obscure Iberian tribes, who were then assimilated into Celtic society, Romanised, Christianised, changed hands regularly for 300 years, and then became an important commercial centre after Alfonso VI took Toledo in 1085. Things then got controversial with the nobles picking fights with the Muslims and in the imperial escapades in Flanders and South America, then expelling the Jews in 1492 and a century later trying to get rid of the Christianised Muslims. No wonder Tomas de Tourquemade chose to retire to Avila after organising the most brutal phase of the Spanish Inquisition!

The city walls, built in the 12th century are still perfectly preserved and offer a 2,5km walk including 2500 battlements, 88 towers, 6 gates, 3 wicket gates, the apse of a cathedral and a singular belltower. That’s thirsty work! In a town with more than proportionate watering holes!  Had we not been driving, Avila would be lovely setting for a caña and a tapas, and there are many pavement cafés and restaurants that looked very alluring. 

If we had done an overnight, it would have been nice to visit neighbouring Segovia, which is supposed to be just as wonderous but on grander scales with the extraordinary engineering of the 728m aquaduct and the Rapunzel-like Alcazar towers, turrets topped with slate witches’ hats and deep moat around (said to have inspired the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland).

The countryside changes quite radically when you enter the province of Castilla-La Mancha with its harsh dry southern plateau, as immortalised in the literary classic, Don Quixote. There is little else to see beside Toledo (its capital), so the region is often skipped by tourists.

I’d tussled for quite some time trying to figure out where we wanted to be based in Toledo. There are so many websites giving info and flogging accommodation that it’s info overload and increasingly difficult to make decisions. Toledo is a tricky one since the town is contained within old city walls, nestled into a U of the Rio Tajo. This city particularly is known for the labyrinth-like maze of roads, so I logicked that this was one place worth sacrificing the authenticity staying in the old town and the beauty of a view of the river for the pragmatism of staying just outside the upper city gates, parking the car at the hotel and managing the rest on foot. Paydirt! I could not have done better as the town is super confusing, even with a map and the roads are the kind you’d have to be born to navigate!

We stayed at the Hotel Martin, which could not have been better. Off the main drag but only one road from the Toledo old city gates, the hotel is rated (and priced) a 2 star, but our suite was big and beautifully decorated with white linens and curtains, wooden wardrobe and furnishings, a bathroom big enough to have a party in – and terraces off the bedroom and the bathroom. Add the location, big fluffy white towels, free toiletries and big flat screen TV and it’s madness that we only paid R400 for the night!

Being about 5pm by the time we were in and settled, we rationalised it best to leave the hard work tourist stuff for the next day and just focus on a dinner in the old town… but despite ourselves we got swept up on entry, approaching the Bisagra Gate with its triumphant arch flanked by semicircular towers, impressive imperial 2-headed eagle coat of arms, the insignia of the Golden Fleece… appearing as magnificently to today’s visitors as it did to visitors approaching from Madrid in 1550!

We’d been given a tourist map at the hotel so blended a “best of both” tour of our own, smattering some sights and cultural stuff in between a caña and tapas crawl (an art we’ve perfected) and even upping the ante with paying for a round of tapas since there were 2 local dishes I really wanted to try. First was a Carcamusas de Toledo, a rich blend of pork cubes stewed in tomato and herbs that was equal portions tender and juicy – absolutely delicious. The second was a peculiar local favourite called Migas Manchegas that I was more curious about than anything – white bread lightly toasted fried in garlic and oil to make sort of croutons, served with diced sausage and ham and topped with a fried egg and bacon. The result is a sort of breakfast dinner.

Day 2 in Toledo was made that much easier since we already knew where everything was and what we wanted to visit (properly) AND we knew what and where we wanted to breakfast on – although we have adapted to Spain time, so breakfast was scheduled for midday! 

We entered by the same Bisagra Gate – now fully appreciating what we were seeing – and up the entry road to the next attraction, the Puerto del Sol inner gate, built in the 14th Century and so named because of the sun and moon on its tympanum. There’s a modern art statue in front of it that, from its label, claims to be a bull. Personally I think it’s a load of bull because frankly it looks more like a big metal speech bubble! 

First stop was the famous central square, Plaza Zocodover, to try and get an English tourist map, which we did. The legend made it easy to narrow our hit list. Nix the 7 museums, 4 churches, 4 convents, 2 mosques, 2 synagogue and a monastery and it was easy – 3 gates, 2 bridges and a Roman Baths (we could have had a partridge too since it’s a local delicacy, but without the pear tree it’s just a bony little bird really). 

The bridges are so worth seeing! Enormous arched structures spanning deep gorges to connect the multi-volumed brick outer walls of the city to the green valley banks on the far side of the Rio Tajo, with high towers and arched gates flanking either side. It’s quite a job getting up and down the slopes and stairs toward the gates, but perfect if you’re working up an appetite for Salamanca Charcuteria, where you can get the *best* jamon bocadilla and lomo and chourizo pie, which is made like a Beef Wellington so the cheese melts into the pastry and the lomo is soft and tender.

Since we’d already done the gates, all that was left was to check out the Roman Baths, which turned out – bonus – to be a free exhibit. Beautifully preserved since the Romans had used cement to build them. This wasn’t the only ingenuity they’d used – they were really clever and had made all sorts of thermal aquaducts to heat the water for their steam rooms.  

All said and done, Toledo is a ‘must do’ stop – and it’s only 79km from Madrid so can easily be done as a day trip or overnighter.