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Best Sights of Toledo
About 100 kilometers south of Madrid is the city of Toledo, which was named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1986. Toledo was the city of three cultures because Christians, Arabs and Jews lived together there for centuries. It is also known as the place where El Greco lived and painted in Spain. This is a list of the best sights.
Toledo was founded as the Roman city Toletum in 192 B.C. by Marco Fulvio Nobilior. In 411 it was conquered by the barbarian Alanos and in 418 by the Visigoths. The Visigoths made Toledo their capital in Spain and their first king was Leogivild. The Arabs arrived in 711 and the period that followed was one of tolerance between the Arabs, the Jews, and the Christians, which produced and enriched culture. In the 11th century Toledo became a Taifa kingdom, but in 1085 King Alfonso VI conquered the city. During the Middle Ages, the Jewish community increased in size and became very important. The city housed important Christian aristocratic families in the 14th and 15th century, as well as the most powerful cardinals of the Catholic Church. The 16th century continued to be prosperous for the city until King Felipe II decided to make Madrid the capital in 1563. The city then suffered a very slow and lengthy decline, but managed to conserve its historic patrimony. In 1983 Toledo was named the capital of Castilla-La Mancha, so it has again become important politically and economically, as well as culturally.
1. The Cathedral
The Cathedral of Toledo is one of Spain’s finest cathedrals and was built on top of a Moorish mosque. Construction took place between 1227 and 1493. The building was started when the archbishop was Jimenez de Rada and the king was Fernando III, "the Saint". The earliest architect was Alvar Martinez, who designed the French gothic style plans. He was succeeded by Petrus Petri. The church plan uses the Latin cross. There are flying buttresses on the sides of the church.
The north tower was built in 1380, is 90m high, and contains the Campana Gorda (fat bell) that weighs 17,515 kg. The tower has an octagonal body and is finished with slate. There is an unfinished south tower that has a Baroque dome. The church has three big Gothic doors with rich decorations, sculpture, and reliefs from the artist Juan Aleman. The central door is called la Puerta del Perdon, the right door is la Puerta de Escribanos, and the left one is la Puerta de la Torre.
The interior of the church is 110m long. The Capilla Mayor (main chapel) has a colossal altarpiece in the late gothic style and was made of wood that was decorated with gold leaf and also polychromed. There are four levels for the panels that represent scenes from the New Testament. This was the work of artists from Burgundy, Flanders, and Spain, who worked on it between 1497 and 1504, under the orders of the Cardinal Cisneros.
Behind the Capilla Mayor is the Transparente, a huge marble altar dedicated to the Virgin, and topped by a painted dome. “El Transparente” has a mixture of stucco, painting, bronze elements, and marble, that goes to the roof, where a hole in the roof shines light over the whole masterpiece. Narciso Tome created the Transparente at the beginning of the 18th century, and this integrated architecture, painting and sculpture to achieve dramatic effects in light. This is considered a total work of art and one of the most spectacular structures of the Baroque in Spain. It is a type of camarin, a separate and slightly raised but open structure behind the main altar. A two story altarpiece holds a sculptural group of the Virgin and Child in the center of the lower section. Above it are scenes of the Last Supper and the Eucharist. An opening in the vault allows a ray of light in, suggesting a view into the open heavens, represented by hosts of angels and saints flooded in heavenly light.
There are more than 750 stained glass windows from the 14th to the 16th centuries, made by the best artists of those times. Below the Transparente is the Chapel of the Santo Sepulcro, where the remains of Santa Ursula are kept. She became a martyr in the 4th century.
The Cathedral is also famous for the wooden choir, carved by famous artists. The choir is located in the center of the main nave. The choir has many beautifully carved chairs. The inner chairs have the gothic style and show reliefs of the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Kings, and were the work of Rodrigo Aleman. The outer chairs have the Renaissance style and were done by Felipe Bigarny and Alonso de Berruguete. Above the choir are two organs.
There is a Sala Capitular (Chapter House) at the end of the church. To enter this room, one passes a magnificent Mudejar door made in the 16th century. The room has a beautiful Mudejar ceiling made by D. Lopez and F. de Lara in 1508.
There is also a treasury, where one can see gold and silver treasures, studded with jewels, that are used in the Masses. The treasury is located in the chapel below the tower. There is a magnificent Monstrance that was made by Enrique de Arfe, which is composed of many pieces that were fitted together in a gothic filigree style of gold-plated silver. This Monstrance is 2.5 meters tall and weighs 172 kilos. Inside is the Monstrance of the Sacred Way that is made of solid gold and belonged to the Catholic Kings. Once a year the Monstrance is paraded around the city during the procession of Corpus Christi. There is also an exhibition of the vestments used by the priests, bishops, and cardinals.
Another room contains paintings by Goya, Van Dyck, Zurbaran, Titian, Rubens, Bassano, Morales, Caravaggio, and 16 paintings of figures of the Apostles by El Greco. Juan de Borgoña painted the frescoes that decorate the walls of the Chapter House and Lucas Giordano painted those at the ceiling of the Sacristy. The church has large cloisters with frescoes by Francisco Bayeu and Maella. Beside the sacristy is the Capilla del Sagrario (Chaperl of the Tabernacle), covered with a cupola and dressed with marble. This contains the old image of the Virgen del Sagrario, the patron saint of the city.
The Toledo Cathedral is the second largest cathedral in Spain, after the one in Seville, but it is considered the most important church in Spain because of its history and because the most important Catholic prelates have resided in Toledo over the ages. Toledo was also the capital of the Catholic faith in Spain.
2. Town Hall
Across from the Cathedral is the Town Hall (Ayuntamiento), a beautiful building with a small park in front, planted with colorful flowers. The Town Hall building was designed by the famous architect Juan Herrera, who designed El Escorial. Gomez Enrique started its construction in 1575, using the plans of Herrera. Herrera's design included a main facade with a severe face. The base used cut stone and had nine round arches. Nicolas de Vergara (El Mozo) and Juan Bautista Monegro worked on the first floor, while Jorge Manuel Theotocopulos (the son of El Greco) worked on the second floor at the beginning of the 17th century. Ardemans was the architect for the Baroque towers that used slate, and this was done in 1703. The triangular front has the coat of arms of the city. The building is characterized by symmetry and Tuscan columns represent Italian classicism. The building has the local tourist office, where one can get a map of the city.
3. Museum of Santa Cruz
The Museum of Santa Cruz is the city museum and is located at Calle Cervantes, 3, near the Zocodover Square. Inside are exhibits of the city history. The building is from the 16th century and one can see the patio, where there are Roman statuary. El Greco's Assumption of the Virgin is the most famous painting in the museum, which also has many other artists represented. The museum has an archaeological section that contains Roman, Visigothic, Arab, and Mudejar remains. There is another section of industrial art that shows examples of popular culture and traditional craftsmanship, such as ceramics, glass, textiles, iron work, and gold and silver work.
The building was a former hospital that Cardinal Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza had constructed. He was a very powerful cardinal of his time. The initial architects were Anton and Enrique Egas, and later Alonso de Covarrubias took over. The design of the building is Renaissance in style and has two patios. The entrance is medieval and there is Plateresque decoration on the facade. The hallway at the entrance is covered with Gothic vaults. There are beautiful coffered ceilings in the building. There are large Renaissance stairs that connect the ground floor with the higher floor, using three flights, and it has a beautiful coffered ceiling.
4. Church of San Tome
This small church contains El Greco’s most famous painting, “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, painted in 1586 in a very large format (460 cm x 360 cm). This is a marvelous painting and one of El Greco's best, and it is considered one of the great art masterpieces of Spain.
After King alfonso VI conquered Toledo, he founded the church, which was located over the mosque. In the 14th century the church was rebuilt by none other than the Count of Orgaz, who was Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo. The church has three naves with a transept, and these are covered with barrel vaults built during the Renaissance. There is a polygonal apse. There is a beautiful Mudejar tower with a square base and two levels, with windows topped by arches.
Andres Nuñez was the parish priest of Santo Tome and he was the one who commissioned the painting from El Greco. El Greco worked on it for three years, between 1586 and 1588. It became very popular when it was finished because it portrayed all the important men of the town. El Greco immortalized the aristocrats, the clergy, and the poets and scholars of the town in the most amazing life-like portrayal. The painting is an intellectual exercise because it shows the relation of this world and the spiritual world. That is why the painting is still so fascinating today, just as fascinating as it was when it was unveiled in 1586. This is truly a great painting!
5. Victorio Macho Museum
The Victorio Macho Museum is located at the Plaza Victorio Macho. Victorio Macho was a Spanish sculptor who lived until 1966. He built his house and workshop on the edge of a cliff, with a spectacular view of the river and the hills on the other side of the river. There are beautiful small gardens that have many of his beautiful sculptures, and all with that magnificent view. In 1953 he built his house and workshop in a place called Roca Tarpeya, which has a promontory over the River Tajo. His famous sculptures are La Madre, El Hermano Marcelo, Torso Gitano, la Máscara, and La Niña Vasca. He also did portraits of Spanish personalities like Marañón, Unamuno, Cajal, Galdós, and "La Pasionaria". The museum also holds temporary exhibitions, cultural activities, and conferences about the city of Toledo.
6. Real Fundacion de Toledo
This is a foundation that is beside the Victorio Macho Museum and has a building with all the other El Greco paintings in the city, about 20 of them. One wall of the gallery has individual portraits of the most important saints, and this is a very impressive sight, because the colors of the paintings are very impressive.
7. The Alcazar
The Alcazar is a big stone fort and palace on the highest point of Toledo. The site used to have a Roman palace in the 3rd century. The emperor Carlos V ordered the building of the Alcazar, to be used as his royal residence. The first architect was Alonso de Covarrubias, who started construction in 1545. The style of the building is Renaissance. Later the architect Villalpando constructed a patio. After that Juan de Herrera built the monumental staircase under a barrel vault and the southern wing that houses it. The main entrance has an ornamented Roman arch and is crowned with an imperial coat of arms that is flanked by the figures of the Visigothic kings Recaredo and Recesvinto. This was the work of Covarrubias. There is a large central patio with two galleries that is presided over by the figure of the emperor, the sculpture having been made by the sculptor Pompeyo Leoni. Outside there are large, square towers at the corners, and the towers have black slate spires and roofs.
The palace was never lived in by the Spanish kings because before it was finished, Madrid became the capital of the country. Several widowed queens did live in the palace, namely Mariana of Austria (widow of Felipe IV) and Mariana of Neuberg (widow of Carlos II). Later the building was used as a prison, military barracks, silk workshops, and the Spanish Infantry Academy.
It became famous during the Spanish Civil War when the Republicans laid siege to it for 70 days in 1936 and it was almost completely destroyed. The palace was reconstructed in 1940. A monument to the defenders of the Alcazar was created by Juan de Avalos and inaugurated in 1961. After that it became the home of the National Army Museum.
8. House and Museum of El Greco
This is located in the Jewish quarter. The house is adjacent to the Villena Palace where El Greco used to live. The palace has disappeared over time. There is a recreation of the studio of El Greco. The museum is undergoing restoration right now and cannot be visited. The paintings are now in the Real Fundacion de Toledo.
9. Alcantara Bridge
This is one of the bridges that crosses the Tajo River and during the Middle ages, it was the only bridge leading to the town. It was built during Roman times but was heavily damaged in the 10th century, and then rebuilt. It has two towers for defense. A Baroque triumphal arch replaced the West Tower in 1721 because of its bad state. The other tower has a double door and portcullis, built in 1217. The bridge was declared a National Monument in 1921.
10. Bridge of San Martin
The Bridge of San Martin is located at the western end of the city and was built in the middle of the 14th century in the gothic style. It was destroyed during the war between the brothers King Pedro I and Enrique II, but was rebuilt on the orders of the Bishop Pedro Tenorio. The bridge has five pointed arches that rest on pillars and there are two fortified towers at each end. The entrance to the city has a very large imperial coat of arms and an image of the seated kings. The interior tower is irregular in shape after additions and remodeling were made during the reign of Carlos II. The exterior tower has ribbed vaulting and horseshoe arches. The bridge was declared a National Monument in 1921.
11. Archbishop's Palace
The Archbishop's Palace is located at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and covers one large block with facades on three streets. The palace has an austere Renaissance design. The archbishop Pedro Tavera ordered the construction of the present palace in the 16th century and the architect was Alonso de Covarrubias.
The main facade is made of masonry and bricks and has a severe appearance. There are openings for windows on its two floors. The doorway is made of stone and has a round dressed arch that is adorned with facets that give it an attractive appearance. This is framed by four paired columns on high pedestals and crowned by two feminine figures that show the coat of arms of the cardinal. There is one balcony with the symbolic columns of Hercules that has the motto "Plus ultra" (the ultimate), and this was ordered by Cardinal Martinez Siliceo. Another complete renovation of the palace was made by Cardinal Lorenzana. He ordered a Baroque chapel to replace the old gothic chapel.
12. Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes
The Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes is located at Calle San Juan de los Reyes, 2, and
was built by Queen Isabela to hold the mausoleum of the royal family and was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, whom the queen admired. However after it was built, the queen changed her mind and decided that the mausoleum would be placed in the Cathedral of Granada. The Franciscan order occupies the church today.
Juan Guas was the architect of this church. The church has a polygonal form with buttresses topped with pinnacles that are decorated with royal coat of arms and life-sized heralds, showing the Catholic King's shield on their clothing. There is a cimborium over the transept that is octagonal and this is crowned with gothic pinnacles. Above the side door there is the Stations of the Cross, showing the Virgin Mary and St. John, but not Christ. He is symbolized by the pelican on the cross. There are many Mudejar designs in the church.
The patio has a cloister with two tiers and is one of the masterpieces of late gothic art, and this combines gothic and Mudejar elements, one of the signatures of the architect Juan Guas. The length of the sides with five spans is half that of the nave of the church. The upper cloister has a Mudejar coffered ceiling. The columns, arches, and pilasters have animal and vegetable motifs, each having a symbolic meaning. There are sculptures of biblical figures on pedestals. The steps going to the upper cloister have Renaissance motifs and were done by Alonso de Covarrubias. There are chains that hang on the exterior walls and these mean that many Christian prisoners were freed during the Catholic Kings campaign to conquer Granada. The chains were hung in 1494 and symbolize the triumph of Christianity. Unfortunately the church was almost destroyed in the War of Independence against France and was only partly rebuilt.
13. Cristo de la Luz Mosque
The Cristo de la Luz Mosque is located at Calle Cristo de la Luz and was built in 980 by the Moorish architect Musa ibn Ali, as shown by a Kufic inscription on the main facade. The building has a square base and represents the most important example of Islamic art in Toledo. Inside the building the three naves are split between nine spaces that are covered with ribbed vaults, and all of these vaults are different. There are four exterior columns with Visigothic capitals, around which there are twelve horseshoe arches. In the 12th century the building was remodeled for Christian worship. A Roman-Mudejar sanctuary was constructed with a semi-circular apse and a straight presbytery. This was decorated with blind horseshoe arcades.
14. Hospital of Tavera
The Hospital of Tavera is located at Calle Cardenal Tavera, 2. The archbishop (later cardinal) Juan Pardo de Tavera ordered it built in 1603 in the Renaissance style. It was built to help the sick and also as the mausoleum of the archbishop. The original architect was Alonso de Covarrubias. There are two patios on two levels that are separated only by columns. The building has a regular shape and has an Italian stone facade with equidistant windows. These windows are rectangular on the lower floor and semicircular on the upper floor. At the ends they are reversed.
The entrance of the church was made of marble from Genoa. There is only one nave and a transept covered by a lit dome. Below this is the impressive sepulcher of the cardinal. This was made of white marble and was the work of Alonso de Berruguete. This contains the face of the dead cardinal, with a very naturalistic expression. The altarpiece was designed by El Greco and constructed by his son, Jorge Manuel. There is a museum with a large archive of documents and valuable paintings done by El Greco, Ribera, Tintoretto and Lucas Giordano. There is a sculpture of the Resurrected Christ by El Greco. There is also an interesting pharmacy.
15. Bisagra Gate
The Bisagra Gate is located at Calle de Alfonso VI. The Moors built the gate and its name comes from the Arabic word Bab-Shagra, which means "Door of the Sacred". During the reigns of Carlos V and Felipe II, the gate was completely rebuilt and the architect was Alonso de Covarrubias. It is composed of two bodies, between which there is a square.
The exterior body has a stone triumphal arch that is crowned with the huge imperial coat of arms of the city, having a two-headed eagle. The arch is flanked by two large stone semicircular towers that show the figures of the seated monarchs. The interior body has a rounded arch flanked by square towers that are crowned with ceramic steeples. One of them has the imperial coat of arms of Carlos V, while the other has a checkered pattern on it. The gate was mainly rebuilt for monumental purposes and not for defensive purposes.
16. Museum of the Councils and Visigoth Culture
The Museum of the Councils and Visigothic Culture is located in the Church of San Roman in the Plaza San Roman. This museum has archaeological collections from the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries that are related to the old capital of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo. There are capitals of columns, reliefs, epigraphic pieces, painting, documents, moldings and gold and silver work. An important exhibit are the trousseaus that were found in the Carpio de Tajo Necropolis. There are very good reproductions of the votive crowns from the treasure of Guarrazar.
The church has three naves in the form of a basilical base. These are separated by Moorish horseshoe arches that are supported on pillars. There are also columns with Visigothic capitals and the altarpiece was made by Diego de Velasco. There are frescos that cover the walls from the 13th century, with Roman and Moorish influences.
17. Sephardic Museum
The Sephardic Museum is located at Calle Samuel Levi. It occupies the site of the Convent of Caballeros de Calatrava. This is the National Museum of Hispano-Jewish and Sephardic Art and houses a large quantity of the remains of Jewish culture. There are five halls that highlight the history, religion, and culture of the Jews while they were in Spain. It is known that there was a Jewish presence in Spain very early on, probably since the Phoenicians arrived. The museum highlights Sephardic culture around the world after the Spanish Jews were expelled in 1492 by the Catholic Kings.
The building assimilates the three cultures of the Jews, the Moors, and the Christians. There is an aljima type of window (consisting of a pair of horseshoe arches) above the entrance door. The large prayer room (23 meters x 12 meters, with a height of 9 meters) has Mudejar architecture, with walls decorated with plasterwork based on plant motifs, having inscriptions in Hebrew and Arabic. The coffered ceiling is impressive. There are geometric decorations, vegetal decorations, Hebrew inscriptions, and the repeated coat of arms of the Castilian king. Lattices filter the light that enters the hall. There is a niche in the holy wall called the "hekal" and a women's gallery.
The interior displays one of the most splendid examples of Mudejar architecture in Spain. The design of the synagogue recalls the Nasrid style of architecture that was employed during the same period in the decorations of the Alhambra palace in Granada, the Mezquita of Cordoba, and parts of the Alcazar palace in Seville that were constructed at the same time at the initiative of King Pedro.
The synagogue was founded by Samuel Levi, who lived between 1320 and 1360. He was the advisor and treasurer of King Pedro I of Castile (also known as Pedro the Cruel). He also founded other synagogues in Castile. This synagogue was dedicated in 1357 and called El Transito by the Christians. Samuel Levi was allowed to found this synagogue by King Pedro I for the Jewish support the king received during the Trastamaras War in the middle of the 14th century. Samuel Levi was imprisoned in 1360 by the king, who accused him of taking part in a conspiracy against the king. All his possessions were confiscated by the government. When the Jews were expelled in 1492, the synagogue was turned over to the religious Order of Calatrava.
18. Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca
The Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca is located at Calle Reyes Católicos, 4. This was built in the 13th century, but later in the 15th century the building was turned into a Christian church. The building was constructed using the Mudejar style. There are five naves that are supported by horseshoe arcades on octagonal pillars. These are made of brick and many places are covered with plaster molding in white. The walls have spandrels, blind arches, and friezes. Decorations have plant motifs and many were multicolored. In the 16th century Cardinal Siliceo had the architect Alonso de Covarrubias enlarge the church with the construction of three chapels at the head. The central chapel is crowned with a semicircular vault.
19. Railway Station
The railway station was designed by Narciso Calveria and opened in 1920. The beautiful building uses the Neomudejar style. The shape of the building is rectangular with three sections. It looks like a Moorish palace and has many Mudejar details, such as beautiful ceramic tile and plaster moldings. There is a lot of brick, plaster, ceramics, iron, and wood. The building has a clock tower that looks like the church towers of Toledo. There is a royal hall beside it where King Alfonso XIII brought important visitors when they reached Toledo by rail.
20. Palace of Fuensalida
The Palace of Fuensalida is located in the Plaza Conde, next to the church of Santo Tomé. It was built in the Mudejar style in the middle of the 15th century. The person who had the palace built was Pedro Lopez de Ayala, the first Count of Fuensalida. The building was constructed using brick, masonry, wood, and plaster. There are two floors built around a rectangular patio with pillars supporting octagonal shafts that are whitewashed and which hold the capitals with heraldic decoration of the counts. The facade is severe but has an entrance with a lintel made of marble. On top are the coat of arms of the noble owners.
Today the building is the headquarters of the Presidency of the Council of Castile-La Mancha. The Empress Isabel of Portugal (married to the Emperor Carlos V) lived here in 1525. She died in the palace in 1539 after giving birth to her sixth child. One of her sons was the future Felipe II. The Emperor Carlos V was deeply affected by the premature death of Isabel and always dressed in black afterward. In 1547 the nobleman Francis Borgia brought her corpse to be buried in Granada. He was also affected by Isabel's death and later renounced ordinary life and became the Superior General of the Jesuits. Later he became a saint, known as San Francisco de Borja.
The Diputacion is a government building at Plaza de la Merced, 4. It is a neoclassic building constructed in the 19th century. The site was formerly occupied by the old Convent of la Merced, which was destroyed during the French invasion in the early 19th century. The building has a grand staircase and two symmetric patios one on each side. The facade has three parts. The first part is formed by three arches. The second part is a balcony with three parts that have great columns. The third part has the coat of arms of Spain and has a pediment. The back of the building has the Mirador de la Granja, the best viewpoint of the newer part of the city.
22. Church of San Marcos
The Church of San Marcos is located at Calle Trinidad, 7. The style of the church is baroque, from the 18th century. The church is large and has three naves that are separated by round arches. The central nave is the highest and belonged to an earlier church. The architect was Jorge Manuel Theotocopuli and the entrance was done by Juan Bautista Monegro. Recently, at the end of the 20th century, the church was modified and extended by the architect Ignacio Mendaro Corsini to house the Toledo Municipal Archive and the Arts Center of San Marcos.
23. Church of Santa Leocadia
The Church of Santa Leocadia is located at Calle Santa Leocadia and is dedicated to the patron saint of Toledo. Legend says that it is in the place where her home once stood. The building was constructed in the 13th century in the Mudejar style, but now the only Mudejar parts are the tower, part of the entrance, and the apse. The side apse is decorated with blind arches. At the end of the 18th century additional changes were made to the church on the orders of Queen Maria Luisa de Parma, the wife of Carlos IV. This queen was a devout follower of the saint. Today the church is a basilica.
24. Mariano Zamorano Swords
Mariano Zamorano has been making swords in his nearly 150-year-old family shop for more than 40 years. At his "sword factory" you can watch him make swords and purchase his craft. He also sells high quality machine produced swords that are cheaper than his hand-made swords and daggers. The shop and workrooms are now a protected historical site, giving him license to continue to make swords in the middle of the city (right next to the Cathedral), but meaning he cannot change anything about the structure of the shop, so you can see exactly how the swords were made 100 years ago, and how he continues to make them today.
The shop is at Calle Ciudad, 19, Toledo, Spain.
More information can be found here: Mariano Zamorano Swords