Toledo: El Alma de España

The past weekend my American friend Cynthia and I took a short day trip to Toledo, about a 30 minute train ride outside of Madrid. Now, we all know that Spain is home to some beautiful cities with incredible remains of old civilizations, cultures and architecture. And yet Toledo, this teeny tiny medieval fortress city, has been named the “El Alma de España” (or “the soul of Spain”).

Toledo is unique in that while modern civilization has been built up and around pieces of ancient history in cities like Barcelona, Cordoba and Granada, Toledo has remained frozen in time. Toledo was the capital of Spain until the mid-1500s until King Phillip II decided to move the royal court over to Madrid. Incredibly, the structure and lay out of the city has not changed since then and boasts some amazing medieval architecture. Its cobble-stoned streets and cozy shops make Toledo a great city to stroll through – as long as you don’t mind the inclines and declines which gave my gluts quite a workout! Sometimes Toledo is compared to Jerusalem and said to have a biblical landscape. Like Jerusalem, Toledo was a city of three religions – Christian, Jewish and Muslim (normally referred to as the “Moors” in Spanish history). The small city of 50,000 is still home to a Mosque, two Synagogues, a massive Cathedral and a monastery.

Rather than diving into Toledo’s rich political and religious history (which I highly recommend you take a look at but maybe by a professional historian instead of little old me), I wanted to dive into a different topic. In 1986 Toledo was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). I started looking at their website and the criteria for being named a World Heritage Site. I found this:

  • Represents an architectural masterpiece
  • Displays an important exchange of human values
  • Bears unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization.
  • Exemplifies a type of building that illustrates a significant stage in human history.
  • A traditional human settlement that is an outstanding representation of a culture, especially one that has survived despite environmental pressure.
  • Associated with events or living traditions of outstanding universal significance
  • Contains fantastic natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty
  • Illustrates major stages of earth’s history
  • Captures significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the development of communities of plants and animals.
  • Contains important natural habitats for conserving biological diversity

UNESCO proudly states on their main page, heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage. Out of all the places in the world, UNESCO has given only 981 of them the honor of the World Heritage title and Toledo is one of them. ¡Impresionante!


On another note, one of the highlights of our day was “el menú del día” at one of the local restaurants. The “menu of the day” is normally a three course meal plus a glass or wine for anywhere from 10€ to 15€. They are most traditionally offered during the work week for those 9-5ers (well more like 8-7ers in Spain) who are looking for a hearty, filling, inexpensive meal. In Spain, lunch is the largest and most important meal of the day and many shops all over Spain close everyday between 2pm and 4pm to get in a hearty meal (and maybe if their lucky, catch a few zzzzs). There are still “menú del días” on the weekends but they are normally a bit pricier. Here is what we served:

* First course: sopa castellaña – bread and garlic soup with cooked egg and ham (incredibly flavorful!)

* Second course: Conejo al tomillo – rabbit seasoned with thyme on top of potatoes and carrots

* Third course: flan casero – homemade custard

Toledo is famous for:

* Being the largest producer of Damasquinado de Oro or “Gold Damascene” – the art of decorating non-precious metals with gold. It has roots in the Middle Ages and originates from the oriental-style artisan work done in Damascus, Syria. The craft, perfected by the Arabs and brought with them to Spain, has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries.
* Custom swords, sabers and armor – back in the Middle Ages Toledo produced a special type of steel mixed with iron. Their extraordinary hardness made of each of these Toledo swords an invincible force in the hands of an expert swordsman. All European armies knew the superior quality of Toledo steel swords and many great warriors relied only on sabers of Toledan provenance. They say that even the Japanese Samurai swords are no match (but I’m sure some Spanish guy said that).
* Mázapan – delicious candies made from almond meal, sugar and honey.

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