last updated: 15 Sept. 2014


Toledo had been on our list of places to visit for quite some time. However our visit was actually decided on quite by chance. We had planned a short trip with a change of planes in Madrid, and at the last moment Iberia cancelled one of the return legs. With Easter being early (late March 2013) we could not find a replacement flight and so we decided to drive to Madrid and take our flights from there. Just the reason we needed to stay a few days more and visit Toledo. We stayed in the Local Hilton, a bit outside the city but otherwise an excellent choice.

The city of Toledo exerted considerable influence, both during the Visigothic period (ca. 415-711), when it was the capital of a kingdom which stretched all the way to the Narbonnese region, and again during the Renaissance, when it became one of the most important artistic centres in Spain.

The city bears exceptional testimony to several civilizations which have disappeared:

Roman (Toledo was captured in ca. 192), with vestiges of the circus, two aqueducts and a dam, and the sewers.

As you drive in to the city you can see the Roman vestiges, such as (above) the “circo romano”, built in the 1st C AD.

The Visigoths, with the remains of the walls of King Wamba (the original walls were Roman, but were rebuilt by the Visigoths in the 7th C) and the artifacts conserved in the Santa Cruz Museum.

Here we can see a small bit of the old Visigoth wall poking through the front entrance of the Museo De Ejercito (Army Museum).

The Emirate of Córdoba built many Islamic monuments such as the piers of the destroyed Baño de la Cava Bridge, but also Puerta Vieja de Bisagra, Las Tornerías Mosque, Bib Mardum Mosque (a private oratory completed in 999 and also known as the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz), Arab Baths in the Calle del Angel and Calle Pozo Amargo, etc.

Here we can see the Puerta Vieja de Bisagra (the old Bisagra gate, with the word bisagra meaning hinge), a nice example of 9th C Islamic military architecture (horseshoe-shaped gate). Some of the decoration and the upper parts of the gate are 13th C Mudéjar. Not to be confused with the Nueva Bisagra gate just next to it and rebuilt in the 16th C. Originally it was a toll gate for the passage of goods and provided access to the cemetery situated outside the walls.

After the reconquest in 1085 Jewish religious monuments such as Santa María la Blanca Synagogue (1180) and El Transito Synagogue (1366) were built.

Santa María Blanca is considered by many as the oldest synagogue still standing in Europe, even if today it is a museum.

The medieval period left walls and fortified buildings, such as San Servando Castle, bridges, houses and entire streets.

Castillo de San Servando started as a monastery in 1088 but is today a 14th C castle with some fine Mudéjar arches and gateways. It is now a Albergue Juvenil or youth hostel

Also in the Middle Ages, Toledo saw the emergence of a Mudéjar style which combined the structural and decorative elements of Visigothic and Muslim art, adapting them into successive styles: Santiago del Arrabal (13th C), the Museo Taller del Moro and Puerta del Sol (14th C), wainscot of Santa Cruz Hospital and the chapter house of the cathedral (15th and 16th C), etc.

Iglesia Santiago del Arrabal dates from ca. 1245-48, although a mosque it is known to have been on the site since 1125.

The 15th- and 16th-centuries (Spanish Renaissance) left the church of San Juan de los Reyes and the Cathedral, the San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz hospitals, the Puerta Nueva de Bisagra, etc.

We had a limited amount of time in the city but nevertheless our impression was of a centre that was increasingly being dominated by tourism. Inevitable, but true! More and more tourists within the city walls and fewer and fewer local Spanish people. Small narrow streets well preserved, but often with no “life”.

On the first day our hotel shuttle dropped us off next to the Alcázar. An impressive building situated, more or less, at the highest point of the city. In the beginning, the Romans used it as a palace, and then the Christians reconstructed it during the reign of King Alfonso VI. Alfonso X the Wise continued with the construction, adding the square floor plan and the battlement towers at its corners. Its facades differ according to period and style. The western facade is of Renaissance form, the eastern is medieval, the northern is Plateresque and the southern, erected by Juan of Herrera, is of Churrigueresque style. It also possesses a two-storey patio with Corinthian capitals. The Alcázar has been the victim of fires on several occasions (in 1170, a century later, in 1867 and in 1882). At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Military Academy was housed here and at the end of the conflict, it was almost totally destroyed. Later on it was completely reconstructed, and today it houses the army's offices, a museum and the public library.

But our destination for the day was the Cathedral, which is properly treated on a separate page of this Website.

Because of the Easter processions our second day started again with the hotel shuttle dropping us off outside the city walls. In fact there is a “escaleras mecánicas” that takes people from down below the city walls to the top of the city.

Our destination for the second day was the El Greco museum, treated in detail on a separate Webpage.

But in walking around the Juderia we also visited the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes.

This monastery was built (between 1477-1504) by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile to commemorate both the birth of their son Price John of Asturias and the victory of Toro (1476) over Portugal. The building was originally to be their future burial site (or pantheon), but they changed to Granada after its re-conquest in 1492. Toledo was apparently chosen because in joining Aragon and Castile the Catholic Monarchs re-created the old Visigoth kingdom, so what better place for a pantheon than the old Visigoth capital. The monastery was badly damaged by Napoleon’s troops in 1809, and the restoration was only completed in 1967. You can visit today the church and the cloister.

The Gothic church (with Spanish and Flemish influences) has a single nave with a stellar vault and a small number of side chapels, e.g. the layout is the usual Latin cross. Some experts have detected a slight Elizabethan flavour to the church, but I have my doubts since the architect was a Frenchman called Juan Guas. There are some substantial decorations with the coats of arms of the Catholic Monarchs supported by two large eagles, ogee arches and figures of saints. Not surprisingly much of the decoration includes inscriptions that exalt royal power. The church is dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist.

At times some of the Gothic decoration could be considered quite flamboyant, although it is said that the restoration occurred during a period when flamboyant Gothic was unfashionable resulting in lines that are quite clean and simple by Spanish standards.

Clearly the abundance of royal heraldic motifs result from the fact that it was initially intended as a royal pantheon.

Difficult to see today in the church, but originally the Catholic Monarchs participating from the choir would have been placed at the same hight as the altar demonstrating that the temporal power of earthly kings was equivalent to that of the temporal-spiritual power emanating from God.

The late Gothic cloister (built in 1526) encloses a small garden and an impressive Mudéjar style ceiling on the upper floor. Oddly enough old plans show that there was a second cloister sitting next to the first, but there is a mention that it was not preserved.

The monastery was occupied by Franciscan monks until 1836, and a small new Franciscan community is again in place since 1954. Originally there were two Franciscan communities in Toledo, but they were forced to fusion and occupy the new monastery (1484-86).

Difficult to see in the photo, but there are orange trees in the courtyard that echo the old Islamic Mosque tradition

Above we can see the ground floor cloister, and below the details of the Mudéjar style roof of the first floor of the cloister

In the roof we can see the emblems of the Catholic Monarchs, and the so-called lion arches holding the roof in place

We will close our visit to this monastery with a reference to the chains hanging on one of the outside walls. These are emblems and represent the chains of Christian captives who were released when Ferdinand re-conquered Malaga and Baeza. It is said that it was Isabella who ordered that the chains be hung from the wall and never removed.

Despite staying for a couple of days in the pre-Easter week we did not actually see any of the famous Toledo processions (so a good reason for a return visit). Here below are a few photos taken from the Web that capture that unique event.

Here are a few pointers to interesting resources.

Nice introduction to the city.

And here is a 3-part introduction to the city (in Spanish): part 1, part 2, part 3.

Here is quite a rich resource of the works of El Greco. I copied much background from the very complete site which looks to have provided much of the information in Wikipedia.  A short presentation on El Greco.

Note:  Photos on this site mix those taken by myself and those copied from the Internet


Toledo is located about 70 km south of Madrid, and is the capital of the autonomous community of Castile–La Mancha. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage, as one of the former capitals of the Spanish Empire, and as a place of coexistence between Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures.

Here we can see the city sitting on the banks of the Tagus, with its walls, its two medieval bridges (Puente de an Martín to the left and Puente de Alcántara on the right), the Alcázar again on the right, the Cathedral in the centre, and the Juderia,  with all its narrow streets, out on the left.

Two millennia of history live within the walls of Toledo, successively a Roman municipium, the capital of the Visigothic kingdom, a fortress of the Emirate of Córdoba, an outpost of the Christian kingdoms fighting the Moors, and for sometime the temporary seat of the supreme power under Charles V (1500-1558), who endowed it with the status of imperial and crowned city.

The irreversible economic and political decadence of Toledo after 1561, when Phillip II chose Madrid as his capital once and for all, miraculously spared this museum-city.