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5 Reasons for Visiting 5 Small Towns in Spain: A Five-Part-Series, Part III--Toledo


by Lu Sobredo


Taking a long vacation abroad is a treat of a lifetime. Grateful that my family has had these treats several times and we intend to continue the practice. 

When  traveling to Europe or Asia, my family plans for at least a month or more to explore and relax. We plan our vacation time so each day is not filled with too many activities. There’s always time reserved for everything: my husband James to attend a university-related conference, conduct his scholarly research, visit with friends or family, and connect with and make new friends. He's made friends in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Florence, Munich, Stavanger, Hongkong and Metro Manila. When in Spain, when we get our fill of the sounds and sights of a major metropolitan, we have learned to take short trips to small towns away from madding and extreme crowds.  

So where could travelers escape and try their best to stay on a modest budget? This five-part series is dedicated to embracing small towns for part of our travel plans. Visiting small towns lets one celebrate life with scrumptious meals without breaking the bank. For my husband and me, it means spending quality time together and indulging the imagination about what routine would be like to live in a small town in Spain. 

Part I of the Five-Part-Series highlighted the small town of Aranjuez outside of central Madrid. It is a town most familiar to us: Beautiful royal palace gardens, a 45-minute train ride from Madrid, a seat of Spain’s royal history, an open market on Saturday, and a gastronomic hub visited often even by discriminating Madrilenos. It is at the top of my family’s list. (See 5 Reasons for Visiting 5 Small Towns in Spain, Part I, Aranjuez). 

Part II featured the town of Foz in the Galician region, two hours by car from Santiago de Compostela. It is a coastal town by the Cantabrian Sea of the Atlantic Ocean, of cool temperate climate, with sailing ports nearby, fresh seafood and other treats. (See 5 Reasons for Visiting 5 Small Towns in Spain, Part II, Foz). 

For Part III, I am excited to showcase the picturesque, peaceful and historic small city of Toledo. Toledo was the former capital of Spain until 1560, when Philip II moved the capital to Madrid.

If you are the typical traveler who plans a 10-14 day trip, or the atypical one who’d rather travel for a month or longer to Spain, why not include an overnight or two-night stay in Toledo?

The population of the small city of Toledo is estimated below 83,000 in 2017. You can find the ancient small town in central Spain. It is the capital of the province of Toledo, in the autonomous region of La Mancha, 88 km or 50 miles outside of Madrid. It is home to El Greco, the Spanish Renaissance painter, sculptor and architect. You could find his works in churches, galleries, and museums. Born in Crete as Doménikos Theotokópoulos, he is better known as El Greco. He moved to Toledo in 1577, where he worked and lived until his death in 1614.

When one needs to take a break from touristy spots, and the prospect of seeing the works of the master, El Greco is not enticing enough for one to visit Toledo, see what you think of the other attractions the small city offers. These are 5 compelling reasons why Toledo is one of our family’s choices for a must-see small city in Spain.


1. PANORAMIC CITY VIEW FROM THE PARADOR AT SUNSET 

In 2010, our family visited Toledo. We stayed to watch the sunset, courtesy of our honorary Spanish family. It was magical. The best vantage point is from Parador de Toledo on a hilltop. A Parador is usually a historic building such as a monastery or castle converted into a  hotel. In Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, it is usually a luxury hotel. 

The Parador of Toledo overlooks the old city. Toledo transforms like a bejeweled landscape as the sun comes down the horizon. The panoramic view is quite breathtaking. Six years later, our Spanish family took us there again in the summer of 2016. The magic does not wear off. Especially this time, our Spanish family has two little ones of their own, and our son is now a young adult, no longer a teenager as he was in 2010. All of that made the moments extra special. And my husband James has added exceptional lenses for his cameras. He had the time of his life trying to capture the stunning panorama that is Toledo. 


Panoramic View of Toledo. ©Lu Sobredo, 2016.



Toledo At Sunset. ©Lu Sobredo, 2016

The prominent structure from the distance is the fortress, Alcazar. It was built around the 10th Century, when Toledo was most important to the Moors. During the Christian rule, it was intended as a royal residence. It was turned into an army academy when King Carlos 1 moved the  royal residence to Madrid. Under the dictator Franco, it was rebuilt as a military museum.

It’s true what others have said: travel is better than wealth. Granted, you need money to travel, but one could travel on a budget. I cover these topics in previous blog posts. Look for the essay on: Eating Happily on a Budget in Spain.


2. A HISTORY OF BEING A “CITY OF THREE CULTURES”

I am fascinated by the history of the city, which goes back earlier than the Roman Empire. The Moors established Toledo as the Muslim capital of central Spain. It is a city often compared to Jerusalem, a city of three religions. Toledo is known for the historical coexistence of Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. The three cultures lived a fairly peaceful coexistence. But that ended in 1492, under the Catholic Monarchs King Fernando and Queen Isabella. Under the Catholic monarchy, Jews and Muslims could not stay unless they converted to Catholicism. 

Walking around the city of Toledo in the summer of 2010, I remember how I wished I had worn my hiking shoes.  The streets were narrow, winding, and rugged with old cobblestones. However, it was comforting seeing the remnants of a synagogue, a mosque and a massive Catholic church. It served as a reminder of the historic coexistence of three religious cultures. 

The Toledo Cathedral was enormous. The history of the Cathedral site goes all the way back to Roman times. During the time of the Moors, the structure served as the city's main Mosque. Although Alfonse VI promised to keep the building as a Mosque, it did not remain so when Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085. Constructed as a Gothic Cathedral in 1226, "The building wasn't completed until 1493 and as a result of these two and half centuries of work, there are clearly different architectural styles...Moorish style while under Christian rule and Spanish Renaissance." (Source: http://www.spanishfiestas.com/cities/toledo/#attractions). 



Toledo Cathedral, ©James Sobredo, 2010


Family Visited a Monastery, Formerly a Franciscan Convent, ©James Sobredo, 2010.


3. SANTO TOME DE OBRADOR DE MARZAPAN

My affinity for great desserts is undeniable; just ask close friends and family. I used to tell folks that when I arrive in a new place, my initial focus: find a decent bathroom, locate the nearest police station, and head to the best bakery in the neighborhood. 

My search for decadent sweet treats reached new heights when our Spanish family (brother/friend Ruben and his lovely wife, my  sister/friend Noelia) took us to the best confectioner shop while in Toledo—Santo Tome de Obrador de Marzapan. I imagined a surprise party in my tastebuds—that my tastebuds had died and gone to “Plato’s Heaven.” Heaven of desserts, that is. I am appropriating words my husband used often to describe to our then-toddler son about abstract things visible only to the mind as living in “Plato’s Heaven.” Trained in Ancient Greek Philosophy (Aristotle), my hubby James does not necessarily approve of its use here.  But I like it, so he's ok with it.



Marzipan Treats. ©James Sobredo, 2010.

One will find the Obrador and Confitería Santo Tomé in the center of the historical city. At the Abrador (workshop) and Confiteria (confectionery), you will find a variety of gloriously scrumptious cakes and other treats. The shop has been making their signature product, the marzapan or marzipan since 1856.  Their website states: “We want the tradition of this product so emblematic for the city to continue (to stay) alive.” Marzipan is the combination of almonds, sugar, and honey, as well as other ingredients. Known as part of the Mediterranean gastronomic culture for many centuries, it has become one of my favorites in Spain. Our dear friend Ruben reminded me that marzipan was brought to Spain by the Arabs in CE (Common Era) 711. And so far, it is unparalleled by anything I’ve tasted in other parts of the globe.


Marzipan Display. ©James Sobredo, 2010.

The prices vary and some of my favorites were quite expensive:  €40 per kilogram or 2.2 pounds. However, you just need a few bites of cakes to fall in awe of the delicacies. Buy just a small slice of the cakes and your tastebuds might just tingle with joy. So, for sweet-treat lovers, a must to include when visiting Toledo is the Santo Tome de Obrador.


 4. VICTOR MACHO MUSEUM 

It is lesser known to tourists, but thanks to our Spanish family, the Museum became a must-see for my family in summer 2010. The Museum was once home to the famous Spanish sculptor, Victor Macho. The outdoor garden around the museum gives one a feeling of zen. Viewing the art pieces in the Museum (knowing that the sculptor once lived there) gave me a feeling of serenity as if I had permission to be one with the place.


The Museum's Outdoor Garden Overlooking the Tagus River. ©James Sobredo, 2010

Most of Victor Macho’s works are displayed at the Museum. Situated on a hillside overlooking the Tagus River, it is a perfect stop for a short rest after walking the winding streets of the old city.

Macho was considered as one of the greats of modern Spanish sculptors. He was born in 1887, and upon his death in 1966, he donated most of his sculptures to Toledo. As mentioned in the website, SpainisCulture.com: “He established his reputation as a sculptor with his first public work, the monument to Pérez Galdós in the Retiro Garden in Madrid.” When in Madrid, visit Park Retiro and look for the monument. Take a picnic basket and spend time in this beautiful and expansive park. 


5. PROXIMITY TO MADRID

Since most travelers to Spain fly into Madrid’s Barajas airport, I strongly suspect that spending 2-3 days to get acquainted with the capital city would be sufficient introduction to it. Then, take a side trip to Toledo. This would be perfect addition to the itinerary. Toledo is only 80km (almost 50 miles) away. If driving, and traffic is cooperating, the road trip could take just over one hour. 

Spain is touted for its public transportation. There are numerous options: bus departs every 30 minutes and there are 10 train services per day from Madrid. 

BUS: If taking the bus, be prepared for one hour and half trip, then a walk of the steep uphill climb to the historical center once in Toledo. The climb is 1.2 km (3/4 mile) from the local bus station. Another option is to take a local bus 5 or 6 up the hill.

TRAIN:  If taking the train, take one of ten services from Madrid’s Atocha Railway Station during the day. The fast AV Media Distancia Train takes just 35 minutes. Once at the quaint old train station in Toledo, you have a 20 minute walk to the historic city centre. Also an option is to take the number 5 or 6 bus to Plaza de Zocódover if hiking is not a viable option. It certainly isn't for me since the onset of my autoimmune chronic illness. 

My family is blessed to have friends who take us there. However you get there, it is unbelievably worth the trip. If we did not have the option of driving a car, my family would likely make reservations for a Coach trip to Toledo. If feeling like spending a little more, one could hire your own driver.  

If not interested in roaming around the old city of Toledo on your own, there are guided tours. Tour companies often advertise a day trip of Toledo in the morning and a visit in the afternoon to Aranjuez—our home-away-from-home. 

Personally, I would take a full day to visit Toledo so as not to miss the sunset. And save another day to explore Aranjuez. This is a more practical option as it reduces the stress associated with engaging in too many activities when touring for the day. 


THE NEXT FEATURED TOWN

Having walked the Camino de Santiago with my family across Spain, particularly my husband who walked the full way and more, we are intimately acquainted with many of the Spanish towns: from impoverished rural towns, burgeoning small cities, and to towns which are economically somewhere in between. Everyone one of the towns offered their own brand of charm. 

It is not easy to choose what town to feature next, but I decided on Sarria. Why Sarria? It is a town where one starts the last segment of the Camino before reaching the pilgrims’ destination of Santiago de Compostela at the ancient Cathedral where the remains of the Apostle St. James is believed to be buried. (Walking the Camino de Santiago: Pilgrimage on My Terms, Parts 1 & 2). 

Although I did not spend much time there, I felt its significance to those walking the Camino is reason enough. Sarria it is for the next essay. 

Happy travels!


Sources
Santo Tome. http://mazapan.com/historia/. Web. July 11, 2017

SpainThenandNow.com. 

SpanishFiestas.com. http://www.spanish-fiestas.com/cities/toledo/#attractions. Web July 11, 2017.



©Lu Sobredo, Writer and Co-Editor; Adrian Sobredo, Co-Editor

©Photos: James Sobredo and Lu Sobredo

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Acknowledgment:
My deepest gratitude to my Spanish family: Noelia and Ruben Lopez for their love and friendship over the years. They have introduced us to many beautiful places in Spain, including the historic city of Toledo. 

Essays for my blog are often a family affair. This essay is no different. Much appreciation to my husband James for selecting photos from his Collection, and our son Adrian for taking the time to edit the essay. 


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