Although the popular American expression ‘Holy Toledo!’ probably has less reverent origins, the iconic Spanish city from which its Ohio sister derives its name was once home to three religious cultures: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. These three cultures co-existed for centuries and their symbiotic relationship left behind in a unique cultural time stamp, beautifully preserved in the city of Toledo.

After a very rewarding few days exploring Madrid, we turned our sights towards the historic city of Toledo which a dear friend had recommended we check out. This would be our last stop on our 5 day itinerary in Central Spain.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

 

Getting there

To avoid early morning queues, we planned to purchase our tickets the day before we were due to visit and so the evening before, we headed to Madrid’s Atocha Renfe Station. On arrival, we were disappointed to learn that advance tickets for early departures the next day were no longer on sale.

We were advised to be at the station at least an hour before departure the next morning to stand a good chance of getting tickets on the day. However, on our way out of the station, eagle-eyed Mrs HDYTI spotted a sales kiosk advertising something called the ‘Toledo Card’. Upon closer inspection of the offers, we decided to purchase a ‘2 Pack’ costing 48 Euros which included guaranteed return train tickets, a ride on the tourist bus and free entry into 5 historic monuments for 2 adults.

HDYTI TipIf you’re planning to visit Madrid for a few days, consider devoting a day to visit Toledo. High speed train journeys from Madrid to Toledo take only 30 minutes, departing from Madrid’s Atocha Renfe Station. For a day trip to Toledo, the best times to depart from Madrid are on the 9:20am or the 10:20am trains. Tickets for early and late afternoon trains sell out quickly. It makes sense to purchase tickets in advance or to invest in the Toledo Card.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

Early the next morning, with temperatures rising towards the mid-20s (°Celsius) and with a lot of trekking in store, we set out from our apartment near Tirso de Molina, wearing sensible shoes and clothing and carrying along a few bottles of water, getting to the station just in time to catch the 10:20am high-speed Renfe AVE. Following an uneventful journey, we were in for a special treat as soon as we arrived in Toledo. The city boasts an intricately designed train station with a stunning display of Neo-Moorish architecture underscoring the rich multi-cultural heritage of Toledo.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

The train station is on a lower elevation while the city itself is set higher up on a hill, surrounded by natural and man-made fortifications. There are a few ways to get to the town center from the station including taxi and bus. Walking takes about 30 minutes along a route that offers some spectacular views of the Tagus River which snakes its way past the old city. On a typical Spanish day, the uphill hike from the station to Plaza del Zocodover (which is essentially the heart of the city) can be tasking.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

We opted for an air-conditioned tourist bus ride (included in our Toledo Card package) along an equally scenic route with a brief stop at Mirador de Valle, a tourist viewing point overlooking the city. We were dropped off at the bus terminal where a set of escalators conveyed us uphill and spat us out opposite Plaza del Zocodover.

 

Frozen in time

The guide books recommended Plaza del Zocodover as the starting point for Toledo day trippers. However, while useful for navigation, the main square itself is small, crowded and rather commercial, thanks in part to the Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants garishly marking their respective turfs around its borders. The uninspiring view was redeemed by a riot of colourful tapestries and flags hanging from the buildings surrounding the square in preparation for the Corpus Christi celebrations scheduled for the following week.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

HDYTI Tip: For a country famous for its numerous festivals, the Corpus Christi is regarded as one of the most important celebrations. Festival dates are movable but it generally falls on a Sunday after Easter, tending towards the end of May or the beginning of June. It might be worth planning your Toledo trip to coincide with this colourful event.

From the plaza, we sauntered towards the Alcázar Fortress, once the site of an infamous siege during the Spanish Civil War. Located at the highest point in Toledo, the fortress provided a vantage point with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The actual fortress now houses a library which was inaccessible and so we continued on through Toledo’s quaint and narrow streets towards the Catedral Primada (the Primate Cathedral), a walk that took us through parts of the route marked out for the Corpus Christi procession. We were grateful for the shade provided by the beautifully decorated awnings and giant lanterns hanging from buildings on either side of us.

Toledo is like a time capsule. The further in we walked, the more we felt transported back in time to the middle ages. The city’s architecture validated its multi-cultural history while its worn cobblestone streets and winding paths beckoned us to explore its past. Once famous for its sword making, we found many shops that still maintain the tradition of crafting fine blades. Getting lost in Toledo presented us with an adventure akin to walking through the fictional ‘Kings Landing’ from the famous Game of Thrones series.

Getting lost in Toledo presents an adventure akin to walking through a Game of Thrones set. Click To Tweet

 

The ‘stairway to heaven’

We arrived at the Catedral Primada and found that it was temporarily closed to the public for afternoon mass (roughly 11:30am to 1pm). We decided to come back later and opted to check out the much smaller Parish Church of Santo Tomé (Spanish: Iglesia De Santo Tomé). This 14th century church is notable for its architecture which features both Muslim (Mudéjar) and Christian influences. It is however more famous for housing the painting by ‘El Greco’ called ‘The Burial of Count Orgaz’, a local legend of his time.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

We made quick business of seeing the small church and headed to Calle Santo Tomé, the street right next to the church, to grab some lunch and wait for Catedral Primada to reopen. We usually avoid tourist watering holes but as there was nothing else open at the time, we settled for a local restaurant called Gambrinus and camped there to pass the time. Across from where we sat in the courtyard, we sighted what looked to be a pastry shop. We didn’t think much of it at the time and so ignored it and went on to the cathedral which by then had reopened to the public.

HDYTI Tip: Note that public access to local churches is subject to interruption from scheduled ceremonies, special events and festivals. Check ahead of your visit and plan around these.

HDYTI Tip: We completely missed this offer but found out later that the ToledoCard gets holders 2-for-1 drinks deal at the Cerveceria Restaurante Gambrinus. However you might want to find somewhere else to eat while in Toledo as this place was crowded and very busy.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

The Catedral Primada (Spanish name: Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo) is simply put, an architectural masterpiece. Construction is thought to have begun circa 1227 AD and the building itself is said to sit on the foundations of what was once a mosque, again underlining Toledo’s layered history.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

The exterior of the cathedral bears Gothic influences while its majestic interior is a three-dimensional wonder adorned with ornate European and Moorish designs. Perhaps the most notable feature for us was a section of the chapel which showcases an intriguing spectacle. By deliberate design, natural light filters through a strategically placed window, casting a soft hue on angelic paintings and saintly statues, all colluding to create a ‘stairway to heaven’ from the altar that is better witnessed than described.

 

A layered history…

Leaving the cathedral, we headed to the Jewish quarter to visit a monastery and finally a synagogue. The route to Toledo’s ancient Jewish quarter is marked by Jewish symbols intimately engraved or embedded in the streets, stairs and walkways. It took a keen eye for us to spot them. Those in a hurry might miss them altogether. Their hermetical presence seemed to tell a story in itself; a story of the Jews who once called this section of Toledo home and whose history is as important to this city as that of their Muslim and Christian contemporaries.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

The San Juan de Los Reyes monastery (Spanish: Monasterio De San Juan De Los Reyes) is home to a community of reclusive monks who eschew all contact with the outside world. During our visit, all doors and windows leading to their quarters were closed, giving us no hint or insight whatsoever to their daily lives and routine. We however spent some time appreciating the well manicured courtyard surrounded by large balconies designed with hints of Arab influences.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

The vibrant colours in the courtyard contrasted with the eerie silence all around us and heightened our feeling of being ‘intruders’ in someone else’s space. A piece of literature in the monastery described this strange dynamic as “much a symphony of rhythm and restraint as it is exuberant and disconcerting….Together with the garden, it forms a unified whole…” Overall, it was a good place to pause and reflect…probably the desired effect its secretive inhabitants hoped to create.

 

A peace fractured

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

As if making one more significant statement about Toledo’s history of co-existence, the old synagogue is located right across the street from the monastery on Calle Angel. The Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue (Spanish: Sinagoga De Santa Maria La Blanca) built circa 1180, is probably the most significant pointer to the once thriving Jewish culture in Toledo. No longer a functioning synagogue, the building is now owned and maintained by the Catholic Church, again highlighting the layered history of this city.

The inside of the building itself was empty. The roof is held up by white majestic octagonal columns spaced evenly between horseshoe arches, bearing intricate Jewish / Islamic inspired wall and ceiling art. We visited during a quiet period and had the opportunity to linger undisturbed by other tourist traffic for a bit. The meditative atmosphere was only interrupted by light peeping through the tiny windows.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

The synagogue had disappointingly very little information available about the culture and chequered history of the ancient Jews of Toledo. We resorted to our imagination and hopelessly expected to be transported into the past, to a time when this place was full of life and worship. Sadly, we could only speculate on life before Jews were expelled from Toledo and many parts of Spain in 1492.

The Muslims, Christians and Jews of Toledo did not always get along but for a time they did, with each culture thriving undisturbed until peace was fractured. While history records its many upheavals, Toledo bears testimony to the fact that peaceful co-existence is indeed possible…even if only for a while.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

HDYTI Tip: Toledo has many more attractions to serve the palate of the curious wanderer. We recommend ditching the maps and tourist guides for a couple of hours and just getting innocently lost in the labyrinth of history. You never know what you might find!

 

The ‘holy’ cookies

Our route back to Plaza Del Zocodover to grab a taxi took us via Calle Santo Tomé where we once again spotted the pastry shop we had seen earlier. This time, we were powerless to resist its charms and allowed ourselves to be happily lured in by the aromas and colours on display. It was here that we found what we considered to be the best treat Toledo had to offer. The shop was called Santo Tomé Obrador De Confiteria and in its ‘hallowed’ corridors, we found the ‘holy’ cookie (actual name: Pastas de Almendra).

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

We named them the ‘holy cookies’ because of their guilt free composition. Made out of a simple mixture of ingredients including almond flour (made from raw almonds), almond extract, lemon, sugar and eggs, these diary-free, gluten-free melt-in-your-mouth cookies delighted us and we promptly bought a fresh batch to take back with us to Madrid. They were truly una combinación perfecta!

The cookies gleamed in the early evening sunshine as we waited for our train back to Madrid. Their very presence seemed to enrich our overall experience of the beautiful city of Toledo. Somehow, they survived the journey back home to London where they very quickly disappeared. Eulanda has a standing task to produce a home-made batch of them from the recipe and we have kept the box from Toledo as a reminder! We did find a simple recipe here.

Toledo Spain Day Trip | HDYTI

Our trip to Spain provided a satisfying blend of rich culinary and travel experiences at every turn. Have you been to Toledo or other parts of Spain? What city or town has provided you with your most memorable food and travel experience? We would love to build a list of Spanish cities to visit so please share your suggestions with us!

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).