My dad and I had just emerged from a 700 year old synagogue–the newer of the two remaining synagogues in Toledo, believe it or not–and were standing on an bluff overlooking the Rio Tajo flowing hundreds of feet below. Across the narrow gorge were rough rolling hills laden with scrub brush and a few hardy pine trees; if you took a photo and asked me where it was I would have guessed the Rio Grande Valley or maybe somewhere in Israel. And if you removed the cell phone tower in the distance and the handful of houses dotting the cliffs it probably wouldn’t look any different than it did when it was the beating heart of Spain for about a thousand years.
As previously mentioned on this blog, yours truly has a strange curiosity for the end of the line. Though relatively large, Toledo has no other rail connections to anywhere in Spain besides Madrid: All arriving trains come from there, and all trains leaving Toledo go directly there. I find this to be incredibly fascinating, as this one spur dangles like a thread from Madrid and keeps Toledo open to the rest of the world. The rest of it is cut off by the steep gorge formed by the Rio Tajo running through, and the vast Castillian plains that surround it for miles mean that in a sense you really are stepping into a different time when you come here.
Literally, the streets are crawling with people in 16th century dress. Well, not really: There was a Spanish historical drama being filmed in the cathedral while we were there, and whoever was playing the local bishop had a thing for hand-rolled tobacco cigarettes. Guess show biz in Spain doesn’t pay enough to afford Marlboro.
After gazing up into the late-Gothic rafters of the cathedral (I wasn’t that impressed) we carried along the narrow streets until we arrived in the old Jewish section of the city. There were little blue Menorah tiles planted between the cobblestones every so often just to remind you that up until 1492, this part of Toledo was Jewish turf. Traders, artisans, bookkeepers, and translators, the Jews of Toledo were a great asset to the city since the Roman era. And with the exception of the Visigoths, Jews lived in harmony with their Christian and subsequently Arab neighbors. I think the modern-day Middle East could learn a lesson.
Toledo’s oldest standing Jewish temple dates to the 12th century, and I fell in love with the frieze decorating the upper level of the interior. The capitals were also beautifully carved and featured bursts of foliage, and like their Romanesque counterparts would most likely have been brightly painted.
The other synagogue in Toledo is now a Sephardic Museum, and houses a fascinating collection of Jewish fragments from the community, dating back to the Roman era. It illustrated the history of the Jews in Spain from the time the first refugees of the diaspora began appearing on the shores of Hispania, up through the Visigothic troubles, the Moorish conquest, and the Christian reconquista. As a side note, the word “Sephardi” in Hebrew means “of Spain,” so that’s where the term comes from. And in case you haven’t been keeping up with the news, I happen to be descended from Spanish Jews. I apologize for the tacky rhyme; that wasn’t supposed to happen.
After visiting the museum, my dad and I visited the fortress on top of the highest point in the city. It’s been turned into a military museum and unless you really find guns of all eras fascinating you won’t care for it. We had covered a lot of ground by the time we left the fortress, and we were famished. This was when I noticed a cozy restaurant called Los Cuatro Tiempos (The Four Seasons, for you hispanophobes) tucked away on a sleepy corner behind the bustling cathedral. These are the sorts of things I can only do when a parent is paying–in other words, not that often–but our lunch was worth every penny. And considering how ordinary my birthday was, it was a fitting belated birthday present and an excellent capstone to a day when we flitted momentarily back in time.
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