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Toledo's Medieval Mystique

Appreciating a city where Christian, Jewish and Muslim lore converge

October 22, 2000|MIKE HAMMER | Mike Hammer is a doctoral student in medieval Spanish literature at UCLA

TOLEDO, Spain — His specialty was handmade knives and swords. He claimed to make them here in his shop and to be one of the few--if not the last--such artisans in Toledo. The two fingers missing on his right hand lent weight to his claim, as did the unfinished sword leaning against the anvil in the small courtyard.

I came across the nondescript shop on Calle del Salvador after spending the better part of a Saturday morning late last July getting lost in Toledo's narrow medieval streets. Each lane gave way to an even narrower one, twisting and turning and tapering until I could stretch out my arms and touch the buildings on either side of me. A couple of times I had to retreat into doorways as cars swooped around blind corners.

As a student of medieval Spanish literature, I have long wanted to visit this city of 65,000. Toledo is 45 miles south of Madrid, an easy trip--easy enough to see the cathedral, completed in 1493, and many of the city's museums and monuments in a day.

But even for people without an academic interest, one day isn't enough. Toledo is more than monuments. It is Spain's capital of fine steel craftsmanship, once the home of the painter El Greco, and a vibrant center of Christian, Jewish and Muslim medieval life--a place of poetry and drama that forms an integral part of the Spanish identity.

"People always come to Toledo--winter, summer, every day of the week," the knife maker said. "That's because Toledo is unique, like Venice or Rome."

He spoke matter-of-factly, infused with the same municipal pride I encountered many times that day. Toledans are convinced theirs is the most significant--and most fascinating--city in Spain. And although many might disagree, I did find plenty of justification for that notion during several day trips this summer.

Toledo has always rated high in the Spanish imagination. It was the capital of the Visigothic kingdom from the 6th century until the Moors invaded in 711. The town remained under Muslim control until 1085, when it was conquered by Christian King Alfonso VI.

After the conquest, Christians lived in uneasy peace with their Jewish and Muslim neighbors. In the 13th century, King Alfonso X of Castile took advantage of the city's multilingual and multicultural character to establish his Escuela de Traductores de Toledo (Toledo School of Translators). Philosophical and scientific writings in Arabic and Hebrew were translated into Latin and Castilian Spanish.

As I walked into town from the train station, I could see a large hill rising from the Tagus River (Rio Tajo), studded with stone churches and tiled roofs and capped like a crown with the four-pointed peaks of the ancient Alcazar. The huge square fortress, built by King Carlos I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) in 1535 and rebuilt several times since, last saw military action in 1936. That's when it was all but destroyed at the start of the Spanish Civil War as republican forces attacked nationalist rebels holed up inside. By the end of the 72-day siege, the fortress had been reduced to rubble but the nationalists emerged victorious.

The dank and dark basements survived the attack, but most of what greets visitors today is a reconstruction. The upper floors contain a military museum that outlines the history of the Spanish armed forces from the Middle Ages to the present.

It was at the Alcazar that I discovered my camera was broken. I fumed my way through the building and finally sought a spot to calm down on the banks of the Tagus, which flows by the city in a wide semicircle.

I was particularly interested in the Tagus because I had recently read works of the great Renaissance poet Garcilaso de la Vega, who had a soft spot for Toledo. He was one of the first Spanish poets to successfully adapt Italian poetic modes to the Castilian language. He aspired to be the Virgil of his time and wrote lengthy pieces in imitation of Virgil's pastoral poems, filled with cavorting nymphs and lovelorn shepherds. Rather than set his poems in a mythic Arcadia, however, he set them here, along the banks of the Tagus.

I set off to explore the riverbanks. I hiked down the steep hillside, past ruins of long-tumbled buildings, and came to the river, shaded by fig trees from the afternoon heat. Near the 13th century San Martin Bridge, I realized I was approaching Bano de la Cava, the legendary bathing place where Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king of Spain, first laid his lust-filled eyes on the skinny-dipping Florinda, daughter of Count Julian.

Early ballads indicate that Florinda was a ward in the king's palace. One day Rodrigo watched as she bathed in the river. Whether what followed was rape or seduction no one knows, but it was serious enough to enrage the count, who vowed to avenge his family's tarnished honor. He enlisted the aid of the Muslims in Morocco. This, according to legend, is what provoked Moors to invade in 711.

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