Built on hills by the River Tagus, Toledo, a Unesco World Heritage site, is one of the most historically and culturally fascinating cities in Spain.
Strangely, it’s off the radar for most British tourists. And while it’s an easy day trip from Madrid (only 30 minutes by train), it’s well worth staying for two or three nights.
It’s a small place, with a population of only 83,000. But it was once the capital of mighty imperial Spain, until Philip II moved his court to Madrid in 1561. It was also home of the great Crete-born 16th-century artist El Greco for most of his life.
Fascinating: Toledo’s old town is nestled on a hill overlooking the River Tagus
A major theme park celebrating Spanish history is opening nearby soon, but Toledo itself is a time capsule.
Every corner of the winding central streets takes you back into the country’s past — particularly the time when Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the city.
STAY IN TOWN
The central Eugenia de Montijo is an excellent boutique hotel with friendly service and a small spa. The restaurant, Federico, mixes local dishes with international cooking. Rooms start at £97 a night B&B.
Architecture is one of the city’s main draws, particularly Mudejar (Moorish, Islamic styles which continued under Christian rule).
Even the railway station is an intricately decorated homage to the Mudejar manner.
Main attraction: The 13th century Toledo Cathedral is Gothic in style
The main attraction, however, is resolutely Christian: the 13th century Gothic cathedral is the second biggest in Spain, reflecting the wealth of both the Church and the empire. Don’t miss the sacristy with its extraordinary art collection, including works by Titian, Velazquez, Goya and El Greco.
The city is well sign-posted, but it’s worth hiring a guide. British-owned Corazon Travel (corazontravel.com) can arrange art and food tours.
EL GRECO TRAIL
In Toledo, El Greco’s emotional and idiosyncratic work is everywhere. The El Greco Museum in the Jewish Quarter is in an atmospheric, 16th-centurystyle house with charming gardens, a recreation of the painter’s home. Next door is El Transito, a former synagogue, decorated in Moorish style, which is now a museum of Spanish Jewish history.
Also nearby is the church of Santo Tome, once a mosque, where you can see The Burial Of The Count Of Orgaz, one of El Greco’s most dramatic masterpieces — entry £2.25.
El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
And if you can’t get enough of the great Greek, visit the Santa Cruz Museum, housed in a splendid 16th century former hospital, where there is a roomof his art, plus a comprehensive collection of Spanish ceramics.
The grand Renaissance-style Hospital Tavera, another former infirmary, also houses some of his major works.
By way of variety, head for the simple but exquisite Mosque of Cristo de la Luz. It was built in the 10th century, before the Christian reconquest in 1085, and later became a chapel, but retains many of its original Islamic features.
The massive Alcazar fortress dominates the city and was once the imperial palace. During the Spanish Civil War, it was the scene of a major siege, and part of it is now a military museum, where exhibits include an Enigma machine.
Visit the library cafe to enjoy panoramic views of the city.
Toledo is famous for its food and produce, including marzipan (the best place for this confectionary is the bakery of Santo Tome, open since 1856), Manchego cheese, saffron, and Toledana biscuits filled with pumpkin jam.
You’ll find game, particularly partridge, on most menus. Don’t be surprised to encounter fruit in savoury dishes — a legacy of Moorish times.
There’s no shortage of bars and tapas places. Try El 10 de Santo Tome, which has tables outside, or El Trebol — both popular with locals.
Culinary history: Toledo is famous for its produce and is full of tapas bars and restaurants
The city also has some great restaurants. The best, familyrun Adolfo, located in a 12th century building, serves modern twists on Toledano classics.
Sip an aperitif on the roof, with its great view, and ask to visit the cellar, which houses 35,000 bottles of wine.
Orza is almost as good for creative cuisine, which is best enjoyed on the outside terrace.
Toledo steel is legendary and, beyond the shops selling tourist tat, you can find high-quality Damasquinado jewellery made from steel and inlaid with gold and silver. You can also buy swords and daggers, too — but do bear in mind the requirements of airport security.
Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com, 020 7593 2283) offers tailor-made short breaks to Toledo, from £588pp for three nights, including flights to Madrid, car hire and B&B accommodation at the four-star Hotel Eugenia de Montijo. More information at turismocastillalamancha.es.