Arriving at Toledo in Spain’s Castilla La Mancha region, you may be forgiven for thinking you have dropped into a Hollywood movie set. On top of a steep hill, the majestic Alcazar on the left and the massive cathedral on the right are silhouetted against the sky.
Below, the historic city walls encircle the old town and at ground level, the languid waters of the Tajo River flow under several bridges. It’s no wonder then, that Toledo is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain.
If, like me, you arrive by AVE on the 30-minute train ride from Madrid, the magic starts already at the train station. The building is a little jewel of Mudejar architecture, a style combining Moorish and medieval elements in a colourful harmony. Many more fine examples are found in Toledo and several other cities in the southern part of Spain.
In 2014 the focus was on Toledo because it marked the 400th anniversary of the death of the great painter El Greco. He spent many years in Toledo where he created his best known masterpieces, many of them exhibited in the El Greco museum. This year, however, Toledo is in the spotlight again thanks to its food and drink. Spanish food is renowned for being rich and varied and every year, another city is designated as the Culinary Capital of the country with many events celebrating local dishes and creations.
If you have a sweet tooth, Toledo is the place for you because it’s famous for marzipan. Toledo’s main square is called Plaza de Zocodover and was a market place for cattle in the Middle Ages. Today it’s the meeting place where all activities start and the location of San Tome, the oldest confectionary and marzipan producer of the city.
In celebration of this year’s event, their trade mark is a marzipan cake decorated with a colourful eel. Eels used to live in abundance in the Tajo, but, sadly, not any more, but they live on in marzipan. The assistants in the shop are generous with samples, and you can try toledanas or a piece of marzipan fruit. If you don’t like sweets, Toledo spoils you with other specialties such as cheeses, ham, stews , quail in a variety of preparations, as well as tender lamb, all of which are to be found on the menu of countless restaurants.
During your visit, ensure you make your way to the Mercado San Agustin, not far from Plaza de Zocodovar. Here you'll find a modern market, with four floors with fruit and vegetable stalls as well as tapas bars where you can sample the very best of this typically Spanish snack. Hanging gardens with little waterfalls in between make it a market like no other.
Thankfully, you can eat without fear of putting on weight, as Toledo is a city best explored on foot. Uphill or downhill, you spend hours walking from one breathtaking sight to the next. Along Calle Ancha, you can see silversmiths making elaborate pieces of the world famous Toledo steel, once the standard weaponry of the Romans, which today lives on in decorative artefacts and jewellery.
No visit to Toledo is complete without a visit to the cathedral. Afterwards, meander through the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter and finish your tour at the medieval bridge, Puente San Martin where you'll find the starting point of La Tirolina - the longest zip line in Europe. Once kitted out in safety gear, you fly over the river, where you can enjoy the magnificent view below.
After the zip line experience, I stopped by my favourite bar for a coffee, where the owner recommended that I 'talk to the people with the yellow umbrellas’ in Zodocover Square. The people he was referring to were tour guides from Cuentametoledo, a company that specialises in nightly underground tours of Toledo. I went on a tour from 10pm to midnight, visiting five magic sites including: Arab baths, Roman baths, and a well located deep under the Jewish quarter - all illuminated by magical fairy lights.
Whether you're above ground or below ground, Toledo is a feast for the senses, and a destination that's not to be missed on any visit to Spain.
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