Tag Archives: Toledo

The Mosque of Christ the Light

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

After hours of taking in sumptuous art and dazzling jewels at the Santa Cruz Museum, Lynn and I attempted to find the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz—Mosque of Christ the Light.

We consulted the map at the end of every block and still managed to get turned around.  It was raining and the sidewalks were slick as we skidded down a narrow alley only to discover we had gone in the wrong direction and had to slip and slide back up.

But we found it. I’m sorry to say there wasn’t much to see.  It was tiny, and the interior was empty.  It would be great if the city would make a museum of it, like the Sephardic Museum.

Next, off we went to the Monastery of San Juan de Los Reyes, just steps from our hotel, which turned out to be one of my favorite places.

There were manacles strung up along the perimeter of the exterior; this is not why I liked it so much, I’m just reporting it as one of the “highlights” of the building.  Apparently they were there to scare people into obedience, and I’m sure it worked.

The interior was the usual: An ornate dome here, a bishops’ tomb there.

The sanctuary featured eagles—dozens of rows of them—symbolizing Spain’s power.

 

“You certainly couldn’t miss the point,” Lynn remarked, “sitting here in the pews with nothing else to look at.

There was a memorial to 30 priests who were executed during the Spanish Civil War.  An old French man had glommed onto us and was talking up a storm.  I couldn’t concentrate on reading the plaques, so I apologize for not knowing more.

The French guy veered into talking about Muslim terrorists.  My weirdo radar switched on and I drifted away.  I didn’t want to open my mouth, have him find out I was American, and risk he would start rhapsodizing about what a great man Donald Trump was.

I abandoned Lynn, who smiled and nodded noncommittally as he talked.

I wanted to find the courtyard.  I had read in a guidebook that it had a special monkey carved into a pillar.  What a magnificent courtyard it was:

It reminded me of the colleges at Oxford, which I had spent all my free time exploring when I lived there.  I’m sure they look alike because they are built in the same architectural style, but I can’t tell you what that is, only that I love its airiness.

Every pillar had small images carved into it.  There were hundreds of babies, griffins, fish, dragons, and unicorns—all difficult to photograph.

I found the monkey.  It was sitting on a chamberpot and reading a bible upside down, supposedly a reference to the true impiety of priests carved by a workman.

Pepe had to leave his mark as well.

Lynn found the courtyard and we hung out there admiring the garden, sculptures, and towering spires.  Then we grabbed a late lunch somewhere I can’t remember, and went in search of our last museum which, on the map, looked very close to our hotel.

It was called the Royal Toledo Foundation.  Or maybe it was the Victorio Macho Musem.  It turned out to be both.  Whatever that meant, it was lost on us.

It was more than close to the hotel; it abutted our breakfast room and that explained the statures we could see through the windows.

The museum was only open odd hours, so we rang a bell and a startled-looking woman came and let us in.  For a few Euros, we wandered the lovely gardens with our umbrellas.  Victorio Macho was the third wonderful artist we discovered on this trip that we had never heard of.  The museum was set in his home.  The gardens overlooked the river and were populated with his statues.

In the tiny museum there were more sculptures, including a life-sized one of his mother which he lugged around South America for a year because he was so attached to it.  Thank god for iPhones, which is where I have an image of my mom.

The Good Old Days

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Our last full day in Toledo.  The next day we would take the train to Madrid, spend a night at an airport hotel, then fly early—me to Minneapolis/St. Paul and Lynn to Aberdeen.

At breakfast, I noticed over Lynn’s shoulder that there were large stone sculptures visible through the hotel windows.

“That’s nice, that they have a garden and sculptures outside,” I remarked.

“Yes,” Lynn replied, “Why don’t they mention it when you check in?  It would have been nice to sit out there yesterday when it was sunny.”

This led to a discussion of the few nice days in Scotland—in August—where you can sit out on the patio and have a Pimms.  In case you’ve never heard of Pimms, it’s a mysterious drink (mysterious to me as an American, anyway) that involves Pimm’s Liqueur and lots of fruit, cucumbers, and mint.  Very refreshing.  And then the rain comes, and you have to scurry back inside.

Somehow this led to a conversation about what makes the Scots Scottish.  Lynn, being English but living in Scotland, had many observations and insights.  I know it was a long discussion, but I can’t remember anything about it.  I wasn’t bored—quite the contrary—I always find topics like this interesting.  The good thing about not remembering conversations is that I can look forward to having them again the next time I see Lynn.

We were the last ones in the breakfast room again.  Time to move along; we were going to see all the rest of Toledo’s sites in one day.

I see in my sketchy notes that we went to the Santa Cruz Museum.  According to the map/guide, it has a “beautiful Plateresque doorway, coffered ceilings, and a monumental staircase in a Covarrubias design.”  Wow.  If I saw it, I’m sure I was impressed, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.  Maybe by now I was dazed by so many churches, museums, and other sites that my brain couldn’t take in any more.

I do remember the San Fe Museum … oh, wait.  On the map they look like the same thing … two museums possibly sharing one building? … online it describes “the hospital” of Santa Cruz.  Here’s a map of Toledo that was set in the sidewalk to illustrate what a jumble it is.

Anyway, Lynn and I paid €5 each and went into an enormous building named after a saint.  The floorplan was like a giant cross, naturally, and we figured out after about an hour that each arm of the cross was a different century, so we went from the 16th Century to the 15th, then to the 18th, then the 17th, which surely didn’t help me retain anything I might have accidentally learned.

By now I wasn’t even making a polite show of looking at the paintings of the Virgin Mary and crucifixions. What was left, if you skipped the religious stuff, was politics and culture.  Of course, religion, culture, and politics were inextricably intertwined.

Think about the entertainment options back then.  No TV, radio, movies, Internet, or telephone.  The first newspaper wasn’t published until the mid-1600s.  Books were rare and mostly owned by wealthy people and religious leaders, who were also the ones who commissioned paintings and musical pieces.  They ensured the themes were religious, except when they commissioned porn for their own secret collections.

If you were poor you worked six days a week and went to church on Sunday, where you saw paintings of martyrs, heard sermons about going to heaven when you died, and sang hymns about how blessed were the obedient poor.

It was all about control of wealth and power. This was also true about females born into wealth.  One of the themes of the exhibit was “strategic marriages as foreign policy.”  If a girl survived infancy, her parents started plotting her marriage to a decades-older cousin who was a royal in another principality.  If she didn’t produce an heir and a spare, she was considered worthless.

On the positive side, she did get to wear this for a couple hours during her coronation.

Ignoble Maiden

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

After hitting three museums in one morning, it was time for lunch. Lynn pointed out a place near the Plaza Zocodover, the central plaza, which had giant posters of tapas and beer.

“I don’t know,” I said leerily.  “It seems like restaurants with giant posters always turn out to offer defrosted, pre-packaged foods that pander to the lowest common denominator—no flavor, no color ….”

But Lynn was pushing her way in the door.  There was nothing special about the décor, but the first thing we noted after seating ourselves at a table was how the people who came in after us were greeted by name by the young woman behind the counter, who also appeared to be a local.  They sat at the counter and chatted with one another.

We sat at the table for a few minutes like baby birds waiting to be fed, then realized we had to get up and pick out our own food.  Valeria, according to her name tag, was friendly but busy, pointing at the offerings and describing them.  I caught about every fourth word and repeated them in English for Lynn’s benefit.

“Something with ham, pulpo—octopus; cerdo—pork; ensalada de pavo con naranja—turkey salad with orange; something with ham; salmón—salmon .…”

“Yes, I can see it’s salmon!” Lynn said.  “I think the idea is to just order an assortment.”

Using her excellent pointing and smiling skills, Lynn soon had us supplied with six different plates.

The food was nearly as good as that of the Alhambra Palace, but instead of being on  a terrace with a view of the city, our table was next to the bathroom door.

Now, this wasn’t just any bathroom door.  It had no sign on it, so we watched as a stream of people (if you’ll forgive the word stream) who weren’t regulars asked where the bathroom was, then stood indecisively in front of the door after being directed to it by Valeria.

Was it coed?  Were there more doors inside?  They would tentatively give it a push, stare, go in, then come out looking a bit rattled.  I had to know what was going on in there.  It couldn’t be any worse than the toilet in the Syrian restaurant, could it?

It turned out to be coed and it had some kind of apparatus that looked like an oil rig that surrounded the toilet and filled the room.  It had red knobs, blue hoses, levers, pull chains, and all sorts of warnings and instructions in all 24 EU languages.

I don’t know about you, but in this kind of situation I am always very tempted to pull a lever or push a button just to see what happens.  I resisted the urge, mainly because there was no lock on the door.  Probably, whichever button I pressed would make it fly open, exposing nosy me to the entire restaurant.

After lunch, we wandered around trying to find things.  We found the giant escalator cut into the hillside.

“Where does it go?” Lynn pondered.

“Who knows?” I replied unhelpfully.

“Let’s go!” we agreed.

About halfway down there was an entrance to an underground parking garage.  At the bottom was … nothing except a sign: “To Tourist Bus Stops.”

“Well that was exciting!” declared Lynn.

“Yes.  Let’s go back up.”

And so we did.

More wandering. I took lots of photos of balconies and other street scenes.

We passed this place with a skyway which was marked on the map as the “Royal College of Noble Maidens.”

There was no indication of whether it was a historic site or still operational.  It was deserted; maybe the noble maidens were on break in Malaga.

That evening we ate in the hotel restaurant.  We were the first ones there when it opened at 8:00 p.m. but a few minutes later two men our age were seated at a nearby table.  I assumed they were gay until I caught one staring at me.  Was he flirting?  Did he think I was a freak?  After all these years of life I still can never tell.

The Eyes Have It

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was feeling kind of guilty about the nun bashing in my last post until I started writing this one about the El Greco Museum.

Lynn and I had seen paintings by El Greco in the Prado Museum, but in Toledo there was an entire museum devoted to The Greek.

The collection was in an old house composed of additions from different centuries cobbled together and connected by ramps or hallways; in some instances you had to go outside to get from Point A to Point B.  Our first stop was a video about El Greco.  It went on at great length about how he was distinguished from his contemporaries by his elongated figures made of long brush strokes.  He was nearsighted, the video said by way of explanation.

In addition, many of his subjects were painted looking heavenward with crazy eyes, and this was thought to be because he used patients from an insane asylum as models.

The nun would have made a great model for El Greco—I’m not saying she was insane, just that her eyes had this same look.

So those are the things that make El Greco a star.  He was so in demand that he had apprentices help him churn out paintings and it’s now difficult to tell who painted what.  I am at a loss as to why El Greco is considered a master while Margaret Keane is not.

But as I’ve fully disclosed before, I’m not a New York Times art critic.

After shuffling along in the museum for a couple hours, we thought a brisk walk would do us good.  On the trolley tour we had spied what looked like giant escalators cut into the hillside, and the narration had said there was a nature walk.  The sun had come out, so now was the moment.

We attempted to find our way out of the city—ha!  Here is a map of Toledo set in the pavement, lest we needed reminding of what a labyrinth it was:

Eventually we found ourselves, quite by accident, outside one of the city gates where we could see the River Tajo.  I grew up near the Mississippi, so my inner Tom Sawyer kicked in and I joyfully crashed through the undergrowth toward the water.

“Where are you taking us!?” Lynn cried.

I ignored her until I stopped short at an orange plastic tape printed with “¡Cuidado!” every few inches.

“This must have been used to section off a path for a marathon,” I guessed.

“A murder, more likely,” Lynn responded.

When most people see things like this, they turn back.  I hopped over the tape and kept heading for the river bank.

“Where the hell are we going!?” Lynn asked, picking her way through the bushes behind me.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I just want to see the river.”  We reached the bank and stood looking at the muddy water.

“Well, just as you suspected—it’s a river,” Lynn said.

“Yep,” I replied, and we turned back toward the city.

There was time for one more museum, the intriguing-sounding Museum of the Visigoth Councils and Culture.  It was housed in the Church of San Romain, which had a small entry door set inside the giant-sized door that many churches have.

I’ve stopped mentioning how much entry tickets cost unless they vary substantially from the typical 4-5 euros.

There was a tiny glass booth just inside the door where an old man collected our €1 entry fee.  He gave us a piece of paper and we made for the exhibit but were commanded by him to stop at another booth three feet from the first one, where another old personage collected the piece of paper, stamped it, and gave us another piece of paper. Whew!  We were legal now.

The museum was worth the entry fee. There was this one display of something beautiful.

The rest was mainly Spanish signage. I have a hard time following historical narratives in English, much less in Spanish, so I am none the wiser about the Visigoths.

Synagogue of the Virgin Mary

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Have you ever been in the London Eye? If not, it’s a super sized ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames with a bird’s eye view of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament and much more. 

Imagine, being in the Eye, watching yesterday’s terrorist attack unfold. The confusion, the fear, maybe some twisted excitement, the plain-old inconvenience of being stuck up there until thd police gave the all clear. 

Will this attack hurt London’s tourist economy? I doubt it. No matter how many of these incidents happen, most of us have the capacity to believe it won’t happen to us.  And statistically, it won’t, so keep on traveling.  

Day Two in Toledo. Today we would visit the Synagogue of the Virgin Mary and the Mosque of Christ the Light.

“I can just hear the Christians saying, ‘There, we showed ‘em!’ as they nailed up the new signs,” I said.

The so-called synagogue which hadn’t been a synagogue in hundreds of years was just steps from our hotel.  The website, which I won’t link to here, makes it look like you could spend days there.  It was lovely, but there wasn’t much to it:

There was a nun in the back of the now-church, and she sort of floated through the place and out a side door.  We followed her, since there was nothing else to see in the main building, and she went into a small out building which we entered to our regret.

You know how you walk into a place and immediately wish you hadn’t? The nun was there, seated behind a table piled with books and pamphlets and art prints.  The walls were hung with drawings.  The nun was ecstatic, in the original sense of the word, “involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I was raised in a Catholic family but never felt Catholic. I explored various religions and somehow knew I was Jewish immediately upon beginning to study Judaism.  So I’ve been Jewish since I was 18, which is a long time ago.  I’m also an atheist, which, conveniently, isn’t incompatible with being Jewish.

All this is background to saying that—having been schooled by nuns for 14 years— when I saw this nun I knew her type.  In fact, she was a dead ringer for Sister Mara, my 8th grade teacher.  I recognized the glassy-eyes, the never failing smile, and most of all, the enthusiasm to share what she had discovered with others, whether they were interested or not.

Fervently religious, or mentally ill? They are often intertwined, regardless of the faith.  None of this was triggering Lynn, who has neither Catholic or Jewish baggage.

The art, pamphlets, and books were all by and about some guy—possibly still alive and living in a monastery or cave in the mountains—who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism after having a vision.  He was an artist, a poet, and (naturally) a visionary, the nun told me breathlessly in Español muy rapido.

The art reminded me of Peter Max (example below), which made me wonder if her visionary also took drugs, but it was executed like my three-year-old nephew’s drawings, which feature people with pumpkin heads and tooth-pick legs.

It was better than I am making it sound.  I wish I had taken a photo to show you but I didn’t want to demonstrate too much enthusiasm.  The nun had moved on to how Israel was wrapped up in the vision, so it was time to break in and say, “Thank you very much, it’s been fascinating.”

Even the tiniest tourist attraction in Spain has a gift shop, and the ex-synagogue one had this on display:

As usual, the non-Jewish author had used a photo of an Orthodox Jew at the Western Wall, instead of a picture of me, a much more typical Jew.

40 Quid for a Squid

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Lynn and I had a wander around Toledo. That’s the only way to approach it—as a wander— because there isn’t one straight street that runs for more than a city block.  Here is a photo of our battered map we consulted seven times a day, and still managed to get turned around:

Toledo is on a hill on a peninsula, so it made a great fortress in its day.  There’s a medieval wall surrounding it, occasionally punctuated by imposing gates:

We passed bakeries with marzipan and something baked that looked like a squid:

“It’s never a squid!” Lynn remarked. “What city would have a squid as a mascot?  We’re nowhere near the sea, either.”  We later learned it was a dragon, but I prefer to continue believing it’s a squid.

“I’ve got to buy one,” I insisted, “They’re so beautiful!”

“They’re 40 quid,” Lynn pointed out, using the British slang for a pound.  Ah, maybe not.

We passed shops full of swords, knives, scissors, and everything else that is sharp.  Sharp instruments are one thing Toledo is known for.  I made a note to buy Vince a good knife and also purchase swords for my nephews, who are three and seven years old.  Let you think I’m out to help them murder each other, there were plenty of wooden and foam varieties on offer.

Toledo is also famous for damascene, a craft in which gold wire is worked into a black background to make plates, jewelry, and knick knacks.  It was spectacular to see shop windows full of it.

We accidentally found the main square, which had a Burger King with a bathroom. You had to buy something in order to get the code to use it.  By now it was after noon so I didn’t mind snarfing down a small cheeseburger while Lynn tried a mango shake.  A mango shake—it sounded so exotic and healthy, but according to Lynn it was mainly just sugary.

Toledo, like Granada, had a “touristic trolley.”  This one was easier to buy tickets for and board, so in five minutes off we went.  The trolley couldn’t navigate the narrow lanes of Toledo central, so it exited one of the city gates and stopped to let us off for scenic views from across the river.  It really is a romantically beautiful city, and the sky even cleared on one side for a few minutes.

We worked up an appetite saying, “Ooh” and “Aah” so we walked into the first restaurant off the main square that we saw.  I don’t remember what Lynn had, but this would be the best meal I had on my entire trip.  I don’t even remember what my main course was, but the starter was venison carpaccio, and it was fantastic.

I never knew that venison could be so tender, so flavorful. Maybe the title of our map, “Toledo: Capital Española de la Gastronomía,” wasn’t just marketing bluff speak.

I had wondered how we would fill four days in Toledo.  There were no world-famous attractions there like in Madrid or Granada.

I needn’t have worried. The map offered 29 attractions, and we made it to 13 of them. This afternoon, after my cosmic experience with venison, we chose to visit the Cathedral.  Even though it was far and away the most massive building in the city and had a stupendously tall tower that could be seen from most vantage points, it took us the better part of an hour to find the entry.

It was worth the effort.  We spent hours there; my favorite thing was the dozens of grotesques carved in wood that lined the seats where the big wigs used to sit.  The one-eyed one was particularly creepy.

There was nothing about them on audio guide, which mainly went on about the architectural features and historical dates. If I knew I could remember any of it, it could be really interesting, but after touring dozens of churches in the last few weeks I knew it would all be a blur.

Glazed Olambrillas

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

If Lynn was as disappointed in the hotel breakfast buffet as I was, she didn’t show it, and it didn’t prevent us from holding our usual hour-long breakfast conversation.

Lynn had already informed me that she would boycott travel to the U.S. while Trump was in office.  She and her husband were contemplating a trip to Helsinki and Russia.  She had a friend, a former colleague from when she worked for Nokia, who might be interested in joining them.  Might I be interested in joining them?  It would be some anniversary of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ … birth, death … I can’t remember, and Helsinki would spruce up its concert halls for a special slate of performances in his honor.  They would meet her Nokia friend in Helsinki, then take the train to Moscow and on to St. Petersburg to visit the Hermitage Museum.

“But wait,” I challenged her, “You’ll go to Russia, which has a despotic ruler, but you won’t come to the U.S.?”

“But you lot chose Trump,” Lynn replied. Ouch.

We talked about our travel bucket lists.  Both lists include Russia, specifically the Hermitage, and I would love to make a pilgrimage to Tolstoy’s house.  Mine list also includes: some sort of boat trip through the Amazon, a yoga/meditation spa retreat somewhere in southeast Asia possibly on a lagoon, hiking through Japan and eating sushi along the way instead of gorp, and—I recently snorkeled for the first time in Belize—anywhere that offers snorkeling on a reef gets extra points.

“I’d also like to spend some time living on a narrow boat to see how that would be,” I added.  “I looked at house boats in St. Paul a couple years ago.  They’re beautiful inside, lots of gorgeous woods, and you don’t pay property taxes!  But it’s Minnesota … in the winter you have to shrink wrap your boat in plastic or set bubblers around it to keep it from being crushed by ice.”

Lynn appeared to shudder; she is not a fan of boats, especially ones where you have to walk up a gang plank while the boat is rocking front to back and side to side.

“I quite fancy going to Ethiopia,” she said.  We had discussed the possibility of meeting up there the previous year, when I had thought I might go for work.  Alas, that didn’t materialize.  Then a state of emergency was declared due to protests by the country’s ethnic groups in which hundreds of people were killed.  Our talk pivoted to ethnic conflicts, war, international development, torture, and genocide.

“Well, that’s a good cue to move along to the Transito museum, isn’t it?” I suggested.  And so we did.

It’s actually called the Synagogue of El Transito.  It was founded by a guy named Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, who was treasurer to the king of Castile in the mid-14th Century.  After the Jews were expelled a hundred and fifty years later, it was renamed the Church of the Transit of the Virgin.

Thankfully the place was only steps from our hotel so we were able to find it without getting lost. It was like a very, very small version of the Alhambra, with what I would call Moorish designs.  This made sense because most of the work on it was carried out by Muslim craftsman—back in the day when we all got along.  You know, that one day.

There was an attached museum with very, very detailed written history of the Jews in Spain, which I skipped, and a collection of Sephardi religious and household items in what used to be the women’s balcony (In Orthodox synagogues, women sat separate from men in a balcony or behind a screen where they can’t be seen, and they aren’t counted in the 10 attendees required to hold a service.)  This is a circumcision chair.  Don’t ask me how it’s used.

There were steps leading down to the foundation, which promised some marvelous archeological find but which contained only this sign:

Glazed olambrillas? They sounded tasty, whatever they were.

We walked out to explore the city and find some lunch.