far too much writing, far too many photos

[Continued from entry of June 3]

Due to the speed at which we hurtled down the highway, we made it to the outskirts of Toledo pretty damn quickly. Outskirts like that of many Spanish towns/small cities — not ugly, not pretty. Businesses and apartment buildings: practical, undistinguished. And as we drove along local roads, the old city gradually appeared ahead — a large sprawling redoubt, an eye-catching, ascending concentration of winding medieval streets and buildings that cover something too imposing, too extensive to be called a hill — enclosed by an impressively-sized ancient wall. An archway entrance faces what is now a rotary which channeled traffic to the left and the right, both four-lane roads that skirt the steeply-rising slope of the land, heading off around the curve of the land and out of sight.

V. pulled over to the curb just ahead of where the rotary gave out to the right to point out some details in the archway’s stonework — the city crest: two-headed eagle, all that. One of two cops standing near the archway noticed us and immediately headed in our direction, stepping out into traffic that wisely gave him a wide berth. He strode directly across the circle toward us, his expression all business. V. hastily put the car into gear, we took off, heading to the right around the old city’s northern section.

A deep, broad gorge runs along the west side of the city, channeling the Tajo River through fairly wild-looking terrain, winding into view then spreading out and over a long spillway, the scene reminding me of a browner version of Vermont (minus medieval community/tourist trap, of course). The road we drove along crossed a bridge then ran parallel to the river, providing a dramatic view of the gorge (the river a substantial distance below, after millennia of slowly, gradually carving its way through that passage) and the slope thrusting skyward from there, layered with buildings that stretched successively on up. Spectacular enough that I simply stared, my mouth just about hanging open.

V. found parking on a side street, we got out and made our way to the bridge that stretches across the gorge. I’ve had other opportunities to make this trip in the past, but Toledo has always been described to me as packed with tourists, overrun with tourists, which always put me off. For whatever reason, the place was anything but overrun with people this day. There were folks about, but in comparatively small numbers. A few stood clustered around the western end of the bridge, mostly inside the shadows of its soaring entrance archway. A few walked across the bridge in either direction. Some folks headed up the upward-slanting streets of the town’s west side ahead of us. But not a lot, not a suffocating number by any stretch. Why? Got me. We’re talking about a beautiful Saturday at the end of May, the kind of day tailormade for throngs of frothing tourists. Made no sense to me, but resulted in a quiet, relatively peaceful first exposure to this beautiful place.

Narrow streets winding up and down inclines. Old, old buildings everywhere. The sky alive with swifts soaring in every direction, their high calls resonating in the warm air. Turning corners sometimes lead to small courtyards, a passage on the opposite side of the space leading off at sharp angles. Large plazas hove into view, more people suddenly around, restaurants or touristy shops grouped around parts of the periphery. Many of the streets had long swaths of white fabric suspended along their length, a couple of stories up, providing relief from the intense sunlight along with a feeling of being somewhere vaguely Arabic. Which is not far from the case. Before what’s called the Reconquest of Spain and the purging of the Jews and Moors by Ferdinand and Isabella, los Reyes Católicos (the Catholic Kings), in the late 1400’s, Toledo was an example of a society in which the three faiths co-existed prosperously, harmoniously. There are Arabic elements in the architecture, as well as Gothic, Baroque and others I couldn’t name, and the combination of it all is striking.

And through it all, V. and I are wandering around, blabbering in Spanish and English. He’s pretty much taken control, turning me here and there, me going in whatever direction I get pulled. Mr. Pliable, putty in your hands.

We paused in one small plaza where V. wanted to show me an old, old Jewish temple, now a museum. Door locked, sign informing us that it’s closed due to work being done inside. Thwarted, but recovering quickly, V. dragged me down some nearby narrow streets and around a corner where we immediately got on line to take a look at a fresco by El Greco. A line composed of: tourists! Bunches of them! Spaniards and Germans — this was where the rascals had been hiding. The fresco in the foyer of an old church (the foyer: austere, except for the fresco; the church itself: wildly ornate, in disorienting contrast to the foyer) had originally been commissioned by a local bigwig to show how pious he was (not that there’s anything wrong with that! spending money in ways that support local arty types is a fine way to squander your riches!), turning out to be the largest painting I’ve ever seen by El Greco, and after dragging my butt through any number of museums and royal/religious institutions in this part of the world, I’ve seen a bunch of his stuff. A 40ish Spanish woman stood in front of the big metal railing that keeps the great unwashed (us) away from the fresco, talking about El Greco and this particular piece to a restless crowd mostly composed of a large, unruly group of Germans. Not many of whom spoke Spanish and therefore blabbered among themselves until the rest of us who wanted to hear this poor woman got them to quiet down. Which actually worked out well. She spoke loudly and clearly, a couple of young German women translated, and the shpiel turned out to be interesting.

As the guide talked, gesturing with her right hand, her left hand held two items: un abanico (a fan, an item that’s become a fairly normal sight in the recent warmer weather) and a cell phone. Pretty much summarizing what some might call the old Spain and the new Spain in one neat package.

[This piece in progress -- more to come]

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