HISTORIC BEAUTY: The old city of Toledo over the Tagus River.
HISTORIC BEAUTY: The old city of Toledo over the Tagus River. SeanPavonePhoto

Lost and found in Toledo

TOLEDO, about an hour's drive from Madrid, is one of Spain's most historic and lovely cities. It makes for a different look at Spain than the coastal regions to which most visitors flock.

However it's best to let a guide take you, judging by our experience driving into the town's old quarter.

Toledo has a baffling street plan, almost as though it was designed to take the unsuspecting tourist on a maze-like tour of every impossibly narrow street, an obligatory way to familiarise yourself with the town.

We spent hours trying to find our hotel in the old town, which should not have been hard as it was opposite the mighty Gothic cathedral, one of the most splendid in Spain and so dominating even a near-blind person would be hard-pressed to miss it.

Maybe it was the tangle of narrow streets, the small openings in walls that looked nothing more than walkways. But it could have been four of us in the car - three backstreet drivers giving loud and utterly useless instructions to the driver.

Around and around the old town we slowly drove, peering out the windows for a hotel sign, often having to stop for half an hour in one of the narrow streets when a local (we presumed) had just stopped, put the hazard blinkers on and wandered off for coffee.

On our 10th, or possibly 20th, drive around the old town we began to recognise shops and cafes. Old blokes sitting on small benches waved to us. One shop became familiar for its steel armour display, a knight in full regalia with breast plate and Ned Kelly-like bucket helmet.

"There's that steel bloke again,” we chorused as we drove past him yet again, splendid and silver in the doorway.

Finally one of us got out of the car determined to find the hotel on foot.

"We may never see you again,” we shouted after him as he strode off angrily.

But we did. On our 21st round of the town, there he was standing on a small corner looking just as puzzled as before.

Finally we parked the car near the cathedral and explored on foot and there was our small hotel, tucked away behind a cluster of medieval buildings with a nondescript door.

The manager greeted us effusively.

"You are Australians,” he beamed.

"We had a television crew from Australia here, a beautiful woman, beautiful, oh so beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, very beautiful.”

We ascertained it was Catriona Rowntree from Getaway (although we could have been wrong with our limited Spanish and his overenthusiastic English).

Once settled and with a glass or two of excellent Spanish wine under our collective belt, frustrations were forgotten and we walked the few steps across the square to the cathedral. Gold, gold and more gold - and a dazzling collection of art by French, Flemish and local artists. So much beauty, so much money.

Apart from Mannerist artist El Greco, whose many paintings hang in the cathedral, Toledo is known for its steel-making (our knight in shining armour being a good example). The sword wielded so flamboyantly by Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai was made in Toledo.

Not in the market for sword buying, we explored the town, now so recognisable to us on foot and very charming. Every cafe was serving paella to a line-up of hungry customers. We joined them because they all had a large pan entirely to themselves.

Sited on top of a dramatic gorge overlooking the Rio Tajo, the town is gloriously preserved and a drawcard for its cultural wonders, legacy of 2500 years of mixed history where for centuries Christians, Muslims and Jews shared the city in harmony.

Toledo is worthy of your visitation - give yourself time to stay overnight and explore the back streets and join the locals. Just make sure a guide gets you there first.

Read Ann's musings at annrickard.com


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