Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Trip of a Lifetime...The Couple from La Mancha

This guy is my hero.

From his grizzled appearance, to his misplaced sense of chivalry, to his stubborn Rozinante, and his choice of simple yet poetic companions... me, he symbolizes all the hope of a better world than the one we live in.

For this reason, when given the chance to spend the day in Toledo, in the heart of La Mancha...I, of course, jumped at the opportunity.

Well...that's not the ONLY reason...

Toledo is a stunning medieval city perched on top of a hill and surrounded on three sides by a river. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It was here on this hill before Spain was Spain...and was actually the capitol of Spain for centuries before a King moved the capitol to Madrid. It is still the religious heart of the country.

Unlike the grid-planned cities inspired by the Romans, Toledo was primarily planned by the Moors, who believed that a city with extremely narrow, twisting streets would be more defensible...

...after all, who wants to bring an army into a city with streets no more than 3 men wide, that twist and turn like a great cobblestone serpent, with no apparent rhyme or reason?

Add a HUGE stone wall several feet thick with turrets and towers, and the natural moat created by the river, and your have a highly protected city that has never been taken by force...only by siege.

Toledo's twisting, hilly topography makes you feel as if you are always walking uphill, and the high walls of ancient buildings make it impossible to see distant landmarks that might help you orientate yourself. For this reason, the guide was adamant about is sticking together...because getting lost in Toledo is VERY easy to do.

However, that's EXACTLY what Jason and I wanted to do...get lost.

We wanted to spend the day zigzagging and meandering, stumbling upon hidden treasures and secrets, and unveiling the arts and craftmanship that Toledo is famous for...pottery, damascene jewelry, mazapan, and most famously...Spanish steel.

But as we wandered the alleys and streets with our guide, we saw what she meant...we would be walking down one treacherously steep cobblestone path, and suddenly, she'd open a great wooden door in a wall, we'd walk through and be on a different street altogether , going in an entirely different direction.

Instead of making us feel paranoid about getting turned around, it made Jason and I all the more keen to peel away from the group.

One of the first places we visited was the Cathedral of Toledo. After all the cathedrals and churches and museums we had toured and admired in both Barcelona and Madrid...there was none to compare with this Cathedral. It took 250 years to build, from about 1226 to 1493, making it one of the oldest buildings we saw.

It was the most ornate as well...the high Gothic architecture, the lofty interior...every surface seemed to be made of rich walnut, gleaming alabaster, and gilded in gold.

And then...there was the Sacristy.

The Sacristy is a private room where the bishops and cardinals would get dressed, and has only recently been opened to the public. Crammed inside this tiny space were more famous paintings by famous artists than I saw in any museum...including the Prado. Every inch of every wall, floor to ceiling, was covered.

This small room housed El Grecos "El Expolio", and masterpieces by Goya, Titian, Mengs, van Dyke, Velazquez, Ribera, Caravaggio, and Bellini. I stood for many precious moments...struck dumb by a small painting by Raphael...hung at chest level and squeezed between larger, more ornate pieces, seemingly added there as an if they had no place else to display it. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen...

If there was one room I could have died happy in...I can safely say that it is there. When I'm old and gray, wheel me back to Toledo and stretch me out in the Sacristy...rotate me every few hours so I can see and ponder it all...and let me slip into oblivion among masters...

After I was forcefully removed from this room, we continued on our journey to see many more churches, buildings, and beautiful sites in Toledo...but as we traveled, we started to get antsy. We were running out of time and had some very specific things to see...and so, when our little group stopped for a break (some of our entourage were not accustomed to the cardiovascular intensity the terrain in Toledo was providing), we peeled off to look for the main two things we knew we HAD to buy in Toledo...swords and mazapan.

Being famous for the production of Spanish steel, sword and weaponry shops abounded in Toledo...but we had heard that the BEST mazapan came from Santo Tome. We had seen Santo Tome when we entered the city...but now didn't know where we were in relation to that point. So we opted to start with the steel...

...besides, the mazapan was MY thing...Jason came to Toledo with the express purpose of buying a sword...and since this was his was really important to me that he get what he wanted most...

So, we teamed up with another couple, and backtracked through the twisting alleys, up a great hill, through a door in the wall, around a building or two, back down a few steps, until we re-located a shop that had caught our eye. Inside, Jason haggled and negotiated, and purchased a large two handed sword patterned after the Knights Templar and made right there in Toledo. It had to be shipped home (no WAY we were getting that sucker on a plane...can you imagine explaining it at customs?).

Once done, we had to race back to find the group. We passed several convents, all with hand-written signs that said "Vente Dulces". I thought if I couldn't buy Santo Tomes mazapan, I should buy it from the nuns of Toledo...but we could not stop, we were out of time...and soldiered on to catch up with the group.

After several more stops, we came to our lunch destination on the outer wall of Toledo, outside the cities gate. We knew that after lunch, we would be heading home, and I was disappointed about not getting the mazapan.

Jason, ever my hero, seemed to know about where we were, and was confidant he could get us back to the square where we saw the shop. So, we asked our friends to hold a spot at the table for our lunches, and went to our guide to explain what we wanted to do.

She was not encouraging.

"You cannot do this, " she said with a rich accent. "It is straight need to catch a taxi. You will never make it in time."

She tried pleading, chastising, and even had the manager of the house offer to order it for us and have it delivered. But Jason was adamant...No, we wanted to go ourselves.

With a dramatic sigh of resignation, she warned us if we missed the bus, it would be a VERY expensive cab ride back to Madrid...and with that, we took off.

 We raced around the corner, and sure enough, found the city gate. We had driven through it upon arrival in the bus...and it was at least a mile and a half to the top, and almost STRAIGHT uphill.

Jason looked at me and said: "Ya know...I know why she didn't want us to go. A lot of people in our party were struggling with the tour around the city. I'm sure she sees that a lot...out-of-shape Americans who don't want to exercise."

"But we're not like that, are we?" I said.

Jason smiled. "Nope..." he said. Then he hunched down in a half crouch and said: "Are you ready?"

I pulled my hair back in a ponytail and mirrored his crouch.

"Let's Go!!" he said...

...and we ran.

The cobblestones gave us a little lip to push off from as we climbed up the hills, like miniature steps on a giant Stairmaster. The residents of Toledo who were carefully picking their way up or down the hill looked at us with amazement and a fair amount of amusement...crazy Americans!!

But we high-stepped it up that hill in less than 10 minutes, hot and sweaty at the top, and jubilant in our conquest of Toledos formidable terrain. I found Santo Tome, purchased an insane amount of mazapan, and we reverse raced back down the hill, arriving back at the restaurant, sweaty and flushed, just as our companions were being served their salads.

After lunch (which was one of the best meals we had...large and simple and delicious), we saw our guide again. She saw my bulging bag from Santo Tome and said: "Oh!! You made it!!"

Hopefully she'll never underestimate Americans again.

And was the mazapan worth it?

...ohhhh yeeaaahhhh...

Toledo was our FAVORITE part of the trip...the most beautiful, romantic, inspiring place we had been. In my mind, it was everything that symbolized Spain...

And I even got to rendezvous with my hero... could it possibly be any better than that?

POST NOTE: About 2 weeks after arriving home, Jason received a very large rectangular package in the mail.

 Mission Accomplished...

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