This start of this week was mildly traumatic for a variety of reasons. On Monday morning I taught a class of 14 year old boys that nearly left me in tears with their completely unrestrained sexually aggressive behaviour towards me. Afterwards, a usually placid male teacher (whose presence in the room did nothing to prevent the stares and whispers) erupted with anger, telling me ‘these are the kind of disgusting people that the government is spending our money on – and why? For what?’ I actually found this rare display of emotion reassuring – at least the threatening behaviour wasn’t just in my head. I arrived home that afternoon with barely enough time to make a cup of tea and catch my breath before my kitchen was filled with workmen who were there to replace the –still broken – oven. I sat in the living room doing my work for the following day and left them to their own devices. My reverie was interrupted by a stressed-looking man in the doorway, asking me for an ‘aspiradora’. I had no idea what he went until I followed him into the kitchen and realised why the man was looking so tense. Every surface, from the floor, to the wall tiles, to inside the drawers, was covered with a thick layer of grey dust. When I told the man that we didn’t in fact own a vacuum cleaner – which was what he had been requesting – he shrugged and carried on filing the surfaces. The machista culture which still lingers in parts of Spanish society was particularly evident to me when, ten minutes later, the men packed up their things and left the flat, leaving the little English girl alone to clean up. After spending 45 minutes sweeping piles of wood shavings, I was totally done with the day. I crawled into bed and drowned my sorrows in a cup of tea and a packet of Oreos.
As pleasant as the moment of Oreo-based indulgence was, I decided that more decisive and less fattening action was needed to brighten up the week. Because of the ‘puente’ (Bank Holiday), the working week ended on Wednesday. I therefore determined to make good use of the extra day by visiting another city, as I had spent over a month and a half in Spain and was yet to leave the region of Madrid. The most obvious choice, both for ease and attractiveness, was Toledo. So, come Saturday, I grabbed a willing travel companion, and, studiously ignoring the pouring rain, headed to Atocha Renfe to catch a sickeningly early high-speed train. The plan hit a slight snag when the train we’d been planning to catch was fully booked – apparently we weren’t the only ones determined not to let the weather spoil our sight-seeing plans. Not to be deterred, we killed time before the next train by wandering around the maze that is Atocha train station and treating ourselves to a second breakfast. When we eventually found the right platform, scanned our bags through the elaborate security system (a sobering reminder of the 2004 train bombings) and hopped onto the train, we got a little bit overexcited about the plush surroundings. Compared to England, transport in Spain is a dream. The train was huge, the seats were comfortable and there was enough leg room for a Victoria’s Secret model. All this and it departed and arrived exactly on time. It was ace.
The train pulled into Toledo’s train station (a beautiful building with stained glass windows) and we hopped onto an express bus to take us to the centre of the city. Throughout the 10 minute journey we resolutely rubbed steam off the windows and peered through, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed medieval architecture. Alas, the towering peaks were completely obscured by an enormous and rather threatening raincloud. Nonetheless, we remained optimistic as we stepped off the bus, umbrellas up and ready to explore. If you ever visit Toledo, there is one key thing you should remember: practical footwear. The city is entirely composed of steep, narrow, cobbled streets, which are taxing at the best of times but which in a thunder storm become pretty much lethal. I spent most of the day waddling down the hills in an awkward semi-crouch, arms outstretched, trying not to fall on my face. That said, the winding streets may be a logistical nightmare, but they are undeniably aesthetically pleasing. Toledo is a really beautiful old city, with a fascinating history – even if you’re not the type to take the academic approach. It’s often known as the City of Three Cultures, as Christians, Jews and Muslims famously coexisted for centuries within the city walls. The plurality of traditions is obvious in the architecture and the city is littered with incredibly beautiful churches, synagogues and mosques. The 15th century Gothic cathedral is particularly impressive – although at 8 euros a ticket to go inside, I’m basing my judgement of it solely on its external appearance. At first, we made a noble effort to follow a walking tour laid out for us in my trusty Lonely Planet Guidebook, but the winding streets soon got the better of us and we contented ourselves with wandering blindly around the city, occasionally stumbling on gems, from enormous architectural structures like the alcázar (a 16th century fortress) to a workshop where you can watch people making traditional Toledo pottery. Once, whilst searching for the San Juan de los Reyes monastery (one of Toledo’s most famous sights), we stumbled across a raised walkway with incredible views over the city and beyond. Remarkably, it appeared to be off the tourist trail and we had the place entirely to ourselves. For the first time, the rain became an advantage; although the view was partially obscured by cloud, the gloomy isolation made the moment feel pretty special.
After staring out over the hills of Extremadura for a while, we strolled on through the city, eventually stumbling back onto the well-trodden path towards the monastery. I wasn’t as immediately impressed by the monastery as I was by the cathedral. It was certainly an imposing structure but I wasn’t instantly enthralled. However, we had time to kill, and so we paid the -much more reasonable- 2 euros to look inside and, refusing to be put off by the rather creepy skeleton positioned over the doorway, went to have an explore. Here too, the rain came into its own. As we wandered around the cool stone cloisters, the air was filled with the scent of orange blossom from the small garden in the centre and the noise of rushing water echoed around the damp walls. There was something about the place which was intrinsically tranquil. Even after exploring the chapel – which was as beautiful and peaceful as expected – I felt myself drawn back to the cloisters. We stayed there for a long time and I left feeling strangely soothed.
After stopping for lunch at a small cafe, we decided to browse the shops to find the best deals on mazapán (marzipan). As well as being notorious for its religious tolerance, Toledo is most famous for two things; making swords and marzipan. The swords I wasn’t so bothered about, but the marzipan got me really excited. As you may have gathered if you have read any of my other posts, I’m a bit of a food fanatic; I wasn’t going to pass up this chance to sample a famous local delicacy, and one of my personal favourite sweet treats. Luckily for me, I wasn’t short of choice; marzipan is a big local money-spinner and almost every shop has got in on the act. Even the nuns advertise their homemade marzipan with signs hanging outside the churches. After much perusing, we passed a shop whose window display consisted of a giant marzipan model of the Toledo cathedral. Admiring their dedication, we decided that they were the deserving winners of our marzipan money. I left with a little packet containing four marzipan pieces and good intentions to wait until I got home before sampling some. Naturally, by the time we got back to the main square, I had run out of patience and tucked in. It was delicious – a slightly crumblier texture and recognisably almondy taste than the shop-bought stuff. Highly recommended if you’re already a fan, although I’m sorry to say that if you don’t like marzipan then it’s not different enough from the familiar product to convert you (we tested this theory; my friend practically spat her tiny nibble out on the floor).
At this point, we were nearly out of time; as the rain seemed to be easing up, we decided to stroll back to the train station rather than catching the bus. And thank goodness we did – taking the rather treacherous-looking path alongside a busy main road out of the city, we turned a corner to be confronted by a castle on top of a hill, which plunged down to a rocky ravine and a churning river. Further down the road was a medieval pedestrian bridge across the river, flanked by two watch towers. It was truly stunning and gave us a real feel for what the original city had been like before the concrete invasion. The realisation that we had nearly come and gone without seeing the front of the old city seemed to confirm my theory that walking is always the best form of transport.
That being said, as we snuggled down into our seats on the warm and cushtie train and sped back towards Madrid, I was inclined to disagree with myself.