Toledo was wonderfully unexpected in how relatively near it is to Madrid and in the density of its well-preserved history and general loveliness.
We stayed about two full days in Toledo, which is enough time to see the main sites. I recommend staying at a hotel inside the city walls. We stayed at Fontecruz, a boutique hotel that’s only 200 meters from the Cathedral. The front desk was very helpful, answering our questions about tourist sites and restaurant recommendations. Our traditional style room had a king bed and a large modern bathroom. It was clean and comfortable. We were in Toledo during off-season, so it was quiet for the most part (except for some door slams and the sound of footsteps above). The hotel location was excellent. We arrived late afternoon and put our bags in our room, then headed out to start exploring the town.
Toledo is incredibly picturesque. It’s a living museum. People still live here, although a lot of property is vacant/for sale. Part of the fun is wandering through the old, cobblestone streets and being surprised at what appears. The city streets have their own logic; they’re not arranged in a grid, but they will guide you from one end of town to the other. It’s like walking through a maze. We walked from one of the city gates and eventually ended up back on a familiar thoroughfare near our hotel.
Two factors to keep in mind: this is a small town, and this is Spain. Business hours are not continuous during the day. Some places (including museums) shut down for a couple hours during lunch, and some eateries don’t open until late evening for dinner. Even the pharmacies keep odd hours. We had a laugh when we showed up at the Visigoth museum mid-afternoon. Turns out it was closed from 2:30 to 4 p.m., and at the door to the museum, someone had put a sticker changing 2:30 to 2:15. Looks like they wanted 15 more min. for lunch, ha ha.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up to how to get to Toledo. You can catch a train from the Atocha station in downtown Madrid. It’s a smooth process. The trains are on time, they’re well-maintained and spacious, and the ride is less than 30 min.
When we rolled into Toledo, I was immediately impressed by the look of the train station. It had the characteristic intricate geometry of Moorish design and stained glass windows characteristic of Christian cathedrals. These were instant clues to the deep, rich religious history of Toledo, which has served as a major site for the world’s three big religious: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Just thinking about the depth of this history is mind boggling. It’s amazing to explore such a place.
You can take a cab to get into the old town from the train station. I admit, I had to practice patience. When we didn’t immediately spot a cab, I started getting nervous, but all it took was about 5 min. to see a cab along the road. The experience served as a reminder to calm down and not expect instant gratification for everything. It’s an adjustment from go-go-go U.S. city life.
The cab ride into town came with gorgeous views of the Tagus River and the surrounding cliffs as the cab drove higher up the hill. There are Roman ruins in Toledo, so I imagine the ancient Romans stood in that very same river, using it for their needs.
As in Madrid, we had wonderful culinary experiences in Toledo. The first night in town, we hit up a bar close to our hotel, on the border of the Jewish Quarter. It was only about 7 p.m., early for Spanish diners. We saw a few people come in and out for evening drinks, and they seemed to be locals. We were the only ones sitting in the dining room, apart from an elderly couple. We ordered a plate of jamon Iberico, and I cannot get over how unbelievably good this jamon was. It didn’t have a normal porky flavor. The shavings had a beautiful sheen, and they tasted like parmesan had been infused into the meat. As I was chewing, I could’ve sworn I was biting into micro bits of something chunky, like acorns. This was the best jamon we had in Spain. And it wasn’t a fancy place. It was a regular old local bar. Amazing.
I noticed that the locals like deer. We had deer tostas at two places. It didn’t taste particularly special, but we bought a can of deer pate at a local store to take home as a souvenir. At one restaurant where we had a kind of deer jerky tosta with cream cheese, we also ordered a tasty cod omelette. The ingredients were simple–shredded cod, potato, cheese and egg–all elevated as a cohesive dish by perfect proportions. We also had beef cheek with gravy at this restaurant, a peasant-y dish that I liked.
Two bars are especially memorable for me. One was called Flora, if I remember correctly. It’s along a public square, across the street from a working church. It stands out because the night was young, and we were the only two at the bar (plus a young couple making out in a corner table in the background). It was the middle of winter in a lovely old Spanish town, and I had that warm, fuzzy feeling inside. I ordered local vermouth, and hubby had beer and a local red wine. The tapas had plain ingredients, but the creativity was evident. There was a surprisingly tasty Spam tapa and a tapa with a cod-potato-mayo mix. Nothing fancy, but the ideas and the flavors were good. I loved the olives. The bar top had several jars full of them, and I was happy whenever the waitress would give us a small bowl filled with olives from different jars. Yum.
The other bar that stands out was a slim place that only had room for a few seats. The street was dim and quiet, so when we found this bar, it was like finding a secret. There was a French couple when we walked in, being entertained by the cheerful chef, who was dressed in black chef garb and had a big Hemingway beard. We had local wine with another creative tapa (there are so many variations of tapas in Spain!) that was slathered with a potato and cabbage puree. Half of the counter was dedicated to ready-to-cook food. You could have it there for the chef to cook or take it home. A fun little spot.