Jason Heppenstall travels to Toledo – the “Rome of Spain” – and ends up in a Brit bar like no other
AFTER two days on a British car ferry in the Bay of Biscay trying to spot elusive whales, I was in need of some firm ground to steady my legs and some decent Spanish food and culture to re-centre my senses. I sat at the rain-sodden docks at Bilbao, a map of Spain on my knee, and picked a target. On a two-day drive down to Andalucía, Toledo, situated bang slap in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula, seemed as good a place as any.
Travelling across the vast plains of Castilla-La Mancha makes one feel immensely small. Nevertheless, the modern motorway network makes even vast landscapes manageable and I was able to pass by Madrid in the early afternoon. When Toledo appeared on a hill on the horizon, it was much the same view as travellers must have seen for centuries.
Not very many foreigners have heard of Toledo. I know this because I saw only a handful during my 24-hour stay in this, the most regal of Spanish cities. The city does not really do foreigners. Menus are still, thankfully, in Spanish and it is Spanish tourists that keep this place alive.
Food for the soul
I took a room on the outskirts of town, next to the bullring. After a brief siesta I headed out on foot to explore the city and make the most of my brief stay. The old walled city is a UNESCO monument of world interest to humanity and is approached along a wide thoroughfare bordered by flower filled parks. Passing through the immense stone gates one can imagine the battles that have occurred in times past over this citadel-city that features so prominently in the blood-and-bibles slew of Iberian history. It was the Hispanic Romans who were here first, finding it a suitable spot to build an Iberian capital. Later, the Catholic Visigoth kings lived here, until their empire decayed and they were vulnerable to the Moors when they invaded in the eighth century. The city accumulated power and, when the Catholics re-conquered, it was recognised by the Pope as the seat of the Church in Spain. A period of tranquillity followed with Muslims, Jews and Christians living harmoniously, until Ferdinand and Isabella brought their firebrand theological dictatorship to Spain and forced conversions ensued. From here Toledo went into a tailspin of decline and the capital was moved to Madrid.
But I was too hungry to care about history that day. I needed lunch. After a couple of weeks in England I was beginning to realise that living in Spain has made my body reorganise itself at some base molecular level and that I craved the Spanish dining experience like a junkie craves a needle. I wandered around a narrow cobbled warren of streets until I came across an innocuous stone doorway with a brass-framed menu next to it. Perfect. Venturing inside I was astonished to find a large Spanish colonial type courtyard with porticos supported by vast Corinthian columns. The place was busy with diners who knew they were onto a good thing. I took a seat.
The menu consisted of delicately-cooked rice with meat and pan-fried vegetables, chicken muslos al chilindron and cool slices of watermelon. A rich, fruity red wine and home-made bread perfected a meal that set me back 11 euros. After the Ramadan of the ferry journey (30 euros for some over-cooked roast beef and potatoes? I’d rather eat bar crisps) I was back in Spanish gastronomic heaven. What a find! [Casón de Los López de Toledo – www.casontoledo.com]
Thus fortified, I ventured out to explore the city. Situated on a hill and with a river running on three sides makes for a strenuous peregrinatory traipse. There is little point carrying a map in a medieval city, unless you really relish a challenge. The best course of action is to simply dive in, allowing curious alleys to lead you astray, alluring vistas tempt you up steps and enticing shops and bars consume you. Most of the streets are too narrow to allow traffic, except for the ubiquitous moped, so it is really a ramblers’ treasure trove.
One unmissable stop on my hastily cobbled together itinerary was the cathedral. I just made it in before closing time and spent an hour or so gaping at the eye-popping richness of decoration that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in one of the great Catholic cathedrals. If the original effect was to overwhelm the peasantry into religious submission then no expense was spared on this great temple of awe.
A knight in shinning armour
Emerging stiff-necked and humbled (even an atheist can share in the eerie feeling of divine serenity such buildings inspire) I decided to head for bar and top up my sin levels. The Plaza de Zocodover is the epicentre of the old town and has several outdoor bars at which to sit and drink beer and eat marzipan. The Toledans are crazy for marzipan and numerous windows display creations of the sweet almondy paste made with varying degrees of artistic professionalism.
Standing sentinel on almost every street, one can hardly fail to notice the knights. Stiff backed and silvery, these warriors of old stand to attention clutching swords and pole axes and little notices are sellotaped to their chests saying No Tocar. It was a kind of challenge and so I touched one of them. Half expecting him to step forward and cleave my troubadour chulo asunder, I discovered him to be, having raised his visor, as hollow as a party conference political promise. Most of these knights of the empty chest were guarding souvenir shops selling an impressive range of full scale medieval armoury. There was nothing fake about the broad swords, maces, spiked mallets and iron maidens on offer in these shops. Should a future war turn out to be medieval in style, Toledo will be the arms fair of the world.
I walked out of the city in the fading sunlight down to the river, which cuts a small gorge at the base of the rock. Here, darting into the undergrowth, wild partridges seemed to be living remarkably undisturbed lives, which is ironic when you consider this is Toledo’s eating bird of choice and appears on most menus. The river is glassy and clear and from its banks you can see the full glory of Toledo crowing the rock with the setting sun turning the walls of the sandstone buildings to pure gold.
Later on I went for another meal, this time sitting outside a cosy restaurant on a busy passageway. I eavesdropped on some American tourists, a group of Harvard professors on a Grand Tour, sitting at a nearby table. One of them said “I don’t care where else we go as long as we see Granada, Seville and Órgiva,” I did a double take. Had I heard right? He went on to explain to his travelling companions that Órgiva was “zany little town” where a “crazy English guy” lives with a flock of sheep and a parrot. I could tell his companions were not sold on the idea but the professor, grey and bearded, seemed resolute in his plans.
At night the streets really take on a medieval feel. Some are lit by the flickering flames of torchlight and the steely gray cobbles become black. I walked into the maze near the top of the hill, searching out the bizarre. And soon I found it: Toledo’s only British bar. But this was no normal Brit bar. The British colonial era was its motif and it was run by Spaniards and, no, they had never heard of a pint of bitter. Every wall was crammed with assorted oddments from a time when most of the map was pink and the only good Zulu was a dead Zulu. Elephant heads from Rhodesia, Hindu sculptures from misty Ceylon, pictures of Raj-era cricket and tiger skins. I sat at a mahogany table and sipped my (Spanish) beer and wondered whether I wasn’t in some sort of Alice in Wonderland fantasy. I noticed a thick glass window beneath my feet and, peering into it, could make out steaming brass cauldrons and stone steps. It was either a micro-brewery or Hades. When I left I turned down a side street or two, became disoriented and retraced my steps. But the bar was gone. Did it really exist?
So, if you are planning on going to Toledo I challenge you to find this arcane watering hole. And if, by chance, you do manage to stumble across it, here is your next challenge: keep its location a secret.