Part 5 in a series:
In a world obsessed by real and imagined threats, an Iberian Peninsula itinerary would be incomplete without a stop in the Spain of Miguel de Cervantes, the 17th century novelist whose protagonist in “Don Quixote” mistakenly tilted at a windmill or two.
Getting There was Half the Challenge
Our trip north from Granada to Toledo was neither epic nor much fun. We arrived exhausted by much of a day spent riding a bus and three trains, navigating four transit stations and negotiating a 150-foot elevation gain from depot to hotel on foot while dragging suitcases packed with dirty laundry in 90°F heat. Oof. Fortunately, the NH Hotel Toledo offered the most comfortable accommodations of the trip. Unfortunately, the laundromat was down the other side of the hill.
Dressed in freshly laundered tourist casual and determined to salvage an otherwise tedious travel day, we headed into Old Town to find dinner as evening fell. After two weeks spent ignoring guide books that advised dinner in Spain begins at 9 p.m., it turned out to be true in Toledo. Unless, you partake of either of two American burger chains whose spacious patio seating dominate an otherwise magnificent town square. No thanks.
And so, we wandered up alley and down boulevard, enjoying the scrubbed streets of Toledo’s hilly Old Town, peering into decidedly upscale shop windows and growing hungrier and hungrier until we finally found the perfect outdoor café – it was open. Still only 8:30 p.m., seating wasn’t a problem. The Geek noshed on a tapa featuring fried bread crumbs, ham and grapes – think stuffing Iberian style. MontaraManDan enjoyed braised pork and potatoes served on a sizzling skillet – think meat and potatoes. We found plenty of gelato options on the walk back to the hotel.
A Quest for Windmills Yields a Bonus Fort
The fictional Don Quixote de la Mancha traversed the dusty plains of Central Spain upon an aged horse named Rocinante. Sancho Panza, the crazed knight’s sidekick, road the donkey Dapple. We took an air-conditioned Grupo Samar bus from Toledo to Consuegra. The local.
Why Consuegra? For some 400 years a row of windmills used for grinding wheat have lined Cerro Calderico ridge, a spine of rock that rises abruptly from the agricultural plain and stretches like a scorpion’s tail at the south end of town. In the Cervantes novel, Quixote attempts to do battle with this type of windmill under the delusion that they are giants with wildly flailing arms. In fact, they are charming.
Twelve of the original 13 have been rebuilt, and each has a name: Sin Nombre, Clavileño, Chispas, Espartero, Rucio, Cardeño, Caballero del verde gabán, Alcancia, Ruinas, Sancho, Mambrino, and Bolero. One offers a tour and educational film, another offers souvenirs, and another ice cream.
None of them, however, serves lunch. Though upon our arrival at noon the otherwise helpful man at the tourism office was pretty sure we could find lunch atop the ridge. It might not have mattered except that in addition to those perfectly wonderful windmills the ridge also is home to the Castillo de la Muela, a 10th century castle that is in the midst of being beautifully and lovingly restored. It was amazing.
We spent more than three hours atop that ridge, competing with the occupants of only a handful for tour buses and cars that came and quickly departed. For a nominal admission fee, we nearly had the castle to ourselves. In addition to rebuilding ramparts, walls, staircases and other structural elements, the restoration includes furnished rooms and gardens that really bring the place alive. A pair of 10-year-olds could have played happily in the ruin for most of a day without growing bored. Same for a couple preparing to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.
We would have stayed longer but had a bus to catch back to Toledo – the local – and had just enough time to grab a cheese sandwich before boarding. We ended the day back in Old Town, watching the sun set over dinner at a modern rooftop cafe. The night air was warm and dry and reminded us of evenings in our long-ago home near Los Angeles. Some 20,000 steps and 86 flights of stairs later, according to The Geek’s FitBit, we fell exhausted into bed. We’d had had a busy day.
Seeking Authenticity beneath Old Town’s Stylized Veneer
Suddenly we had only a day left to discover Toledo. We started off with a robust breakfast of café Americano and dry white toast, which is what happens when you lack proficiency with the native language and the pictures in the menu have nothing to do with the entree. MontaraManDan resigned himself to another morning of disturbing worshipers at a great cathedral with a growling tummy.
The Primate Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo was pretty nice, as cathedrals go. It certainly was a focal point for the day-trippers from Madrid, whose tour buses roared up and down the steep main drag to the center of the city with fierce regularity. The Geek dove deep into the audio guide for the full cathedral experience while an alternately bored and enchanted MontaraManDan tagged along. Among the Highlights:
- The choir loft is divided in half, with commissions paid to two artists for the wooden relief carvings that decorate the seats. The images on one side focus on Christian and Toledo history. The images on the other are a fantasy of caricatures and grotesques – fact vs. emotion.
- The cathedral layout, with its double aisle, accentuates the beauty of the ceiling arches. The gothic elements stop abruptly at the back of the high altar piece – dubbed El Transparente – and give way to colorful baroque mixed media across the back of the altar and neighboring walls and ceiling. A large skylight, decorated with painted figures in relief offers the illusion that the heavens are reaching down to lift the altar.
The rest of the day was dedicated to roaming the hills of Old Town – definitely built on a crag rather than a plateau – and stopping at a series of smartly contrived museums dedicated, in order, to catapults and siege equipment, knights templar and manchego cheese. The first two were long on information – much of it in Spanish – and replicas. Laid out in gorgeous spaces, they were kind of short on actual artifacts. We’re just as glad we skipped the magic and torture museums. At least the cheese museum offered samplings of authentic manchego of various ages – 3 months, 6 months and 1 year – and a nice glass of wine to wash it down.
Speaking of authentic, for dinner we enjoyed a nice venison stew in a beautifully appointed restaurant just below street level festooned with scores of decidedly inauthentic Iberian hams. And with that, we said good night and farewell to the beautiful, yet somehow Disney-esque, streets of Old Town Toledo.
Next stop? Valencia.
This is the fifth of a multi-part series of our travels to six major Spanish cities across three weeks in the fall of 2017. Special thanks to The Geek for the comprehensive journal she kept throughout our journey.