Although you never expect it when you are in your late teens, time does creep up on us all. Then it moves so fast, memories, images, words, emotions, all become blurred. Sometimes blurring into each other, sometimes totally forgotten, other times so clear and crisp it feels like you have been transported back through time. And so I travelled back – to the years 1987 and 2000 – to the times I had visited Toledo previously. It was like time had stood still and yet there has been a great schism in my memories.
I though that Nina had visited Toledo but had failed to include it in her memoir She Travelled Alone in Spain. This is not the case. Nina did not get to visit Toledo as she travelled through Spain in 1934. With the atrocities that followed soon after her tour, I wonder if she ever got to Toledo at all. It is a shame Nina missed it. Toledo is not only a beautiful walled town protected on three fronts by the River Tagus, the longest river on the Iberian peninsula, but Nina would have revelled in its history as the political and religious (Catholic) capital of Spain. She also would have loved the beautiful landscapes that surround the city which can be seen from every vantage point
I had decided the best way for me to travel was to do a dreaded ‘day tour’. The very words bring fear into me every time but sometimes it is the best and easiest way of travelling somewhere if you are travelling solo. The tour was six hours. I opted for the two hour walking tour to start with, thinking four hours would be enough to revisit the places of my past. I also viewed the visit as my personal pilgrimage. So off I went. As the bus made it way through the outskirts of Madrid and trundled along the highway to Toledo, I started to plan my day around the places I should visit again. My original plan was the Church of St Thomas where El Greco’s best painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, is kept. The second item on the itinerary was the Cathedral, third the Alcazar and the fourth added on while on the bus to Toledo was the House of Manchego Cheese – why not?
The walking tour dragged on and on and on and I didn’t actually learn anything new or visit places I hadn’t seen. I just could not remember everything. I have walked this town twice before both times over a number of days. I knew my way around and where everything was. The upside of the walking tour was two other solo travellers, an American and a Brazilian. Madrid had been proving a little ‘stand-offish’ towards me. It is harder to break through in the big city as a solo traveller. My favourite city in the world was making it difficult for me so I loved meeting two other English speakers also travelling solo. We chatted when we could in between the tour guides commentary – it was a bilingual tour so always first in Spanish and then in English. No wonder it dragged – well that and some of us were slow walkers. Finally it ended right behind the church of Santo Tomas, the first stop on my personal pilgrimage. I told my two solo companions that I would visit the church first and then catch up with them for lunch. I don’t remember having to pay the other times I had visited the church, but like most of the big Catholic tourist attractions these days, I had to pay to get in.
On my first visit in 1987, we stayed with relatives of my companion, Eladio Jose. I believe it was his mother’s cousin. We stayed just outside of the old town and the cousin was a tour guide at the Cathedral. So for a few days, we had a lively, energetic and personal tour guide. It was he that took as to the church on his way to work that morning. It was the first time I had really looked at a Greco and I was in awe of the scene he had painted. The fine detail, right down the priest’s vestments. I then visited again, with Robert and our son Joe in 2000. I remember we sat alone in the church, the three of us looking at the painting. Imagine my surprise when on walking into the church, the painting was not at the alter as I remembered. It was off to the side as you enter the church. I asked the security guard if the painting had been moved from the alter to this place. “No, no, no. Siempre aqui. Siempre”. It has always been there. My memories were not reality. I stayed for some time looking at every aspect of the painting before keeping my promise to catch up for lunch.
I found my two new friends from the bus easily enough and had a leisurely lunch. I hadn’t been looking at my watch or the time but as lunch ended and they started making plans for what they would like to see, I offered my apologies on leaving them, but I had an agenda. Next stop the Cathedral.
I know I have spoken of eye-popping Cathedrals in other blogs but I had forgotten, another memory lost but now reclaimed – just how astounding the Cathedral in Toledo is. It took my breath away. Again. When I walked into the Cathedral back in 2000, I turned to Robert and said “I have just remembered something. When I was here last time with Eladio Jose and his relative, the Cathedral tour guide, he showed us a secret hole, behind a column. Come on. We have to find it”. Obviously my memories were better 17 years ago. We searched the columns and found it. It was a hole with thick wire mesh over it. “Put your fingers in Robert. Feel what’s in there, I said to Robert then.” Robert did and made a face “what is it?”, he asked. “It’s part of St Peter’s skull bone”, I said. Well that was what I had been told. “Euwwww, Robert quickly pulled his hand out and we laughed at the strange Spanish devotion to relics. On this visit I again, looked for the secret hole but this time memory failed me. I could not find it anywhere.
I wanted to stay in the Cathedral a bit longer but knew that time was moving fast. Off I raced towards the Alcazar. I past the House of Manchego Cheese but decided I would come back to that. The Alcazar was more important. At the start of the walking tour earlier that day, I asked the guide if they still had the room where the telephone call was made in the Alcazar. The room I was asking about played an important role in the Spanish Civil War. Strategically important due to its proximity to Madrid. In the room that day, as the war raged outside the Colonel in charge received a phone call from Republican forces outside They had taken his 16 year old son, Luis, as a hostage and demanded the Alcazar be surrendered or they would kill Luis. Luis was put on the phone to talk to his father and told him if he did not surrender he would be shot. His father replied “Then commend your soul to God, shout ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ and die like a hero. He was shot. On my first visit there was an audio re-enactment of the phone call. According to the guide the audio no longer existed, the words could be read but I didn’t quite understand if the room was still there or not. The room had not been redecorated since that fateful day in 1936. I wanted to see if it had changed in the past 17 years. I had also read that since my previous visits, the basements and cellars had been opened to the public and you could view Roman ruins. I knew this was the place Eladio Jose’s mother a her family had sought refuge from the war when it reached Toledo. Previously I had not been to the basements. I reached the doors of the Alcazar and the security guard told me they had just closed. It wasn’t to be. I looked at my watch and discovered it was too late to go back to the House of Manchengo Cheese, so that would be missed too. Today, time like my memory, had failed me.
As I sat near the meeting place to go back to Madrid. I wrote a few postcards and I cursed the fact that I had chosen both to do the waste of time walking tour and take the long lunch with new friends instead of sticking to my own personal pilgrimage. I had seen the beautiful hotel that Robert, Joseph and I stayed in on my walk through and around the town. I laughed at the memory of Joseph, who was about two years old at the time, crying. We could not get him to settle to go to sleep. We were trying everything we could in our toddler-taming-bag-of-tricks, when the phone in our room rang. I answered and a very polite male with a German accent asked if we could stop the baby crying. I asked him if he would like me to hit the baby on the head before hanging up. The next day at breakfast Joseph was all smiles and the perfect child, Robert and I were giving every male that looked slightly German the stink eye. Although my memory played tricks and time was cruel my day in Toledo was not wasted. I got to light a candle in the church of Santo Tomas for Eladio Jose and I had some great memories of both my previous visits to Toledo. If I ever have the chance again to visit Toledo, I will. It is a hauntingly beautiful town – equal in true natural beauty, built history and sadness.