Sephardic Spain: Part 1, Holy Toledo

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Toledo, “City of the Three Cultures.”

Tourists explore the 650-year-old Samuel ha-Levi Synagogue in Toledo.At first it seems a little odd, staying in Jewish-branded hotels, sampling kosher wines, checking out ancient synagogues and enjoying a Sephardic music festival headlined by an Israeli rock band -- all in one of the most Catholic countries on the planet.

Such tours, marketed to Jews and non-Jews alike, are becoming increasing popular in Spain, thanks to the promotion of restored or carefully preserved Jewish quarters in 22 cities across the country.

The walled-in quarters had been thriving communities, up to 1492. That year, when Christopher Columbus was off discovering the New World and Christian armies were booting the last Moors out of Spain, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella decided to rid their country of its Jews, too. Neighboring Portugal did likewise a few years later.

Until then, Jews living in Spain and Portugal – known as Sephardics – had been calling cities like Toledo and Cordoba (see Part 2 of this story) home for 1,500 years and even longer. Many came from Judea after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

Now homeless again, perhaps as many as 200,000 Spanish Jews (historical accounts vary greatly) ended up in other countries including large numbers in Turkey, North Africa and various spots around Europe. By some accounts, possibly 50,000 opted to convert to Christianity (or claimed they did) in order to stay put in Spain.

Self-described as “Jerusalem West,” the 2,000-year-old city of Toledo in central Spain at one time had the country's largest Jewish population. Their remaining homes, courtyards, parks, museums, shopping lanes and other places of business are big draws among the city's top tourism sites, all told visited by nearly a half-million people a year.

Winding streets lead visitors to the city's historic center.Other sites accent Toledo's Christian and Moorish heritages as well, arguably giving rise to the expression, “Holy Toledo.” How many religious attractions are there around the city? “Lots and lots and lots,” says tour guide Almudena Cencerrado, who notes that Toledo is brimming over with still-open or former churches, monasteries, convents, mosques and two synagogues (there used to be 11). On another site is a former palace of the Inquisition (now a museum during the day and a disco at night).

Allow plenty of time for shopping. Toledo is a mecca for leather goods, Talavera pottery, shoes, casual clothes and Damascene steel plates, boxes and pendants  etched in gold. Back home, you can be first on your block to show off a sword made of famous Toledo steel. Or maybe even a suit of Toledo armor.

Getting hungry? Besides all kinds of tapas packed with little servings of cheeses, olives, anchovies, peppers, meatballs, prawns, stuffed mussels, squid, tuna and cucumbers, entrees at the town's restaurants typically feature slowly baked pheasant, grilled venison and roast lamb. Wash it all down with a fine Spanish wine while sampling some marzipan confections, another local specialty.

Former Inquisition building turns into a disco at night.A tip: Visitors can enjoy a wonderful panoramic view of Toledo from the dining room patio of the Parador de Toledo (www.parador.es) hotel in the hills overlooking the city. Like many of the other 90 or so paradores across Spain, the 72-room hotel in Toledo is converted from an old manor house. Others had been medieval castles, fortresses, convents, monasteries and the like.

Among highlights of the city's history, it was once the capital of Spain under the Visigoths, the capital of much of the world under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Seat of the Archbishop of Spain, the home of the artist El Greco and the starting point for Cervantes' adventures of Don Quixote.

Toledo's multi-religious heritages over the years gave it today's marketing slogan: “The City of the Three Cultures.”

Getting there:A number of airlines fly nonstop to Madrid from several U.S. gateways. Iberia, for example, serves the Spanish capital from Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York-JFK and Boston. Toledo is about a 50-mile drive from Madrid or a half-hour ride on an AVE high-speed train.

Rusticae Casa Abad is near an entrance to Toledo's Old City.Staying there: Toledo offers dozens of tourist-class hotels. Among popular properties is the 22-room Rusticae Casa Abad (www.hotelabad.comand www.rusticae.es).

More info: Visit the Tourist Office of Spain (www.spain.info), the Toledo Tourist Board (www.toledo-turismo.com) and the Toledo Convention Bureau (www.toledoconventionbureau.com)

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