I could almost hear the walls closing in as I rushed along a narrow, empty alley. High stone walls on either side, lovely sandstone in colour, rose till they almost met the brilliant blue sky. I think it was beautiful, but I was too anxious to stand and appreciate the beauty. Was it just me or had everything suddenly become eerily quiet? My imagination, at the best of times, hardly needs any prompting. In this case, it was running wild. I felt like I had stepped back in time and half expected to see armoured soldiers on horses, their spears pointed at me, round the corner. Quixotic, did you say? Pretty apt, actually.
As I reached the end of the alley and went around the corner, imagine my deep sense of disappointment when all I found was a buzzing lane full of tourists trying to decide what kind of sword or ceramic pot they wanted to take back as a memento from Toledo! That’s right, Toledo in Spain, about 70km south-west of Madrid, is among the most significant places related to Cervantes’ Don Quixote. As I stood there, trying to shake out of my fantasy, I could almost hear Sancho Panza cluck-clucking.
It didn’t start out as dramatically though. My drive from Madrid was monotonous. I passed rows and rows of ugly industrial buildings and generic housing complexes. With nothing interesting to catch my eye, I turned to my guidebook, which told me that Toledo’s history went back to the Bronze Age, though it came into its own during Roman rule, and later under the Visigoths. It was the capital of Spain when the Moors were ruling over the land in the eighth century, while the Caliphs gave it a lot of importance as well when they occupied it later. It was only in the late 11th century that Toledo came into Spanish hands and became a major cultural centre as well as one of those rare centres of Jew, Muslim and Christian coexistence. Eventually, Toledo became the capital of Castile-La Mancha, and a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986. Besides, there was that little detail about Don Quixote, which was my true reason for making the journey, in the fond hope of discovering him within this medieval city’s walls.
Also See | Trip planner/Toledo (PDF)
By the time I had managed to let all this history sink in, I had arrived at the bottom of the town, which actually stands on a rising plateau. Above me, I could see the imposing Castillo de San Servando, the medieval castle and parts of Alcazar, the fortress. But as I contemplated how to get to the top, I espied a series of escalators which deposited me at the edge of the historic town. Massive stone buildings lined the narrow cobbled roads and I was charmed as I took in the whole picture.
I wandered around the streets and soon came to the centre of town, where the Cathedral of St Mary of Toledo rose against the blue and white sky. A 13th century Gothic structure, its exquisite façade and ornately worked spires completely captivated me. It looked so regal and majestic that I couldn’t help but understand if Don Quixote would have wanted to call this his castle! But my thoughts were interrupted by bursts of pop music blaring from loudspeakers: a plethora of Spanish beauties were rehearsing for the Miss Spain finals scheduled for the next day against the backdrop of the cathedral. I hurried on, wondering how Don Quixote would have reacted to the beauty queens and the thumping music.
Deep in these thoughts, I probably took a wrong turn, and that’s when I got lost in the narrow alley and ended up on the touristy road. A few enquiries from helpful shopkeepers later, I found myself at the next stop: Iglesia de Santo Tome. Bearing the distinct stamp of its Moorish connection, the church was built in the 14th century in the Mudejar style—all geometric tile patterns and plaster carving—but the attraction of the place was the painting called The Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco on an entire wall. It was dimly lit but it was large, vivid and brilliantly composed, depicting the legend that St Augustine and St Stephen personally descended from heaven to bury the local count. It is said to be the artist’s first complete personal work. There have been endless critiques of the work, but in that moment I forgot all about them. Its beauty made sure that all I could do was look at the whole painting, and leave analysis for another day.
Next door, at the Museo Sefardi established in the Sinagoga del Transito, a 14th century Jewish synagogue which had been taken over by Spain’s Catholic monarchs, I wandered around the museum, which showcases the religious and cultural artefacts of the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian peninsula. I was particularly dazzled by the friezes on the walls, the Hebrew inscriptions which seemed mysterious and enchanting, and the spectacular Mozarab cupolas and arches, and wondered at the stories, told and untold, that the walls contained.
Outside, the sun was sinking, and as I gazed at the Puente de San Martin (St Martin’s Bridge), a 14th century Gothic bridge over the river Tajo (Tagus) supported by four arches, I was a bit disappointed. I could imagine Don Quixote riding down the bridge, Sancho at his side, but I was yet to encounter anything tangible leading to him. There were representations all right, in the form of fridge magnets and paperweights, but nothing impressive.
On my way back, a narrow doorway down a flight of steps beckoned and I took a detour on impulse. The doorway opened into a tiny square with a tall, black statue in the centre, its back to me, as if urging me to come around. I gave in and there he was—Don Quixote. The statue was almost 8ft tall, head held high and exuding comic bravado. Or was it knight-errantry? At any moment, Don Quixote looked like he would come alive. In the fading twilight, the line between fantasy and reality, eternal and the here-and-now seemed to blur. Unfortunately, my time was up and the ticking clock seemed all too real. As I turned away and headed up the steps to the road, I thought I heard faint sounds: Could it be Sancho urging his master to quit the posture and retire for the night? I would like to imagine so!
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