A TICKET TO TOLEDO
With a ticket to Toledo in my pocket, I left the rather shabby bus office, crossed a sun-drenched Madrid plaza and boarded an old red bus which was rapidly filling with passengers.
The throaty roar of an engine which had seen long and faithful service, a grinding of gears and a convulsive lurch or two sent us speeding out of Madrid on our 40-odd-mile journey to the ecclesiastical capital of Spain.
Having entered the broad highway which runs most of the way to Toledo, our ancient but determined red bus wasted little time, except for the brief stops it made at a few dusty little villages.
These intervals on the journey were intensly interesting for the glimpses they allowed of village life, those cameos which one can find only off the beaten tourist track.
Women washing clothes in a tiny river, oxen were standing patiently waiting to be unloaded outside small shops, children were playing on some miniature village plaza, a woman with dark features was nursing a child in a shadowed doorway.
I began to think about the famous old city I was approaching and what its thrilling name meant to me. First, it meant blades and the intricate and beautiful metal scrollwork. of which I had already seen some fine examples elsewhere.
It also brought to mind, of course, the Alcazar and everything heroic and chivalrous associated with it since the Spanish civil war. It reminds me, too, of El Greco and one of his wonderful paintings which I was longing to see.
These were the thoughts that filled my mind as the landscape changed and we crossed a fertile plane With orchards and olive groves and high mountains in the distance.
Approaching from the north, one has the first glimpse of the old city from a narrow isthmus. For Toledo is built on a rock high above and almost surrounded by the Tagus, that great river which flows through Spain and Portugal to enter the Atlantic at Lisbon.
"The Tagus," wrote Hilaire Belloc, "rushes round Toledo in a great horseshoe bend, which might almost be called a gorge." The near-island that is Toledo, then, has a truly magnificent setting. If you enter this historic city by the narrow old Roman bridge which spans the Tagus like a bracelet ... the bridge over which the Cid once rode into Toledo on his favourite charger ... you may have to wait for a team of mules drawing a high cart to cross before you.
But my old red bus crossed the river by the new Alcantatra bridge, skirted the hill upon which stands San Servando Castle and finally came to stop in the crowded and restless Plaza de Zocodover, the city's main square.
One of the first things which must strike everyone who visits Toledo is its narrow, climbing streets — streets along which such famous figures as the great St. Teresa, Cervantes, El Greco, Cardinal Ximenez and Lope de Vega once walked.
Then there is the strong Moorish influence one becomes conscious of on every hand. But most of all one feels that delightful old-world atmosphere which permeates the place and gives to this unique city the illusion of being a corner of the world where time, indeed, has stood still.
Emerging from the heat of the bus to the even greater heat of the plaza, I stood in the shelter of a canopied terrace cafe, sipping the coolest drink I could get. Then I meandered through the labyrinth of narrow Moorish streets, with their old 'churches, monasteries and houses with huge gates, studded with great iron bosses.
Passing through these stern gates, one is surprised to find a blaze of flowers and shrubs in the quadrangular courtyard within.
These narrow, cobbled streets, through which I wandered, are seeped in more than a thousand years of Spanish history. The Romans knew them, for to them Toledo was Toletum.
They were trodden by the Visigoth kings, whose seat was here after the fall of the Roman Empire; the Moors, who later held sway in this city which they called Toleitola, left an indelible mark on its streets.
And, today for all the stormy history that passed along them, these are the streets of a happy and peaceful old-world city of simple, homely scenes.
Dark-skinned youngsters are sitting on a doorstep, an old man is staring sadly into the past, A young man in a dusky workshop is bent over steel tools as he carries on the proud tradition of Toledo in making some intricate and exquisite piece of metal scroll-work.
Life goes on in Toledo today just as it has been doing, more or less unchanged, for centuries.
Toledo is one of the greatest art centres not only of Spain but of the civilised world. Chief among its treasures is the immense Gothic cathedral, the see of the Primate of Spain, which, unique in Western Europe, has its own Rite, the Isidorian or Mozarabic, instead of the Roman Rite.
An inscription dating 587 says that on this site the Visigoths once had a chapel, which the Moors later turned into a mosque.
The foundation stone of the present cathedral was laid in 1227, but the building was not completed until 1493. Hundreds of Spanish, French, Hemish and Italian artists and craftsmen devoted their lives to its decoration.
One finds oneself walking with hushed reverence along the broad aisles, breathless before the rose windows of the transcept or the fifteenth century stained glass of the centre aisle or the Major Chapel with its Triforium Gallery richly gilded and its splendid wrought-iron retablo or altar piece.
The sacristy is a veritable art gallery, containing paintings by El Greco, Cioya, Vela, quez, Tintoretta, Michelangelo Titian, Rubens and many other great masters.