APPROACHING TOLEDO BY road, the city reveals itself bit by bit out of the heat haze, in the manner of some grand civic procession. First and foremost comes the spire of the town’s 13th-century cathedral, soaring triumphant and unchallenged in a cloudless sly. Then follow the turrets of the fortresses and the towers of lesser churches, jostling for prominence down below. Finally, as you draw closer, the rest of the city barges into view: an exquisite muddle of pastel-coloured villas, colourful flower boxes and higgledy-piggledy rooftops, cascading down a hillside by a long, languorous bend in the Rio Tajo. Madrid is the Spanish capital, but Toledo – its far older little neighbour to the south -better embodies the history of the nation in miniature.
A 6th-century Visigothic capital, it was the first major city to be reclaimed under the Reconquista and has ever since been a powerful seat of the Catholic Church. Toledo’s golden age, however, came in the Middle Ages when it was known as the ‘city of three cultures’: a time when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in peace and harmony, making their hometown renowned for academia and philosophy. Wandering around Toledo today, it’s curious to think that a citizen might in one morning have heard the clanging of churchbells, the muttered prayers of a rabbi and a muezzin’s call echoing down from the minarets.
And, in amongst the cacophony, they would have surely heard the clanking of blacksmiths making Toledo’s most famous export. ‘Toledo swords are the best in the world,’ enthuses Mariano Zamorano, in his workshop. ‘Customers might have chosen one particular sword for stabbing people, and another sword for breaking bones.’
Throughout the Middle Ages, knights cantered across Europe to shop for Toledo swords – famed for the strength of their steel. For 150 years, the Zamorano family have kept this tradition alive as the last local dynasty of swordsmiths, and Mariano still makes swords for every occasion. Shuffling around his sooty workshop, amongst anvils and biscuit tins full of bolts, he points out blades used in theatrical productions, ceremonial swords and replica swords of the kind the Conquistadors used to threaten Incas and take the Americas. They are still manufactured following the medieval Toledo process – fired in a forge and bashed into shape manually, work which Mariano insists isn’t dangerous, despite missing a few fingers on one hand as a result of one unfortunate episode in his workshop.
‘All children like to play at being knights,’ he says picking up a Moorish blade and waving it about. ‘However, my father never let me play with real swords when I was little.’ If ever there was a city in which to play at being knights, it’s Toledo. Outside Mariano’s workshop, cobbled alleyways ramble beneath mighty ramparts and fortified gates. Charging past, you might miss the humble Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz with its silent, shadowy prayer hall -the last surviving Moorish mosque of 10 once dotted across the city. Not so far away is the Sinagoga del Transito, a whitewashed synagogue with swooping horseshoe arches beyond a leafy courtyard. The city’s time as a bastion of tolerance ended in the centuries following the Reconquista, when anyone who wasn’t Catholic was forced to convertor ushered out of Spain – probably at the sharp end of a Toledo sword.