Holy Toledo! I am writing this from a rooftop terrace with a panoramic view of Toledo’s great cathedral, town hall, and Alcazar, all lit up tonight like the candles on a wedding cake perched on a tall hill, and it’s easy to see why this spiritual city has been the inspiration for such luminaries as El Greco and Cervantes…I enjoyed a nice dinner of artisan cheeses, olives, bread, and strawberries washed down with copious quantities of a good quality Rioja, followed up with the town’s trademark dessert, marzipan, and now I’m reflecting on the day’s events. There’s a cool breeze wafting through the Byzantine twists and turns of these ancient streets, and it carries the day’s radiant heat away like a gift from a latter-day magi.
The 13th century cathedral is one of the best in Spain, which is to say among the best in the world, and is at once an art museum (containing works by such luminaries as El Greco and the Dutch Masters Raphael and Van Dyck), the burial place of kings and queens, and an architectural marvel. Outwardly, it is a rather strange mix of gothic, baroque, and Renaissance styles, but considering that it took over 270 years to complete it (on the rubble of an old mosque), I guess that isn’t so surprising. It’s crammed into the old town as tight as a newlywed’s ring, so it’s hard to take its measure from afar, but once you walk inside, it’s just one continuous wow after another, from the forest of old growth marble columns in the nave to the 500 year-old stained glass to the incredible 10 foot tall, diamond and emerald encrusted, 500-pound monstrance of Arfe, which sounds like a bad horror movie creature, but which is actually a gorgeous sculpture made from precious metals. If you can see only one cathedral in the world, this would be among the top candidates.
The famous Alcazar here is a testament to the many wars that Spain has fought. Today it is a military museum, but only a generation ago it was reduced to rubble in Spain’s disastrous civil war. The fact is, until recently, Spain had been almost continuously at war for most of its existence. The list is mind-numbing: The Moorish sieges, the conquest of the New World, the Napoleonic campaigns, two civil wars, Cuban uprisings, Philippine insurrections, the Spanish American wars…I count only 126 years of total peace from the time of the first Reconquista effort in 722AD until today. That history is laid bare in the Alcazar, but it isn’t well organized, so you have to really want to explore the huge museum over a period of days to be able to appreciate the sheer volume of exhibits and information provided. Some of my favorite items on display include an early Harley-Davidson motorcycle used in the Spanish Civil War, a double-barreled blunderbuss pistol, the sword of the sultan Boabdil, a gatling gun, and a bullet-riddled Marmon which provided the last ride for an assassinated general.
I guess the remarkable thing about Spain, indeed about Europe in general, is that they had any time, energy, or resources left over to create anything extraordinary or useful after fighting so long and so often with each other (and virtually everyone else in the world), yet here in the great cathedrals, the fine art, the works of the great writers and philosophers, and the sizzling music and dance of the Flamenco, is all the evidence you need that there was more than enough genius and creativity in the European mind for the task, although, given recent events on the continent, it seems that the tragedies of the two world wars that killed tens of millions of its inhabitants finally wore them down to the point that they no longer even resist invasion of their own soil by foreigners, let alone boldly explore any new ideas, save those that implicitly accept that every culture in the world, no matter how primitive or obscure, is the equal of their own rich inheritance. That we are finally seeing, in the vote of the British voters to Brexit, and in the rising nationalism of France’s Marine Le Pen, Great Britain’s UKIP, and Viktor Orban of Hungary, the seeds of a revolt against this poisonous and (((foreign))) ideology is a cause for celebration and hope. It’s about time, after so many centuries of war, that Spain (and Europe) finally got their “peace dividend”. They’ve earned it, and they’ve no obligation to share it with savage aliens.