On my last visit to Toledo, it seemed holier than ever: Dark El Greco clouds threatened overhead, stark against bright, clear horizons. Hail pelted the masses of people clogging the streets as they awaited the Good Friday procession.
A look back at my write-up reveals nothing but superlatives: Toledo's street plan is the most confusing in Spain, its cathedral the most Gothic (and the most Spanish of all Gothic churches), and the cathedral's altar the most stunning. Toledo was once home to Europe's most powerful king, Charles V, and is papered with the vividly spiritual paintings of the city's most famous artist, El Greco.
Spain's former capital crowds 2,500 years of tangled history onto a high, rocky perch protected on three sides by a natural moat, the Tajo River. Toledo is so well-preserved and packed with cultural wonder that city itself has been declared a national monument — no modern exteriors are allowed. For centuries, Christians, Muslims and Jews enjoyed this city together. Toledo's past is a complex mix of these three great religions.
Today, Toledo is filled with tourists day-tripping from Madrid, a quick 30-minute train ride to the north. And because 2014 marks the 400th anniversary of El Greco's death, the town's sights have been beautifully renovated and are ready for prime time.
The two biggies are the magnificent cathedral, with a jaw-dropping interior and a sacristy swathed in El Greco's work, and the Santa Cruz Museum, with its own world-class collection of El Greco paintings.
The cathedral is shoehorned into the old center, where its exterior rises brilliantly above the town's medieval clutter. The interior is laden with elaborate wrought-iron work, lavish wood carvings and window after colorful window of 500-year-old stained glass.
It's so lofty, rich and vast that visitors wander around like Pez dispensers stuck open, whispering “Wow.” Drifting among the pillars, it's easy to imagine a time when the lightbulbs were candles and the tourists were pilgrims — when every window provided spiritual as well as physical light.
The cathedral's spectacular altar — real gold on wood, by Flemish, French and local artists — is one of the country's best pieces of Gothic art. The complex composition shows the story of Jesus' life, conveying the Christian message of salvation.
The cathedral's sacristy is a mini-Prado, with masterpieces by the likes of Francisco de Goya, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velazquez, Caravaggio and Giovanni Bellini, not to mention 18 El Grecos.
Born in Greece and trained in Venice, Domenikos Theotocopoulos (tongue-tied friends just called him “The Greek” … El Greco) came to Spain to get work as a painter. He found employment in Toledo, where he developed his unique painting style, mixing icon-like faces from his Greek homeland, bold color and twisting poses from his time in Italy and almost mystical spirituality from Catholic Spain.