May 9th, 2012
Watching the actress June Brown from Eastenders on TV on Monday night – not in her usual Dot- Cotton- fag- in -hand pose, but researching her family on the programme `Who Do You Think You Are?´ which traces the genealogy of famous people and their unknown -sometimes better forgotten! – ancestors. Anyway, turns out her family were Spanish Jews, relegated to North Africa during the Spanish Inquisition, later allowed to Italy and then Holland where she was able to pick up the bloodline. What has this got to do with Spain? Well, read on…put the kettle on…!
A Trip to Toledo
In order to trace the exact wanderings of her somewhat displaced relatives, the actress was sent to the city of Toledo, close to Madrid – where the Jewish Quarter there has the largest archives of Jewish people in Spain – in fact the largest in Europe.
Her journey there reminded me of when I first set eyes on that hilltop fortress – feeling as though I had stepped into Moorish times – Alice in Wonderland style.
A Romantic Destination
Probably one of the most romantic destinations in Spain – on a plateau rising above the river Tajo, it´s narrow winding cobbled streets, monuments and museums interspersed with delightful plazas and cozy restaurants. It´s one of those places you earmark for return visits – preferably without the kids!
I will return,I have my eye on a lovely apartment in the historical centre of the city here, with 2 bedrooms sleeping 6 I guess we could take the kids along too!
A Forgotten Past
June Brown found herself brought to the Judería – The ancient Jewish quarter of Toledo - to find the answers to her questions about her ancestors – and if you find yourself in this magical city then remember to take a few hours to discover it for yourself, it seems to be a part of Spanish history that this country has forgotten about, maybe a little too willingly…?
Start on the West side of the cathedral, which in itself takes a morning to get around! Head Southwest…it´s downhill all the way as the streets become narrower and more winding, the `squished together´ buildings and monuments fighting and jostling for a click of your camera shutter.
It´s all Greek to me…
A very famous painter took rooms here - El Greco - `The Greek´ moved in when he found lodgings, actually he was really Cretan and his real name was Domenico Theotocópoulos...hey, wait a minute – doesn´t he own the launderette in Eastenders?! Better make a call to the BBC…
In fact you can still visit the house he lived in – now open to the public. Casa-Museo de El Greco is open Tuesday to Saturday 10:00 - 14:00 and 16:00 – 18:00, closed on Mondays.
A painted Miracle
Visit the church of Santo Tomé, which you´ll handily find on Calle Santo Tomé! (By the way, this is also a lovely tiny square for a coffee,try Cafetería Nano here, a cafécon leche and a taste of the famous Toledo Marzipan.)
Just to one side of the church in a chamber, ask to see the painting that all Toledo talks about.
El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz was painted by El Greco – as the name suggests this is a pictorial representation of the burial of the Count of Orgaz. When he was buried in 1323, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine – presumably having nothing better to do that day – dropped down from Heaven to lend a hand with the proceedings.
The Counts´ many friends on witnessing this miracle petitioned Rome to make the man a Saint – and still in support of the request 200 years later Greco was asked to step in and paint the events.
It´s actually quite a grim and disturbing portrayal, but by the same token represents Castile in the 16th century quite well!
More has been written about the painting than any other in Spain, and more tourists flock here to see it than any other of the numerous sights of Toledo. There are many including the Cathedral, The Alcázar, The Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz – actually a tiny mosque and one of the oldest surviving buildings inthe whole of Spain dating from the Moorish period.
See the Synagogues
Of course, you are in the Jewish Quarter, so the synagogues are a must-see. Sinagoga del Transito was built by Samuel Levi, the treasurer to Pedro the Cruel – with a name like that I guess he just wasn´t the nicest boss – and in fact true to his name he later executed Levi. No trade unions there then…
The interior resembles the Alhambra in Granada, with Moorish arches and ornate carvings, change the words carved around your head from Hebrew to Arabic and you could almost be in that perfect Palace.
The Museo Sefardi is located with the Synagogue, with a representation of the Jewish history of the city before the Catholics upset the applecart.
Older and equally stunning is the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, another Mudéjar masterpiece, small and perfectly formed. Do try and visit both, the usual opening hours and closed Mondays as is normal with most buildings in Spain.
Speaking of Moors, you can also visit the Taller de Moro – the Moor´s Workshop – where the skills were honed and used to create the fascinating work used in Mudéjar architecture…a collection of pieces is here for you to look at and admire. More carvings than you can shake a stick – or even a Toledo sword – at!
So, when you are in this wonderful part of Spain remember to follow in the footsteps of Isaac and Abraham Bitton, the lost relatives of June Brown, and visit the Judería of Toledo, the walled city of silk and swords!