Last tango in Toledo

Moors, Mozarabs, `Mudejars' and Moriscos ... all have contributed to Toledo's turbulent past - as well as its colourful present.

Just run that past me again. The Visigoths were overthrown by the Moors in the fifth century. The Christians took over in 1085, but lived alongside the Jews and Muslims in an atmosphere of religious tolerance. Fine, I've got that. What's next? Well, the Mozarabs were Christians living in Islamic Spain, and the Mudejars were the Muslims living under Christian rule. And then there were the Moriscos, who were Muslims who claimed to have converted to Christianity but really carried on regardless. My mind is reeling, and we haven't even got to the Catholic monarchs yet.

The trouble with visiting somewhere like Toledo is that there is just too much history and architecture to take in on a day trip. Important and fascinating as it all is, you cannot help feeling secretly relieved when 6pm comes and the churches and museums close their doors for the night.

This is also when the tour buses head back up the motorway to Madrid, and the city is handed back to the residents. Although Toledo in its entirety is classified as a national monument, it is certainly not a museum, as you will see if you stick around for the evening. Instead of taking an organised excursion from Madrid (about pounds 25), get the regular coach service (pounds 5 return) and spend the money you have saved on a hotel for the night.

Set on a steep, granite promontory, the city is looped by the River Tagus. A path has recently been opened by its banks. A stroll along it is the ideal way to unclutter your brain after this cultural overload, making room for a few of Toledo's many myths and legends. To get there, simply head down the hill from the cathedral.

The street pattern is unmistakably Arabic, with sharp corners and tiny, mysterious blind alleys. Dilapidated townhouses conceal beautiful courtyards. Looking up, you see the carved wooden balconies that evolved from the latticed shutters of Moorish tradition, as well as strategically placed windows and covered gangways linking buildings across the streets.

We walked down the Calle del Pozo Amargo, "the street of the bitter well". The name dates back to the seventh century. Apparently, a Jewish girl fell in love with a Christian boy, a match frowned upon by her parents. When another suitor killed her sweetheart, the girl was so distraught that she threw herself down the local well, and her tears tainted the water for ever. Well, that's the romantic version. There is another more scatological theory as to why the water thereafter tasted so foul.

Narrow as this cobbled street is, it is just wide enough to get a car down, so be prepared to leap sideways into a doorway if a local driver comes careering down the hill.

Miraculously arriving safely at the river, we turned right along the path, called the Senda Ecolgica. I wasn't in the mood for a nature trail, but what I could see ahead was stranger than any rare plant species. With music blaring out from a kiosk bar, about two dozen people were expertly doing the tango. It would, I anticipated, be a true noche toledana - an expression used throughout Spain to describe an unforgettable and sleepless night.

In fact, the sinister event that gave rise to the phrase took place just up the hill from here. In the ninth century Toledo was ruled by the ruthless Yusuf Ben Amr, who was killed by a group of noblemen. His father, who stepped in to replace him, invited several hundred of these local bigwigs to a banquet at his palace. As the guests entered they were set upon by guards who decapitated them and threw their severed heads into a ditch.

The Toledans are rather more welcoming these days. As night fell, we crossed the river to the Venta del Alma (Cerro de la Cruz, 35), a 16th- century roadside inn with a galleried courtyard reminiscent of a Wild West saloon. Such places, which crop up frequently in the works of Cervantes, were first built to accommodate pilgrims and merchants, and can be found throughout La Mancha. After restoration, this one has become a trendy watering hole where, for some reason, they serve jelly babies with the beer.

We were in need of more serious sustenance, so we returned to the heart of the old town. Abadia (C/Nunez de Arce 3) is a boisterous bar situated in the brick-vaulted refectory of a former abbey. Although the decor is rustic, the tapas were the fanciest I have come across, making much of local specialities from the Montes de Toledo. Venison was available in a number of guises: in sausages, in stew or as slices of cured meat in sandwiches. We also had salt-cod croquettes, deep-fried goats' cheese with herbs, and dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in bacon.

After a drink in Broadway (C/Alfonso XII 12), a jazz club, we crossed the road to the discreet entrance of the Cafe de Garcilaso (G/Rojas 5, corner of C/Alfonso XII) and swept down a grand staircase to the ballroom. The couples we had previously seen solemnly tangoing were now frenetically spinning around to salsa music. Yes, it was definitely going to be a noche toledana.

Toledo fact file, next page

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