48 Hours In Toledo

The artist El Greco made this historic Spanish city his home and it's where you'll find a huge collection of his work. Cathy Packe takes a cultural weekend break

WHY GO NOW?

The beautiful Spanish city of Toledo is where the artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos - better known as El Greco - completed much of his work, and where he died in 1614. Plenty of the artist's works are still in Toledo; a tour is a fascinating complement to the exhibition at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (020-7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk); open 10am-6pm daily (until 9pm Wednesday and Saturday) until 23 May, entrance £10.

BEAM DOWN

The city is easily reached from Madrid, which has non-stop flights from half-a-dozen UK airports. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester; easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick, Luton and Liverpool and Iberia (0845 601 2854; www.iberiaairlines.co.uk) and BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow. Fares begin at around £90 return.

The easiest way to reach Toledo from Madrid airport is to take the metro from platform 2 at the airport station to Mar de Cristal, then change to line 4 towards the centre and again to line 6 at Avenida de America. Alight at metro Mendez Alvaro, adjacent to Madrid's Estacion Sur bus station. Buses (00 34 925 223641) depart every half-hour from here to the bus station just outside Toledo's city walls, taking an hour.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The old city of Toledo is contained within the city walls, and the whole area has been designated a World Heritage Site; the suburbs of the modern city spread away from here.

The main northern entrance to old Toledo is the Puerta de Bisagra. To avoid the steep climb from here to the city, take the free escalator, which operates Monday-Friday 7am-10pm and weekends 8am-10pm. The main tourist office (00 34 925 220843; www.spain.info) is located opposite the Bisagra Gate. For details, contact the Spanish Tourist Office at 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1U 3PX (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).

CHECK IN

Stay in the old centre of Toledo; many visitors are day-trippers who vacate the place by early evening, leaving it pleasantly empty for residents. A good choice is the Hotel Pintor El Greco at 13 Alamillos del Transito (00 34 925 285191; www.hotelpintorelgreco.com). Doubles cost €110 (£76) and singles €88 (£61), with an extra €6 (£4) for breakfast. The Hostal del Cardenal is a lovely three-star hotel with a beautiful garden, under the city walls at 24 Paseo Recaredo (00 34 925 224900; www.hostaldelcardenal.com). Double rooms cost €86 (£60), and singles €53 (£37); breakfast €7 (£5). A cheaper, but extremely central, option is the Hostal Santo Tome at 13 Santo Tome (00 34 925 221712; www.hostalsantotome.com). Doubles here cost €48 (£33) and singles €39 (£27); breakfast is not available, but there are plenty of cafés nearby. Across the river, with wonderful views of the skyline of the old city, is the Parador, perched on the hilltop at Cerro del Emperador (00 34 925 221850, www.parador.es). Double rooms here start at €119.70 (£82), and singles at €58 (£40); breakfast is an extra €9.70 (£6.70).

TAKE A HIKE

Begin your exploration of the city at the San Martin bridge, a 13th-century entrance to the city, which still retains its defensive towers. From here walk around the walls to the Puerta del Cambron and on to Puerta de Bisagra, the main route into the city in ancient times. A stroll from here towards the main Plaza de Zocodover leads past the lovely church of Santiago del Arrabal, built in Arabic mudejar style from the remains of a mosque. Just beyond the Zocodover is the Alcazar, the huge fortress-like building that dominates Toledo's skyline.

TAKE A VIEW

Beyond the Alcazar is the river: cross over the Alcantara bridge and head up the hill that leads towards the Parador, for a panoramic view across the old city.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

For a satisfying lunch, join the locals who jostle for a table at the Santa Fe at 2 Calle Santa Fe (00 34 925 221017). The menu of the day costs €7.75 (£5).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

It was a commission to paint an altarpiece for the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Plaza Santo Domingo El Antiguo (00 34 925 222930; www.lanzadera.com/monjas), which first brought El Greco to Toledo. The monastery is open 11am-1.30pm and

4-7pm daily (closed Sunday morning), admission €1.50 (£1.10). El Greco was a parishioner at the church of Santo Tome in Plaza del Conde (00 34 925 256098, www.santotome.org), open daily 10am-5.45pm, to 6.45pm in summer, entrance €1.50/£1.10). It contains one of the artist's masterpieces, The Burial of Señor de Orgaz, which has now been screened off from the main church so that tourism and religious observances can co-exist. Nearby is the Casa-Museo del Greco in Calle Samuel Levi (00 34 925 224046). El Greco never lived here, but this attractive townhouse contains an extensive collection of his works. The museum opens 10am-2pm and 4-6pm daily except Sunday afternoon and Monday; admission €2.40 (£1.70). One of El Greco's last commissions was for the Hospital de Tavera at 2 Calle Cardenal Tavera (00 34 925 220451), where several paintings are still on display. The Hospital is open daily 10.30am-1.30pm and 3.30-6pm, entrance costs €3 (£2).

WINDOW SHOPPING

Most of Toledo's inhabitants do their shopping in the suburbs, but there are a number of attractive shops in the city's main square, Plaza Zocodover, up Calle Comercios where the delicatessen, Casa Cuartero, is worth a look, and around Plaza de las 4 Calles. Along Calle Santo Tome are several shops selling mazapan, small cakes typical of Toledo. To buy one of the swords for which the city is famous, head for the Plaza del Conde; this square also contains a branch of Lladro porcelain.

AN APERITIF

There is no shortage of bars in the old city where you can while away a couple of hours sipping a glass of dry sherry. Try La Campana Gorda at 13 Calle Hombre de Palo, or Bar Ludena, at 10 Plaza Magdalena.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

As anywhere in Spain, don't even think of going out to dinner until well into the evening. The menu at Casa Aurelio at Sinagoga 6 (00 34 925 222097; www.restaurantecasaaurelio.com) features plenty of local dishes, while El Cobertizo, at Calle Hombre de Palo (00 34 925 223809), is another good choice. Specialities of the region include partridge and suckling pig.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

One of the highlights of any visit to Toledo is the Cathedral, a vast edifice in the city centre on Calle Cardenal Cisneros (00 34 925 222241), which is open Monday-Saturday 10.30am-6.30pm, and Sunday 2-6pm. Entrance to the cathedral's museums, which contain a number of art works by Titian, Caravaggio and Van Dyck as well as El Greco, costs €4.95 (£3.50).

OUT TO BRUNCH

An Iberian take on brunch involves chocolate and churros - freshly fried pieces of batter, coated in sugar and dipped into a mug of thick, hot chocolate - from the churreria at 27 Calle Santo Tome. It opens every morning from 2.30am until 10am.

A WALK IN THE PARK

There are few green spaces in the centre of Toledo. But a few yards to the north-east of the Puerta Nueva de Bisagra, outside the confines of the city walls, is a little garden that contains the ruins of the Roman Circus, where chariot racing regularly took place.

WRITE A POSTCARD...

... from the village of Illescas, halfway between Madrid and Toledo, and served every half hour by buses from Toledo. Here, in the otherwise undistinguished church of the Hospital of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad at 2 Calle del Cardenal Cisneros (00 34 925 54 00 35), are an altarpiece and several other beautiful works painted by El Greco late in his career. His exquisite interpretation of the Nativity has been taken to London, but the art left is excellent. The church is open Mon-Sat 9am-1pm and 4.30-6pm, and Sunday 4.30-6pm; entrance is €1.50 (£1).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Toledo is as famous for its mixture of cultures - Christian, Muslim and Jewish - as it is for El Greco. One of the highlights of this cultural mix is El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum on Calle de Samuel Levi (00 34 925 22 36 65, www.museosefardi.net) in the Jewish quarter. This 14th-century building has had a chequered history, but it has now been restored with silk covering the wall, exquisite carvings, and a gallery from where you can view its elaborate ceiling close up. It is open Tue-Sat 10am-2pm and 4-9pm, and Sun 10am-2pm. Entrance is €2.40 (£1.60).

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