Adventures in a Spanish labyrinth

Toledo's precipitous setting makes it a city of constant surprises. Allow yourself to get lost, advises Peter Moss

Perched high on a rocky outcrop and almost gift-wrapped by the looping gorge of the meandering river Tajo, Toledo's setting is as magnificent as its infrastructure is haphazard. No square inch has been spared, as houses, churches, mosques and synagogues sit stacked on top of one another, leaving precious little room for the absurdly narrow cobbled lanes, some of them barely a car's width, that snake their way through the walled city. The effect is that all the great buildings tend to creep up on you each time you turn a corner.

Perched high on a rocky outcrop and almost gift-wrapped by the looping gorge of the meandering river Tajo, Toledo's setting is as magnificent as its infrastructure is haphazard. No square inch has been spared, as houses, churches, mosques and synagogues sit stacked on top of one another, leaving precious little room for the absurdly narrow cobbled lanes, some of them barely a car's width, that snake their way through the walled city. The effect is that all the great buildings tend to creep up on you each time you turn a corner.

Take your time walking around Toledo. It can be done in a day, but when the sun is out, you'll want to spend at least as long again lazing with your cappuccino and your guidebook in one of the city's peaceful little squares. And anyway, you have to add a day for getting lost in that labyrinth of dark, winding lanes.

When to goToledo is a day-tripper's paradise and prone to over-crowding, mostly with Americans whistle-stopping around Europe, sometimes mistaking Toledo for Segovia. For this reason, try and avoid "city-break season", namely late spring and early autumn. Plump instead for early spring and late autumn. In the second week of March, the crowds were low, the temperature high (nudging 70).

April sees Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrated with colourful processions through the streets of Toledo, and it's all repeated for Corpus Christi in May. During the third week of August there are fiestas and stunning firework displays in Toledo in honour of the Virgen del Sagrario (the Virgin of the Shrine).

Getting thereGo (tel: 0845 6054341) flies daily from Stansted to Madrid from £80 return. British Airways (tel: 0354 222111) flies daily from Gatwick and Heathrow to Madrid from £119 return, plus £21 taxes. Iberia's (tel: 0870 606 2032) prices are identical, flying Heathrow to Madrid.

There are trains every two hours from Madrid's Atocha station to Toledo. A single ticket costs £15-£20. The journey takes about an hour on an express train, one hour 20 minutes on a regular train.

Where to stayJust outside the city walls is the welcoming Hotel Maria Cristina, Marques de Mendigorria 1 (tel: 0034 925 213 202). The rooms are comfortable, there's a lovely conservatory, and there's even a garage for your hire car (essential for touring the region). Singles from £30, doubles from £60.

Rather more expensive, but worth it, is the Parador Condede Orgaz on Cerro del Emperador (tel: 0034 925 221 850). Some of the rooms in this quasi-medieval country house have terrific views across the city. Swimming-pool, terrace. Singles from £50, doubles from £100. If you fancy staying in a splendidly converted 18th-century bishop's palace, try the Hotel Cardenal at Paseo de Recaredo 24 (tel: 0034 925 224 900). Stylish and good value, singles from £30, doubles from £60.

Budget travellers swear by the Fonda La Belvisena, just south of the Alcazar at Cuesta del Can 7 (tel: 0034 925 220 067). The dozen or so rooms, all very clean with shared facilities, fill up very quickly. At £10 per person, in shared rooms, it's easy to understand why.

What to see and doToledo's fabulous cathedral, with its soaring 100m spire, was 250 years in construction. The result is a rich hybrid of styles - Gothic, baroque, Renaissance - like nothing else I've ever seen.

The Alcazar is the fortress, destroyed and rebuilt countless times, that sits behind Toledo's main square, the Plaza de Zocodover, where the great and the good converge for their afternoon copa.

The artist Doménikos Theotocopoulos, better known as El Greco, lived in Toledo and his works are on view right across the city, most notably at the Casa del Greco. Almost next door is the Sinagoga del Transito, currently being restored to its original Moorish form as a synagogue, having metamorphosed into a church after the mass expulsion of the Jews. Attached to the synagogue is the Museo Sefardi, which traces the development and customs of Jewish life in Spain, of which precious little survived after the Inquisition. The only other surviving synagogue - there were 10 at one time - is the Santa Maria la Blanca, undoubtedly the synagogue with the most unlikely name in the Western world. It sounds like a church, looks like a mosque, and has the red tiled floor of a tapas bar.

The undoubted highlight of a visit to Toledo is to walk along the Carretera de Circunvalacion, which hugs the south bank of the Tajo, for thrilling views of the city. Allow three hours and you will be richly rewarded. If you've seen El Greco's masterful Storm Over Toledo in New York's Metropolitan Museum, you'll know the view already.

Food and drinkAssuming you know your tapas from your raciones (small snacks, big snacks, from anchovies and aubergines to cockles and tripe), you'll want to know where to find them.

Bar El Tropezon is just an olive stone's-throw from the cathedral, at Travesia de Santa Isabel 2. The outdoor bar is a suntrap, the tapas tasty, and they do some great fresh fish dishes. Easy enough to eat for under a fiver.

Bar Ludena, at Plaza Magdalena 10, has a similarly cheap menu, and their carcamusa (meat stew in spicy tomato sauce) is reckoned to be the best in town.

Restaurante Adolfo, at Granada 6, is tucked away behind a café in an old Jewish town-house. Imaginative cooking, a very special place. Three courses from £15.

For real atmosphere and superb food, go to Gambrinus, Santo Tome 10 (tel: 0034 925 214 440). The emphasis is on partridge, pheasant and quail - anything, in fact, that flies slowly enough to get shot. Gourmet blow-outs from £12.

Out of townAvila is worth every inch of the 50-mile detour from Toledo. Time your arrival to catch the setting sun lighting up the 11th-century battlements and 88 towers that encircle this time-warped town. Quite a sight. If staying overnight, try the Gran Hotel Palacio Valderrabanos (tel: 0034 920 211 023). Great location, terrific service, with doubles from £30. And before heading back to the airport, visit Segovia. The aqueduct is mind-boggling and the cathedral, with its plethora of pine-needle pinnacles, is achingly lovely. And the drive through the mountains back to Madrid is something else.

Deals and packagesPeter Moss's trip was arranged by Travelscene (tel: 020-8427 8800), which offers two-night breaks from April through to June at the three-star Hotel Maria Cristina in Toledo from £293 per person, based on two sharing. Also two-night breaks from April through to June at the four-star Hotel Palacio Valderrabanos in Avila from £293 per person, based on two sharing. Prices include bed, breakfast, and return flights (including taxes) with British Airways from Gatwick to Madrid. Travelscene recommends car hire through Europcar (tel: 0845 7222525), from £30 per day with unlimited mileage.

Until the middle of April, Magic Cities (tel: 020-8563 8959) offers a three-night break to Toledo at the three-star Pintor El Greco hotel from £303 per person, based on two sharing and including return flights to Madrid, b&b accommodation and three days' car-hire.

Further informationToledo's Tourist Information Office is at Puerta de Bisagra (tel: 0034 925 220 843). In the UK, contact the Spanish Tourist Board (tel: 020-7486 8077).

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