“Where’s the damned gate?” I asked my friend, as we stood in the train station, bewildered, worried, looking at every sign, nervously checking the time as the appointed hour of our departure neared.
I thought it must be upstairs, since that’s where the arrow seemed to point; but my friend, more perceptive than myself, noticed that the sign said bajo on it.
“That means it’s on the ground floor,” she said.
She pointed this out while we were already on the escalator up; so after we lamely rode all the way up, and then the adjacent one all the way down, we began again to scour the ground floor for our gate.
“Maybe it’s this way?” my friend offered, pointing in the direction that most people were walking.
We joined the crowd, and found ourselves headed towards the door outside.
“No, no,” I said. “This is to exit the building.”
We returned to where we started, once more examining the sign with the ambiguous arrow. Time was running out. We’d given ourselves a good 45 minutes to get lost, and we’d used nearly all of them. Luckily, we soon noticed the (very obvious) gate entrance, where people were lining up to pass through security.
After walking through the metal detector, we walked frantically down the platform, passing car after car of the train, looking in the windows for open seats. Finally, we got to a car that was mostly empty; we hopped on, found the two nearest seats, and sat down—happy that the stress of the morning was over.
Our peace was disturbed when, just two minutes later, two very nice Spanish women politely informed us that we were sitting in their seats.
“Perdone,” I said, as we got up, again confused and embarrassed, and walked away.
“I told you we shouldn’t have sat there,” I said as we recommenced our desperate search for seats. (I’d said no such thing, by the way.) “That must’ve been the reserved section!”
We went through one, then two, then three cars—all of them completely full—until finally, in an otherwise full car, there were two empty seats.
We sat down again, hoping that finally we could relax.
As I sat there, letting my breathing slow, still a bit disoriented from the activity and lack of sleep, I noticed that an elderly British couple was sitting in front of us. This would not be worth mentioning if, a moment later, a Spanish man hadn’t came up and told them that they were sitting in his seat.
“What?” said the Englishman.
“Yes, look,” the Spaniard said in English, holding up his ticket. With his finger, he pointed to two numbers on the top of the slip of paper.
“E6 and E7, car 3,” he said.
I looked up and found, to my surprise, that the seats had numbers and letters. We had assigned seats!
“Oh, terribly sorry,” the Englishman said, as he and his wife relocated to their proper seats—which, as it turned out, were right behind us.
“Quick,” I said to my friend, “the tickets!”
She pulled out the tickets from her bag, and we hastily examined them. E8 and E9, car 3. I looked up: we were sitting in our exact seats.
One thing to remember when traveling in foreign lands: even simple things can be a challenge, since here your conventional wisdom is unconventional, and your common sense far from common. This can make you come across as a fool, and feel like one, too. But you know you’re not a fool—you’re an American. And although there’s a large degree of overlap in the two categories, they aren’t exactly equal.
I had been urged, repeatedly and sometimes urgently, by friends and family who had been to Madrid that, once there, I shouldn’t miss a chance to visit Toledo.
Toledo is a small city, situated about 75 kilometers south of Madrid. It can be gotten to cheaply and quickly, by train in 30 minutes and by bus in an hour, making it the ideal place for day-trippers. It is a city of long history and rich culture, of fine architecture and splendid sights.
But of course I didn’t know any of this when, after much cursing and petty frustration, I booked two round-trip tickets (ida y vuelta) on the train for a Sunday trip. Really, I didn’t know anything about the place at all, other than that its cathedral was reputed to be one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.
As a result, I had nothing definite in mind when I stepped off the train in Toledo, blinking in the bright sun, looking around in a befuddled daze. My ignorance didn’t bother me, however, as going places without knowing anything about them is something I tend to do. After all, I’d moved to Spain without knowing Spanish—or really anything about Spain at all except that there was bullfighting, flamenco, and an inquisition a long time ago—so why not try the same approach with Toledo?
My friend was less keen on this, though, so she went about procuring a map from the nearby tourist office—even as I insisted that it was unnecessary, since we have phones.
Yet we needed neither a map nor a phone to tell us that we’d arrived somewhere special; even the train station was lovely. In fact, it hardly seemed like a train station at all—more like a renovated relic. I know now, since I’ve looked it up, that the building was constructed in the early 20th century, and so was far from ancient. Nevertheless, the amount of effort exerted on a purely functional edifice—elaborately ornamented on the inside and outside, with finely carved wooden railings and stained-glass windows—was enough to convince me that Toledo was not an ordinary city.
Since we were traveling on the cheap, we decided not to take a cab or a bus into town, but to walk. This was, it turned out, an excellent choice, not only because of the agreeable weather, but because the approach from the station to the town took us across a bridge, spanning across a sparkling blue river, and allowed us to see the whole antique city, nestled up on a hilltop, almost as a traveler would have seen it a few hundred years ago.
I admit I indulged in a bit of romanticizing in the last paragraph; for it is impossible to forget that, however old Toledo might be, it is now the twenty-first century. Indeed, the juxtaposition between old and new was a constant refrain during our trip there. City buses crawled up twisting roads, alongside fortified walls; modern cars squeezed their way through crooked, narrow streets, forcing pedestrians to press themselves up against the sides of buildings, as if in a police line-up, to avoid getting clipped by passing side-mirrors.
To an American, at least, and I suspect to most other people, the past has a strange and eerie power, which lingers in the present like a faint, musty odor. The whole city felt old. We went through a stone gate, passing churches and abbeys, climbing up a road that had possibly been laid down before my country was a country—perhaps before my country was even a colony.
In these moments, when in the presence of something truly antique, there is a certain type of pensiveness that comes upon us, a certain reverie which, we hope, is akin to wisdom. Being in the presence of an object so much older than ourselves puts our own lives into a historic perspective. We feel ourselves, all too briefly, to be but a small and passing phenomenon in the pageant of works and deeds that came before us and will continue after us. Our problems, struggles, and triumphs are made ridiculous in the face of these accomplishments, and we are humbled.
If there is something edifying or character-building about visiting historic sites, I suspect that the above is it. The problem, however, is that these contemplative moments—when the passing years yawn open in your mind like a chasm, swallowing you up until nothing remains but mute astonishment—are cut short by all the other people there, trying to do the exact same thing.
It is one of the paradoxes of travel that, because it’s supposed to be good for you, everyone does it; and because everyone does it, it ceases to be good for you. Nothing quite ruins the romance of gazing at an old statue like two people in front of it, taking a selfie. And not only does this ruin the romance, but it makes it hard to even get a good selfie yourself.
The first thing I wanted to do was to visit the cathedral—since that was the only thing I knew about, anyway. I typed “Toledo Cathedral” into my phone, and was helpfully shown the way with a blue path extending from the tips of my toes to one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe. Still, we managed to take a few wrong turns (I’m not sure mapping software was built for the crooked, tightly packed, criss-crossing roads of old towns like Toledo), and, as usual, I managed to leave my friend behind a few times as I ruthlessly powerwalked in whatever direction I thought was correct.
But gothic cathedrals are notoriously hard to miss; so in just twenty-minutes time, we found ourselves gaping upward at the magnificent Catedral Primada María de Toledo. It was even more marvelous than I’d expected. It was, in fact, probably the most beautiful structure that I’d ever seen. Most conspicuous was the tremendous spire, ornamented with spikes, reaching upward like a hand grasping towards heaven.
Hypnotized, we made our way towards it (though we took a short detour to examine the metal swords on sale in a gift shop), trying to find the entrance. Our search took us past the three great doors. In typical gothic style, these were surrounded by concentric archways, which had the effect of making them seem like portals to another world.
Every corner of the façade was stuffed with bas-reliefs of religious figures; the whole building, in fact, was covered in little statues, who prayed and chanted and sang endlessly to the heavens and to the earth. The entire Judeo-Christian tradition was there, the prophets, the apostles, angels and psalmists and kings and priests and even God.
It was a very strange feeling, standing there in front of those doors; it was as if the entire cathedral was looking down at us, judging our little lives. Perhaps because there were so many human figures carved into the walls, or perhaps because the whole building, both in its large-scale design and its fine details, was redolent with symbols and tradition—for whatever reason, the cathedral did not seem in that moment to be a mere hunk of stone, but strangely alive.
But of course, I couldn’t let this feeling linger long, for I had to take pictures. This done, we kept moving, slowly circling the entire edifice, until we ended up at the tourist entrance. Strange: there was no line; only a couple employees standing in front of the open door.
“Ask him if this is for the cathedral,” I told my friend.
“¿Por el catedral?” she asked.
“Sí, pero se abre a las dos,” he responded.
“It opens at two,” my friend told me.
Somewhat despondently, we pulled out the tourist map (the damn thing was useful, after all) and began looking for other things to do until then. The nearest attraction was the El Greco museum, so we decided on that.
Like most everything I encountered here, I knew almost nothing about El Greco before coming to Spain. I’d seen a few of his paintings in an art history textbook, and remembered liking them—but that’s about it. So I was understandably not very excited for the museum.
But I perked up a bit when the lady at the front desk told us it was free.
“Sweet!” I said, and in a few minutes we found ourselves standing in an old house, refurnished to give it the appearance it would’ve had during El Greco’s life.
“Imagine, El Greco, the famous painter, lived here!” I said to myself, looking around the quaint old place.
Unfortunately, I soon found out from reading a sign on the wall that he’d never lived here; in fact, his old house no longer exists. This museum was bought and built by some eccentric nobleman (if memory serves) under false pretenses, and the true state of affairs was discovered later.
Somehow, learning this made the experience considerably less cool. I’m not exactly sure why this is, mind you. Really, when you think it over, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the tourist’s search for the authentic is a bit silly.
The simple truth is that “authenticity” is not a property of objects, but of our perception of objects. Take these two scenarios: First, what if the sign told me that this was the real house, when it really wasn’t? And second, what if the sign told me that this wasn’t the real house, when it really was?
In the first scenario, I’d be thrilled; and in the second scenario, I’d be disappointed—even though the physical house would be, in both cases, identical. The simple fact is that I have no direct way of telling whether this or that particular house was the previous home to a famous Spanish Renaissance painter. My feelings of awe or anticlimax are thus pure exercises of my imagination; they are only tenuously related with the physical object. If told the house was real, I could imagine the painter himself (not that I know what he looked like) walking through these very halls; while if told the house was only a replica, these pleasant images wouldn’t spring so easily to mind. But of course, I can imagine El Greco wherever and whenever I want. And if I was a master of self-deception, maybe I could even convince myself that he’d lived in my own apartment?
To return to the museum, I wasn’t very impressed with it. Seeing old-fashioned furniture and old-fangled kitchens does not play strongly upon my passions. So I walked from room to room, my eyes passing over every surface, my mind somewhere else, until I found myself in a room filled with El Greco’s works.
My interest was piqued. Most of the paintings were individualized portraits of saints. One detail I remember in particular, which I learned from reading a caption, is that it’s a tradition in Catholic art to portray martyred saints holding the instrument with which they were killed. Thus, there were a few portraits of saints with crucifixes leaned upon them, staring straight into the viewer’s eyes, as if challenging us to equal their conviction.
But the most arresting painting of the lot was the portrait of St. Peter, teary-eyed, his hands clasped in prayer in front of his chest, beseeching heaven for forgiveness. He had just denied Christ (as in, denied he knew Christ) three times, just as Jesus prophesied, and was repenting for his cowardice.
It’s difficult to capture the feeling of standing before a great painting—especially for someone such as myself, who knows so little about art. But what I remember most are St. Peter’s eyes, sad and soft, seeming to twinkle as you looked at the portrait.
This was near the end of our walk through the museum; and soon we found ourselves, once again, standing on the streets, wondering what to do. Thankfully, it was almost two o’clock; so after eating a brief lunch—and a very early lunch, for Spaniards—we were on our way, once again, to visit one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.
The line was short, the wait was brief, the price of admission came with an audioguide; and in just a few minutes, we found ourselves standing under the vaulted ceiling of Toledo Cathedral.
The first thing I noticed upon entering was the smell. It was a scent I had experienced at least once before, at a concert in a church in New York. Perhaps this is a scent associated with all catholic places of worship—I don’t know. What I do know is that, whatever the smell is, I love it. I find it intoxicating and irresistible. I know this sounds funny, but I wish my whole life smelled like this, for there is something unearthly and calming about it, as if this faint fragrance is above all of the petty concerns and vain ambitions, all of the weaknesses and frailties that beset human life. It is a smell that puts the whole cosmos in perspective. I’d buy it if I knew where to find it.
The next feeling is a vertiginous sense of height. The ceiling, made entirely of heavy stone, hovers high up above you, suspended in mid-air. Light pours in through stained-glass windows, dozens of feet up, making the top of the cathedral brighter than the bottom; it is as if heaven itself is illuminating the space. At ground level, meanwhile, the place is dusky and dim—a twilight of religious mystery. The building is just as impressive on the ears as on the eyes. Footsteps, snatches of conversation, coughs, sneezes, and whispers are all quickly picked up by the towering room, carried up to the top of the building, bounced off the walls, and returned to you as indistinct murmuring. Even your own breath seems far away.
I put on the audioguide and began the virtual tour. I’ve quickly developed a strong liking for audioguides. They are private—preserving the individual experience, and giving you the freedom to go where you please—but they also connect you intimately with your surroundings. Left to my own devices, a particular religious work of art, for example, might be wholly unintelligible; but with an expert in my ear, guiding my eye, feeding me information, a meaningless image becomes an icon, laden with symbolism. This way, I was led by my ears all through the cathedral, then into its museum, then outside into the cloister, and then back in again, learning about kings, cardinals, saints, and artists.
Perhaps this is only a modern prejudice, but I am normally tempted to say that art is a form of self-expression. Yet this definition is wholly inadequate when faced with something like the Toledo Cathedral. So many hands contributed to this building, across so many years, in so many different styles, that it’s obvious that the building is not the expression of any individual. Rather, the building seems to be the expression of an age, of a religion, of a whole people. It is a blend of sensibilities across centuries.
I can’t hope to recount all the different tombs and temples contained in that church; and besides, such a straightforward list would be dull. I will try, however, to articulate why I found my time in the cathedral so profoundly moving, even though I am not at all religious.
But what does it mean to be religious? Does it mean to believe certain dogmas and to endorse a particular mythology? A single glance at the cathedral would give you this impression. Every spare surface has been ornamented with an image from the Judeo-Christian saga. During the Middle Ages, I can imagine these pictures and sculptures being a visual Bible for the unlettered farmers who prayed here, inculcating the faith through the sight rather than words.
“Faith” and “belief” are words we often hear associated with religion. Although some church fathers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, attempted to persuade others with reason, in the church’s history tremendous clashes of power and violence were waged over doctrinal differences. Arianism, the belief that Jesus was distinct and subordinate to God the Father, came very close to being made the orthodox belief, until it was slowly beaten back by its opponents; and a war had to be waged during the Middle Ages, the Albigensian Crusade, to wipe out a puritanical sect of Christians who had adopted a dualist view of the cosmos (i.e. holding that there was both an evil and a good force in the universe). I give these two examples only to show that, in the history of religion, or at least of Catholicism, a lot of ink and blood has been spilled to establish one belief over another.
Insofar as religion consists in holding beliefs in the supernatural, I can’t abide by it. It seems to me a violence to human reason to enforce beliefs based neither on evidence nor logic. But once the pretentions to reality of Catholic dogma are pared away, once we discredit and ignore the occult elements, what are we left with?
What remains is a complex medley of stories and rituals, myths and legends, customs and ceremonies. Without the core of belief, this remnant can perhaps be called the “shell” of the religion. For Catholicism, this shell is partly physical, partly immaterial. The intangible portion of the remainder consists of the wonderful stories—Adam and Eve, David and Samuel, Jesus and the apostles—full of drama and wit and wisdom. The material remainder consists of things like the Book of Kells, the Hagia Sophia, and of course the Toledo Cathedral.
Taken together, I’d argue that the remaining shell of the religion can be seen, not simply as an anthropological curiosity, but a tremendous work of art. The Catholic religion is like a beautiful, multi-colored tapestry, spread over the whole of human life. Or perhaps it can be better described as an aesthetic system, through which the mundane events of daily life are dramatized. The beauty often hidden in our humdrum affairs is accentuated and given meaning within this tradition. Like a painter, the myths and rituals of religion begin with something ordinary—a shopkeeper, a sunny evening in the park, a few objects sitting on a table—and transforms them into something beautiful and significant.
Of course, I can’t claim any originality for this thought; many have said this before. The Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana, is my most direct influence in seeing religion this way. Here is a quote from his book, The Life of Reason: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.”
This is an image which has stuck with me: a flower taking nutrients from the unremarkable and ugly dirt, and turning them into a blossom of color. And is not something similar happening when, as in Catholicism, every day of the calendar year commemorates the life of a saint, whose heroic deeds are recounted in dramatic stories? Is not something similar happening when every stage of life and death is marked by a sacrament and a ritual?
These meditations filled my head as I wandered through Toledo Cathedral, gasping up at the ceiling, staring in continuous awe at the many paintings and statues and frescoes contained therein. It was an experience which, I predict, I’ll remember all my life.
The rest of my time in Toledo was, of course, something of an anticlimax compared to this. We visited a synagogue, used by the Sephardic Jews before they were expelled in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs. But the main impression left on me by that museum was that I would do well to read The Ornament of the World, by María Rosa Menocal, which tells the story of the brief period of mutual tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain.
We also visited a temporary exhibition on torture devices, which consisted of replicas of torture devices, alongside gory descriptions of how they were used on their poor victims. The information was framed in the context of the Spanish Inquisition, when torture was used to extract confessions from accused heretics. However, I now suspect that the information presented was untrustworthy, or at least greatly exaggerated. For example, the exhibition had an iron maiden, but according to the Wikipedia article—which I trust!—there is no reliable evidence of the existence of iron maidens before 1793; and although several iron maidens are on display around the world, its unlikely that any of them were ever used. It seems to be an invention of our morbid modern imagination, rather than a condemnation of medieval times.
After this, we tried to visit the Hospital de Tavera, a medical center constructed during the Renaissance. But, unfortunately for us, the place was closed by the time we got there. Oh well.
We were out of time. The train was leaving in 25 minutes, and the station was 20 minutes away. So we powerwalked and jogged the kilometer between the town and the train station, quickly passing through the beautiful station building, presented our tickets, and boarded the train—this time, making sure to sit down in our proper seats. My friend fell asleep shortly after sitting down, and I almost did the same; in thirty minutes, we were exiting the gate which had so eluded us that morning.
“Whew, that was fun,” said my friend. “What’s next?”