Travel log Spain: Day three, Toledo

I slept poorly, most likely due to jet lag. Even though I went to sleep at midnight, I woke up just over two hours later and couldn’t get back to sleep until 5:30. But I wanted to go to Toledo on this day, so I was out of bed at 7:30 AM.

I walked the several blocks to Atocha station and despite desperately wanting coffee, I made it my first order of business to buy my train ticket. High speed trains run between several key cities in Spain, and I would be taking my very first high speed trip this day. For the longer high speed train journeys the best prices are secured when buying tickets in advance online, but for the shorter trips such as the one between Madrid and Toledo the cost is the same online as it is in person.

Atocha station was confusing to me. It’s a big station that not only serves as a terminal for cross country train travel, it also serves as a local commuter rail (Cercanías) station. I didn’t find the signage very helpful and had to ask where to buy my ticket. Once I secured my one-way ticket, I scoped out where to board the train. This also took me quite a while to figure out, and I was desperately wanting coffee and breakfast the whole time. Finally, I felt that I had the layout down and was able to get a café cortado and a croissant. I had 15 minutes to enjoy my breakfast, then boarded the train.

In 2004 there were terrorist bombings of several Cercanías trains at Atocha station. I’m not sure if security has been beefed up since then or if there was security screening in place before the bombings, but before boarding the train we were required to put our bags through the same sort of screening machines used at the airports. This wasn’t just a Madrid station requirement, though. I took two more train trips while in Spain and for each one passenger baggage was screened.

The train left at 9:20 AM and a short time later we were arriving in Toledo, approximately 72 km (45 miles) away.

Arrival in Toledo

Arrival in Toledo. Literally a mile a minute on the high speed train!

The train station was beautiful, but I didn’t have time to linger. I went all touristy when I arrived and headed for a bus that promised to drive us to the scenic overlook of the city made famous by El Greco, and then drop us in town. As I headed to the bus stand, I bought a map for 2€. I barely used this map so it was a complete waste, unfortunately. The tour bus company gave us all maps that proved to be pretty decent, so I used that one instead.

The topography of Toledo and its surrounds is very hilly and I was also glad to not have to walk uphill into town; this alone made the 6€ bus trip worthwhile since a cab would have been similar in price. The overlook was beautiful and while it was a clear day it was also a cold one. I’m sure the open upper deck of the bus must have had the best view, but I decided to ride inside and stay a bit warmer.

Overlooking Toledo

Overlooking Toledo

After we arrived at Plaza Zocodover, the main square in town, we were given some suggestions on what landmarks to visit and suggestions on how to return to the train station. And then I was off!

Toledo is a charming city that retains it’s medieval character. It’s well known as being the home of the painter El Greco and for its grand cathedral (visible in the photo just left of center). I visited houses of worship for all three big “religions of the book” in this small town where Christians, Jews and Muslims once lived peacefully together. It was also the first UNESCO World Heritage site I visited on this trip, but certainly not the last.

I loved Toledo. Walking the hills wasn’t so bad when one can do so at a leisurely pace, and the narrow streets were very different than the wide boulevards of Madrid or Chicago.

A Toledo street

A Toledo street. I also saw many For Sale signs here. (The costumed characters aren't real, by the way!)

Despite snacking on a granola bar brought from Chicago and a piece of fruit purchased the day before, I was famished by 13:00 and had to eat lunch. This was early by Spanish standards, but I just couldn’t hold out any longer. I stopped at a small cafetería that looked well-populated by locals having a snack (croquettas with wine or beer seemed to be the preferred thing to nosh), took a seat at the counter, and ordered the menu del dia. This time I had a bowl of sopa del dia (a chicken broth with fine egg noodles), lomo with patatas fritas (grilled pork tenderloin with fries) and a cerveza for 10€.

I wandered around Toledo a bit more after lunch. I had made it to the Sephardic Museum (housed in an old synagogue), the grand cathedral, the Santo Tomé church (where I ogled El Greco’s famous painting The Burial of the Count of Orgaz after paying 2,30€ and caught the end of a mass in the main chapel for free), and the old mezquita or mosque (I didn’t pay to go inside the mezquita here). By now it was late afternoon and I had returned to the Plaza Zocodover to decide what to do next. At 10:30 in the morning this plaza was pretty dead, but by mid-afternoon it was full of people strolling, talking, eating, and just socializing in general.

I bought a few dulces (sweets) at the Mazapán San Tomé shop on Plaza Zocodover. Marzapan (as we call it in English) is a sweet paste made of almonds. Toledo is apparently well-known for mazapán and I have to say these sweets were the best marzapan confections I’ve ever had. The marzapan I’ve had in the past came from Germany and I thought it much too sweet. The Toledo mazapán was just sweet enough and had a nice fruity flavor to it. I bought about four pieces and made myself save two for later.

To accompany my sweets I wanted coffee, but I also wanted to sit out on the square in the sun and not at a café table. How to get a coffee to go? I didn’t know how to ask for something “to go” and my phrasebooks (a print on and two different electronic ones on my iPhone) just weren’t agreeing on how to say this. So I went into McDonalds to get a coffee, since everything at McDonalds is packaged to go.

Apparently the opening of a McDonalds fronting the historic Plaza Zocodover was rather controversial, although it was allowed. I saw lots of people in the McDonalds, and it was not American tourists filling the place up. McDonalds in Toledo did not have American style drip coffee; it had the typical Spanish coffee selections of café con leche or café cortado. I ordered a café cortado and took it out to the plaza. I felt compelled to take a photo of it, which I’ll share here. This is a typical McDonalds coffee in Spain.

Cafe cortado from McDonalds in Toledo

Cafe cortado from McDonalds in Toledo

I placed the guidebook I was using next to it for size comparison. A café con leche would have been a bit larger, due to the extra milk. It still would be much tinier than the coffee servings we’re used in the U.S.

After my snack, I was ready to go. I decided to walk back to the train station since it would be all downhill and pretty easy. As I left the plaza and started walking the direction indicated by the guide in the morning I got a bit worried that I couldn’t find the map he had given me. I must have dropped it somewhere, but I really wanted to verify my route before going far downhill. I stopped to check the other map I had purchased that morning, but I couldn’t orient myself with it after spending all day using the other style map.

I stopped a young couple who were walking around with the same style map from the tour bus company and asked them in Spanish “Donde esta estacion del tren?” They didn’t seem to know, but responded to me with some English. I explained that I had lost my map and was turned around, but we were still not able to establish the correct route.

They continued on their way as I stood there struggling with the strange map for another minute or two. Then they turned back to me and offered me their map and some new observations of how to follow it to the train station. That was so kind of them and typical of the people I encountered in Spain. I’m sure they just needed a few minutes to process through my question and comments, and once they had figured it out they offered as much help as they could give.

Until I had the train station in sight, I was still a bit anxious during my walk through the walls of the old city and across the river on a scenic bridge. The topography of Toledo is so much a part of it’s charm. Because it is situated high on a bluff and surrounded on three sides by the river it’s easy to see why it was a desirable place to build a town back when land wars were common.

At the train station I went to the window to buy a one-way ticket to Madrid. After I got my ticket I noticed the board announcing the departure schedule and saw how lucky I had been: with the exception of the train for which I was now ticketed, every remaining train was sold out that day! I don’t know what I would have done if I had decided to linger in the square even 20 minutes later; I may have been stuck in Toledo for the night!

During the ride back to Madrid I fell asleep which made the already quick journey go by even faster. Although it was still pretty early by Spanish standards, I didn’t have much energy left after running all day on such a little amount of sleep so I decided it would be an early night. Besides, I had to pack and settle my bill that night since I needed to leave the hotel very early to catch my bus to Granada the next morning.

While settling my bill at the hostal, I ran into a small snag. The hotelier had taken my reservation with a credit card, but I was now being asked to pay for the room in cash. Luckily due to my big withdrawal I had the 150€ on hand, but it necessitated another trip to the ATM since I definitely needed 120€ cash for my hostal in Granada the very next day. Throughout Spain I found that credit and debit cards weren’t used very much by locals. I had to pick up the habit since I usually pay for everything with one of my rewards credit card at home (I do pay the bills off every month).

I was concerned about how I would get coffee and breakfast the next morning with such an early departure and I was feeling lazy so I stopped at the Starbucks near my hotel that evening. I bought a sandwich for dinner and a breakfast for the next day: a venti americano coffee (yes, Starbucks had venti size in Spain!) and a yogurt parfait. (I had figured out a clever way to keep my yogurt parfait cold overnight, too. I hung it out the window in it’s little Starbucks bag, and secured it with an extra carabiner clip, just in case. The americano coffee had no milk in it, so it could sit on the desk all night; I just had to drink room temperature coffee the next morning.)

Next to the Starbucks was a little convenience store where I also bought a can of beer to enjoy with my sandwich that night. Beer helps me sleep well, and I was concerned that jet lag would mess me up again; the next day was going to start very early, so I needed to be well-rested!

Spending summary
Food: 30,25€ (included next day’s breakfast)
Entertainment: 17,30€ (tours, entrance fees, map)
Transit: 21,20€ (AVANT high speed train tickets)
Hotel: 150€