I have passed too many autumns to be excited about a toy train ride. Even during my childhood in Kolkata, I hardly ever jumped on a toy train because of two reasons. One, I had a better option: trams. Two, there was just one such train in Communist-ruled Kolkata.
But in Toledo, a ride in the city’s tourist toy train from Plaza de Zocodover is the best way to see the medieval marvel that sits pretty on an undulating terrain like an umbrella food cover with the Tagus river wrapped around it. The train takes excited visitors around Toledo, and then across the river to show off a panoramic view of the city.
To be honest, visiting Toledo was not in our original plan. Ruchira and I had several rounds of debate over machher jhol and rice on whether we should zero in on Barcelona or Madrid. Ultimately, as happens with most middle class travel dreams, air fares decided our destiny. We got return tickets for Madrid on Qatar Airways for just ~28,000 and betrayed Catalunya.
Toledo is just half an hour’s ride from Madrid in the Spanish bullet train. Before it actually came to India for trial runs and got stuck in red tape, I took a bullet train on a sunny autumn day to reach Toledo.
The first glimpse outside the station is pretty unimpressive, I must admit. The main city – the Unesco World Heritage Site – is a short ride by bus.
The ride on the winding roads towards Plaza de Zocodover, the main city square, is a journey to remember. There’s no need to look for the old quarters because the entire city exudes a vintage charm. The houses are mostly painted a pale brown and wear red clay tiles on their roofs. It’s pulchritude in motion.
Oh, how did I forget to say that Toledo is the heartbeat of La Mancha, the flat lands immortalised by Miguel de Cervantes? This part of Spain is drastically different from all other areas – dramatic and straight out of fiction. No wonder Cervantes found it the perfect stage for Don Quixote, the eccentric hidalgo who sought to re-enact the age of chivalry, accompanied by a simple farmer, Sancho Panza. If you think a word of caution needs to be said to the senile gentleman and his squire, head straight to Plaza de Espana in Madrid, where their bronze statues are planning their next mission.
We spend an entire day in Toledo, roaming through its Banares-type by-lanes between the Alcazar and the Cathedral. It is teeming with tourists, day-trippers from Madrid, and worshippers. Ruchira is so impressed with the cathedral interiors, I lose her twice in the crowds. Fearing that she might shun me permanently, I wriggle out of the temple to settle for more worldly things like a plate full of paella.
This little piggy
We had almost decided on taking the night train from Madrid to Lisbon. But I heard somewhere about Salamanca, a quaint city close to the Spanish capital. Discovering that the train stops there, we quickly change our schedule and add two nights in Salamanca on the way.
And what a good decision it turns out to be! If Bruges is the prettiest medieval town of Europe, Salamanca is not far behind. The university town boasting the country’s oldest seat of learning is like a time machine. The old town – built entirely in sandstone with lookalike grand edifices – takes you back to the early 18th century when the city was the Cambridge of southern Europe.
Our hotel is right on the edge of the old city, across the ultimate Plaza Mayor (main square). After check-in, we head to the market to buy fruits – as if it is a very important task – from local sellers. I am perhaps the only buyer at the fruit mart. For others have queued up to buy what Spaniards love the most: jamon (ham). While I take less than a minute to buy two bananas (at a far cheaper price than Rahul Bose had to shell out at his hotel in India), an average Salamancan needs at least seven minutes to buy ham. He closely observes the different varieties to pick the best one. Then he enters in a serious discussion with fellow customers to be doubly sure. And finally, he buys it. Jamon, like football, is a religion in Spain.
Salamanca, however, offers something that gives a tough competition to Jamon: toston or suckling pig. In the evening, when the entire city seems to have gathered at various plazas, we come to Don Mauro, the iconic restaurant in Plaza Mayor. After a long wait, two pieces of pork in a see-through curry is served along with fresh bread. The food is fabulous, and perfectly blends with the festive mood of the place.
Toledo exudes a vintage charm. The houses are painted a pale brown and wear red clay tiles on their roofs. It’s pulchritude in motion.
“Did you try the tapas at Café de Chinitas?” the caretaker of an old tower asks us.
We have climbed up the Clerecia Tower and are soaking in the breathtaking views of the city when he comes up to politely remind us that the gate will be closed in 15 minutes.
Ruchira tells him, “That’s a pity… we could have stood here for the rest of our lives,” to which, he asks in broken English, “Where are you guys coming from?”
“Delhi, India,” I answer.
His next question: “What’s the population of Delhi?”
“About 29 million,” I reply.
His eyes almost pop out. “Dios mío! My wife is from Bulgaria. That entire country is less populated than your city,” says Alex.
He invites me to visit his village and also insists that we go to Café de Chinitas. “It’s my favourite place,” Alex laughs, promising to come to India one day.
It’s a football night and Real Madrid has hit the pitch. So Café Chinitas is a packed house with clients glued to the TV screen. A table is, however, available. The one in front of the toilet.
But the main problem lies elsewhere. Neither the owner nor his daughter understands a word of English except “football”. Luckily, after handling many tourists from exotic locations, they have mastered the art of sign language. It saves our day.
And when they notice that I am rejoicing at Madrid’s victory by ordering more tapas, they are convinced about my finer tastes in life.
Nearer to God
On a full moon night, Ruchira and I go for a romantic walk along the Roman bridge across the river Tormes. It’s a bridge between the old and the new. On one bank lies the modern extensions of Salamanca. As we turn around, the bell towers of the new cathedral bask under the floodlight, like a gateway to a mystic world.
The cathedral is to Salamanca what Hawa Mahal is to Jaipur. It’s a star tourist attraction. And in 1993, when it was restored for the last time, a sculptor surreptitiously added a small astronaut on a gate that is flamboyantly Gothic.
There was an uproar. But liberal and witty Salamancans said, let it remain there. After all, astronauts are the closest to God!
A reunion party of the university alumni seems to be going on when we visit the original premises of the University of Salamanca. Former students of all ages have thronged in large numbers in an otherwise quiet corner of the city. We ask for permission, and they promptly invite us to come inside to see the great institution established in 1230. “Do you know Christopher Columbus had come here before he went on his voyage?” says a proud former student.
We enter a classroom. It’s a large hall with thick, wooden beams acting as tables and benches, and looks more like a school. There is a pulpit at the far end for teachers to climb up and deliver lectures.
The cathedral is to Salamanca what Hawa Mahal is to Jaipur. when it was restored in 1993, a sculptor added a small astronaut on a gate.
A statue of Fray Luis de Leon stands outside the main gate. He was a free-thinker, and as happens with many free-thinkers, he was picked up from a class during the Inquisition. He was jailed and brutally tortured.
But those were the days of grit and valour. After five years, Fray Luis de Leon returned and opened his lecture with “As I was saying…”