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Immortalized by El Greco, Toledo is steeped in history

Coming down the highway from Madrid, you see Toledo perched on a lonely promontory, surrounded by the gashed hills that El Greco so accurately rendered: an ancient city of rock, a Moorish and Hispanic fortress. The R'io Tajo curls around the base of the stony battlements, making it look impregnable and aloof. But hundreds of years after its glory days as a walled city of war, Toledo is definitely in the business of being accessible.

A constant flow of tourists pours out of Madrid each morning to travel the 70 kilometers (45 miles) to Toledo. Tickets are sold hand over fist to most attractions here. Narrow streets are thronged with foot and vehicular traffic, and the canny visitor to this engrossing city needs to devise a strategy for coping with the crowds.

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The best advice -- and, perhaps, the only sure way of finding a little solitude -- is to spend the night here.

Most visitors add Toledo as a one-day loop to their itinerary through Madrid and central Spain. It is impossible to take in the city in so short a time, and anyway, part of the charm of this town is found in a twilight prowl through its twisted streets and tortuous alleys.

Nothing architectural can be changed here, since Toledo is a national monument and is therefore protected by the government of Spain, which has spent much money and time reconstructing what was lost over centuries of war, internal strife, and violent repression.

Not that all of Toledo's history is associated with bloodshed. In the 16th century this city stood as Spain's cultural capital -- drawing the best artists and thinkers in the country and renowned throughout Europe for its thriving artistic life. That reputation is probably what attracted the Greek painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, commonly known as El Greco.

And it is El Greco who comes to mind when you look at the city, especially from the nearby ridge, where he painted his famous ``View of Toledo,'' a vision of the city embedded in the surrounding layers of hills. The day I saw it, the sky was filled with storm clouds, just as it must have been when El Greco painted it.

It's El Greco's work you see plastered all over church walls and in his own house and museum -- a life's work, poured out by a modernist born five centuries before his time.

At the Catedral, for instance, 13 portraits (Christ Jesus and the 12 apostles) circle the sacristy with haunting images. El Greco's figures, suspended in space, seem to move with an eerily human quality within the frame. He was an incomparable colorist, who, after absorbing the teaching of Michelangelo and Titian, forged his own unmistakable signature. His characters -- massive, rapturous, and full of drama -- populate the cathedral, as well as the nearby El Greco House and Museum and the Hospital de Tavera, just outside the Puerta de Bisagra.

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This city gate (actually two gates, one from the 9th century, the other from the 15th) is the entrance to Toledo that greets you when you come off the main artery onto the Paseo de Madrid, a short avenue leading into the city.

The barreled turrets and artfully detailed gates give a good symbolic introduction to the city's mingled industries of ordnance and art. Practically every street is crammed with small shops selling replicas of the swords and knives for which Toledo was once justifiably famous, side by side with reproductions of great Spanish statuary and painting.

Strangely, the city's underlying authenticity is not subverted by such commerce. And maybe that is because, at almost every turn, you can find places to slip away to -- solid, quiet, and ancient shelters. One of these is the courtyard of San Juan de Los Reyes, with its cypresses and orange tree, where you can walk in filtered light among the tall pillars. Or there's Santa Mar'ia la Blanca, a synagogue purged in the 14th century, whose spareness stands in remarkable contrast to the ornate detail of Spanish religious architecture throughout Toledo.

The workmanship in the Catedral, for instance, is incomparable. It represents the devotion of thousands of skilled hands over hundreds of years. It contains a treasure-trove of splendors. El Transparente, a frieze, is positioned to catch, through a hole in the roof, direct sunlight, which turns it into a celebration of color and form. The gothic Catedral seems more like a small dark city than a single building, what with its lofty ceilings and vast floor spaces, big enough to house several churches. Separate chapels contain ornate gold and silver religious statues. Robes, miters, and other objects accumulated over the centuries are found in a profusion of niches in the walls or preserved in glass cases to be ogled by the multitudes.

The aura of mystery and surprise in the city's many alleyways and blind turns seems to culminate in the ancient Alc'azar, the massive 13th-century fortified castle rising above the city walls. The Alc'azar was repeatedly rebuilt after successive sieges that occurred right up until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Inside, an occasional sunbeam stabs through a chink in the thick stone walls, illuminating a single square of a dungeon-like cell. In contrast, the vast inner courtyard is filled with sunlight.

Around the Alc'azar at twilight, the city goes all dreamy and soft. You can see across long distances. If you take a drive up the high road that loops around the city, you see at first a warren of tiled roofs surrounded by stone battlements. The farther you get from the fortress, though, the more the roofs disappear, and all you can see is the more bellicose aspect of this walled city of Toledo. Practical information:

Toledo is reachable from Madrid in an hour-and-a-half to two hours by automobile along Highway 401, or via public transportation.

Many tourists book fly-drive packages or full excursions, available through travel agents. Madrid hotels provide such excursions. I suggest staying overnight, perhaps at the Parador Conde de Orgaz or one of the city's three-star hotels: Alfonso VI, Cardenal, or Carlos V.

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