Visiting Spain: ‘Holy Toledo’ has long history, interesting legends
Once upon a time, two lovers were separated by war. To pray for her soldier’s safe return, the young lady would visit an image of the Virgin Mary and pray every night.
Afraid that she might fall asleep during her long vigil, the lady asked her maid to stick her with a pin if she faltered in her prayers. Then the lady would present the pin to the Virgin Mary as proof of her dedication and sacrifice.
The story had a happy ending. The soldier survived and the two lovers were reunited. In honor of the blessing that took place at this site, a narrow street in the ancient Spanish city of Toledo is now named Calle de los Alfileritos (Little Pins Street).
“Today, the legend is that if you leave a pin in the little opening here at the window with the image of the Virgin Mary and ask for a boyfriend, your prayer may be answered,” said guide Almudena Cencerrado, pushing a pin through the tiny hole.
It was easy to see that many pin wishes already resided within the spot. Safety pins, bobby pins, straight pins, hat pins and long needles were piled inside the frame. Don’t know whether the pin prayer works or not. Although Cencerrado offered me a pin, I already found the man of my dreams decades ago.
Known as “The City of Three Cultures,” Toledo is filled with legends and lore from the diverse people who have lived here.
The city is a historic symbol of peace, tolerance and cooperation between civilizations. Three cultures lived here and flourished – the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims.
Located on a mountain top, Toledo is surrounded on three sides by the Tajo River. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1986, Toledo is a university town filled with historic sites, churches and streets so narrow that even compact automobiles can scarcely navigate them. It is a beautiful city for walking.
“Every year, more and more buildings are restored and opened to the public,” Cencerrado said. “Toledo was once the capital of Spain, known as the Imperial City, a city that ruled the world in that time.”
Toledo known as ‘Western Jerusalem’
Known as Sephardics, Jews lived in Toledo for about 1,500 years after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.
“Toledo was known as the Western Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world … Sephardic Jews considered Spain their own country and the 13th century was the Sephardic Golden Age in Spain,” Cencerrado said.
But in 1492 – at the same time that Christopher Columbus was discovering the New World – Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II decided to rid Spain of its Jews. Jews were given a choice – either convert to Catholicism, leave the country or die.
As many as 200,000 Spanish Jews were forced to leave their homes. Others changed their religion – or pretended to – in order to stay.
“Many of us have Jewish heritage,” Cencerrado said. “No one is sure how many Jews decided to stay and pretend to change their religion.”
Even today, local lore says that many of the Jews who were forced to leave Toledo kept the keys to their homes in hopes they might one day return.
“People cry when they come here because it is so special to them,” Cencerrado said. “Most of them never returned … But the Jews left behind their language, food, scholarship and music. It is still part of our culture.”
One of those infamous palaces of the Spanish Inquisition is now a museum during the day and a disco at night. “It was a torture chamber, now it’s a bar,” Cencerrado said.
How ‘Holy Toledo’ got its nickname
Walking through the winding cobblestone streets, Cencerrado explained the expression of “Holy Toledo.” When the capital of Spain moved from Toledo to Madrid, other wealthy families followed and donated their homes and buildings to the church for tax-exempt property.
With so many church buildings, Toledo came to be known as “Holy Toledo.”
Even though I grew up in Ohio, I didn’t know about the connection between the Toledo in Ohio and the Toledo in Spain.
“We are sister cities,” Cencerrado said, pointing to a tile sign on a building that pays tribute to Toledo, Ohio.
That also explains how the newspaper in Toledo, Ohio, got its name.
“Toledo is well known for its swords and knives,” Cencerrado said of her Spanish hometown. “The ‘Lord of the Rings’ sword was made in Toledo.”
So when the newspaper in Toledo, Ohio, was first published on Dec. 19, 1835, it was named The Toledo Blade as a tribute to the heritage of its Spanish sister. Also, at the time the newspaper was founded, the Ohio-Michigan War was being waged for the control of Lucas County, Ohio.
It was believed, Cencerrado said, that The Toledo Blade would “always leap from its scabbard whenever the rights of individuals, or the community, shall be infringed.”
-Story and Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
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