Here’s the second entry from my trip to Spain and Portugal in November and December of 2021. A walk through Madrid set off a weird chain of events. Everything culminated by being awed by the city of Toledo, Spain. So hold on and take some time to read through the craziness! Collected from quick emails sent from the road, here’s some of my experiences on this incredible trip:
After seeing three museums in three days, I needed a me day. I casually woke up and wandered out from barrio to barrio and soaked up Madrid on a bright, sunny day. I ended up in the neighborhood of the archeological museum, and it was free, so I snaked through ten thousand years of human history in the Iberian peninsula.The museum had a replica of the Altamira Cave, complete with replica cave paintings. Unfortunately, it was closed due to Covid, but the real cave is closed to Covid as well, so what are you going to do? Also, you can’t be too disappointed in not seeing things you didn’t know existed until hours beforehand.
In Search Of…
We all have dreams, and sometimes you don’t get what you want. One of my biggest dreams is to spend a year crisscrossing Europe seeing all the holy relics stashed away at Catholic churches. These are the original circus sideshows. Instead of a Fiji Mermaid or a bearded lady, it’s a splinter of the cross or a saint’s bone. The devotion, forgeries and wild histories of the items wows me. The whole idea of the relics falls completely in line with my absolute devotion and love of fast talking infomercials, shilling spineless evangelical southern preachers and all the wild unknown mysteries like the Loch Ness and crazy alien stories that fascinated me as a child.
So, in short, in Madrid, I visited a little church that possessed the BONES OF ST VALENTINE. You know his holiday in February, but I’ve now seen his skull! Apparently he was beheaded for marrying troops who were told they couldn’t get married, and cured somebody of epilepsy once. It was cool too – a pile of brown aged bones in a golden tabernacle with an inscription in Spanish painted on at the bottom. I checked that one off!
Except I sorta didn’t. Sorta. Apparently, there’s a whole other skull and bones of St Valentine in Rome, with other various pieces of our loving saint in Glasgow, Prague, and even Dublin. So that was a bit disappointing, but buyer’s beware/sucker born every minute/god bless you/whatever you’d like to hear.
El Retiro in Madrid
Before I found this out, my ‘me day’ continued as I finally hit up El Retiro during the daytime. Located across from the Prado, El Retiro is a gigantic park. Filled with tons of pathways, arches, statues and trimmed shrubbery and beautiful trees, it was absolute relaxation. I put on some music and walked through almost every pathway there for hours. I ended up at the lake in the middle. Sitting under a huge sculpture, I watched the people enjoying the day. Men were rowing their ladies around, ducks were ducking, and the sun glistened on the light waves of the water. It was a great day. I even bought myself a double scoop cone and had to eat it fast on the warm day.
As messy as it is sometimes, art and life always find a way of overlapping, and today was no different. In the middle of El Retiro there is the Crystal Palace. It’s a gorgeous glass building in the middle of the woods. An unbelievable installation of art by a Phillipines artist, Kidlat Tahimik filled the space today. It was part of the Reina Sofia Museum’s programs, and was a standout and a good day to end my day out. The entire space was filled with an array of sculptures (often boats) carved from wood, using Mickey Mouse and other pop iconography to comment on colonialism and imperialism. I walked around the exhibit at least three times in wonder.
Making Plans for Toledo
I had limited time in Toledo, I needed to come up with a quick plan to see what was there. A must see was the giant Gothic cathedral in the center of the city. Built on the site of an old mosque and its a place where ‘Christianity, Judaism and Islam’ have existed. While formulating my plan, I came across this:
“Do you know that in Toledo Cathedral more than a hundred relics are preserved? These include fragments of the Lignum Crucis, the thorns of the crown of Christ, the milk of the Virgin Mary, the purple tunic of Christ, the towel Jesus girded and washed the feet of the apostles on Good Friday, the sheet with which he wrapped his body in the tomb and the cloths of his childhood…”-Some tourist website for Toledo, Spain
The ABSOLUTE MOTHERLODE! This Cathedral has BREAST MILK from the VIRGIN MARY. My heart raced and I couldn’t believe the relics this church possessed. I was ready! The next day I was off to Toledo on a quick 35 minute train ride. Toledo is an ancient city, the former capitol of Spain, settled by the Visigoths, and having Roman, Moorish, and Catholic eras. Its got hulking city walls and most everything is built out of stone.
I found my way through the winding cobblestoned streets until I stumbled upon the Cathedral. The streets are not wide and are more like walkways. Somehow this gigantic Cathedral was built into a weird configuration that didn’t stand out too much from the rest of the ancient buildings throughout Toledo. I stood outside for about 15 minutes just staring at the carvings over the gates. I bought a ticket and went inside.
Remember what I said about dreams? Sometimes dreams don’t always come true. Years ago, after news of Tiger Wood’s’ infidelity broke, I was at an airport and some business in the business of advising businesses had an ad that showed Tiger on the course looking down at his ball in the rough. The quasi inspirational tag of the ad was, ‘What matters is what you do next’
On to Toledo…
Why this all matters is because after finding out about all of the incredibly ridiculous relics this church contained, not a single one was on view. They are locked away from the public’s eyes. I would be standing in the very same building and be unable to see any of them, including the very towel Jesus washed the feet of his apostles at the Last Supper. Saddened by not seeing any of the relics, I paid my 10 euro and entered the Catedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo.
There are only so many words that you can use to describe things that inspire awe. I’m afraid to use any of them here because they just seem dull. The scale and intricacy of the ornamentation! The arched ceilings! Pillars that were at least 30’ in diameter! The gold backdrop behind the altar – which sounds sacrilegious to merely call it an altar. Nothing made sense! The longer I wandered through the cathedral, the more I got lost in its scale and just felt astounded.
I even overheard a tour guide describe the Monstrance as ‘monstrous’. He seemed proud of his clever turn of his English. There was no arguing, it was about 14 feet tall and weighed 450 pounds of gold and silver and precious gems.
It was one of the best experiences I’ve had seeing an ancient church. Like the constant thought I had in the Prado (‘It’s unfair they have this much great stuff’), every corner I turned in the Cathedral, from its room of portraits of cardinals to every statue, chapel and portal led to some other unimaginable extravagance, architecturally or otherwise. I thought the experience of seeing the Black Goya room would be the most intense part of this trip, but this was just crazy. So even when your dreams crash, sometimes the universe has its own plan.
Puente de San Martin
I left the Cathedral and wandered the winding streets. My mind was still coming to terms with what I just witnessed. I took a walk along the ancient ramparts and gates, I came one of the bridges that spans the River Tagus that circles Toledo. The Puente de San Martin bridge is one of the newer bridges in Toledo, originally built in the 14th Century. Cervantes even wrote about Don Quixote crossing over its five huge gorgeous arches. I walked along the riverbanks overlooking the bridge, then leisurely crossed it and caught the view of Toledo’s city walls from outside the city. Lingering into the early evening afforded me the chance to watch the sun go down in this mystical city. The festive lights turned on around the plazas and winding streets. I sat out at a cafe and enjoyed some beers before taking the train back to Madrid.
Years ago, I took a couple Irish friends on a pilgrimage through the deep south. We ended up in Tupelo at the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Across the way there was a little Elvis museum which featured old jumpsuits, albums, photos of his cars, etc, etc. More than anything, one particular exhibit stood out above everything else. The most amazing thing there was two pictures of two teenage girls. Taken in the early 70’s, they were outside a southern motel with the biggest smiles on their faces.
Beside the pictures was a typed letter, two innocuous glasses, and a towel in a zip lock bag. The letter stated the two young women paid the motel keeper $20 (in 1970’s money!) to run in to the motel room Elvis was in just after he left. They found two used glasses and a wet hand towel from the bathroom, and were able to keep them. The one lady put the towel in a ziplock bag and stored it in her freezer for over twenty years. After spending twenty years next to frozen meats and vegetables, it once again saw the light of day.
The Elvis Museum became its home. These items of devotion are on view for all to see, every day the museum is open. These objects of devotion are simply things Elvis may or may not have handled. The Catholic Church could learn a thing or two about displaying religious relics from these two ladies.
The adventure continues, take a look at the other stops along my trip: