Toledo, famed for its steel, has been forged in the crucible of conflict as Moor and Castilian stove for its possession. Once a citadel of Judaism and described as the “European Jerusalem”, Toledo lost its Jewish heritage to the flames of fanaticism lit by the Inquisition.
Today the narrow, cobbled streets of Toledo are like a winding conveyor belt carrying sightseers past the Gothic cavern of the Cathedral, the Alcazar citadel, the house of El Greco and emporia crammed with mementos ranging from penknives to full suits of genuine imitations of medieval armour.
One candid camera snapshot of Toledo lingers long in the album of the mind: a middle-aged Japanese couple trudging uphill in the white heat of afternoon under the curious gaze of locals lounging in the shade in somnolent siesta; the woman expostulating “El Glecko, El Glecko!” to urge on her drooping companion, bowed under a burden of cameras and the tourist’s do-or-die obligation to take in everything, no matter that one doesn’t know what on earth one is looking at, or why.
Despite Hemingway’s descriptions of the bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon and Fiesta, we hadn’t really known what we’d be looking at until the picador’s lance thrust in through muscle and bone and the bull’s blood spurted in a bright red arc across the sand and the crowd moaned Ole!
Till then the whole thing had been a bit of a carnival; tawdry, but cheerful enough. Gaudy posters of cape-swirling matadors; families sharing bags of popcorn; the oom-pah-pah parade of the flamboyantly costumed toreros; the bull exploding into the ring like a black thunderbolt with horns; the banderilleros graceful as ballet dancers jabbing their long slender darts into the beast’s back like festive streamers.
And then the picador’s lance plunged deep, the electric smell of blood charged the air, the bull bellowed with pain and rage and the ceremonial butchery began. At the centre of the danse macabre was the matador with his swirling cape, a swaying, spinning will-o’-the-wisp luring the stricken animal to inevitable death in an elegant and murderous minuet. Streaming blood, the bull charged again and again, needle-pointed horns swinging to impale its tormentor who took ever greater risks to win the crowd’s acclaim.
A hush fell at “the moment of truth”. Slender sword, like a blazing sliver of sun in his hand, the matador provoked the charge, thrusting the blade into the hilt as the bull blundered by, collapsed, unbelievably rose again to the tumult of the crowd, lurched forward to meet a second sword stroke, and a third, refusing to die as the stands went berserk, till its fighting heart finally gave out in a last spasm of fierceness as the matador strutted around the arena, a macho marionette jerked by the applause of the spectators.
What redeems bullfighting from being an act of senseless cruelty is the courage of the matador who while dealing death coolly faces it himself. But long after these showy heroics are forgotten, there lingers the image of a tortured animal, mouth agape in agony, hauntingly reminiscent of the Minotaur in Picasso’s paintings, inescapable symbol of the beast in man.
If blood and sand evoke the steel of Spain, the flamenco is its fire. We chose a night club in a narrow street off the Plaza Mayor and were shown to a table close to the small, low dais. The ripple of a guitar draws open an invisible curtain and the dancer steps on stage, high-held castanets clacking, feet tapping in arabesques of rhythm that quicken to a catechism between dancer and musician, tempestuous and icy, seduction and challenge.
“And the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of the clapper to the spin.
Out and in—”
In the flare of the spotlights the movements become a shadow-play, a dance to the music of time, beating faster and faster, till stage and room are spinning, racing to reach a crescendo that crashes down in stunning silence, a lull before the storm of applause.
On the flag-stoned plaza we walked towards the distant lights of a late-night tasca, footsteps echoing the insistent pulse of the dance. We passed a policeman, but for once felt no need to seek directions. We knew exactly where we were: in the heart of Spain, in Madrid.
Writer, columnist and author of several books