The gray light of early morning covers our two-night Toledo apartment like a soft blanket when my eyes twitch open. I want to venture outside to soak up as much of the city as possible before today’s early departure for the road through La Mancha to Cordoba, but I can’t summon that initial burst of energy without the long-lost love I left weeping for me in America: coffee. I waste minutes of daylight reminding myself what it felt like to have her on my lips and the excitement that came from being with her. Imagining the steam rising off her surface makes me groggier than I already was, and I'm convinced the sluggishness will plague me until I find something tall and black that burns my esophagus.
I fight off this momentary lapse of backwards thinking and kiss my slumbering wife good morning, commanding her to sleep more when she briefly stirs. I’m determined to find a coffee substitute, something other than the single shot of espresso I've gulped every morning since Paris to hold me upright throughout our European days thus far.
I rush out of the tiny flat we’ll abandon in a couple hours, and in the courtyard beyond our door I see a sky blue and alive. The day seems more at hand than I anticipated, filling me with extra hustle as I spill into the thin cobblestone street.
I’ve entered this urban corn maze a dozen times in our day and a half here, but it still feels unreal. The sun is up—somewhere at least—but the high stucco walls of orange and white shades prevent direct interaction with its rays. I turn left down Calle Bulas and it slopes gradually toward the hill’s western base.
For the most part Toledo is a quiet city, the antithesis of Paris' unceasing action, but from an indiscernible direction I hear the chatter of a language I’ve mostly forgotten after seven years of practice at a proficient level. The voices move closer and I hope no one speaks to me because I’ll fail to spit back something intelligible, then I immediately spurn that feeling for shying away from a challenge.
Hurrying feels foolish in a place like Toledo, but the downward-tilted street carries me quickly to a little plaza. It invites me to stop and think and stare and listen to the loud birds hiding among the rooftops, and I do as I’m commanded. When the loquacious locals stroll by me and fail to even glance my way, I’m simultaneously relieved and disappointed. They're old men and women, for the most part, who amble carefully and thoughtfully with their arms folded behind their backs, relics that complete the painting of this ancient and sacred hilltop town.
Church bells ring loudly from a direction I can’t pinpoint because the claustrophobic calles turn me around so easily. The sun hides at a low angle somewhere on the other side of the city, but the morning light has raised the day enough to breathe life and energy into me. Something I don’t recognize buzzes and hums within my heart, an electricity that feels as satisfying as it is foreign.
I resume my journey without a destination and soon reach the Plaza Virgen de Gracia where I’ve already stopped several times in my thirty-six hour visit to Toledo and taken dozens of pictures of sunsets behind the San Juan de los Reyes monastery tower that penetrates the Castilian sky. Stray cats—one of the more definable characteristics of Spanish cities I’ve identified thus far—play in the nearby park, probably some of the same I’ve already captured in photographs I sent to my feline-loving little sister.
It claim a tiny victory when I skip the plaza, like enough of the beauty of this place feels normal that I’m comfortable simply existing here and walking around aimlessly, situating myself wherever fate thinks I belong in this breathtaking now.
Down a set of long steps I arrive at one of the few busy main roads within the city walls and plop down on the monastery steps across the street. I sit in front of a moss-covered stone statue of a nun, and to my relief she doesn’t protest the company unlike so many of the females I encountered in my adolescent years.
The traffic on the calle intensifies, though the shops and restaurants remain closed. Ambling locals control the scene before the rush of tourists arrives, and I’m little more than a speck of scenery, the cliche visitor they’ve seen thousands of times gawking at this place and failing to identify what exactly drew him here beyond the pretty pictures.
A diligent photographer sits behind his tripod aimed at the monastery’s eerie gothic facade, attempting to snap the perfect image I’m not so sure can be accurately conveyed through a visual medium. Behind him, a timid black cat steps carefully down a low slanted roof. It reaches the end and contemplates the distance it needs to leap to a tree growing out of the sidewalk. “Do it,” I mouth with my lips, wishing I could find a way to communicate how rewarding the jump will be. Before I can every try, he jumps and lands safely on the limb so easily that he must wonder what ever gave him pause in the first place.
My lone company looming over my shoulder presses her hands tightly together in solemn prayer. I want to think she prays for me but know I shouldn’t share such a selfish thought with anyone. I study her for a while, wishing she could speak to keep me company and share secrets about this settlement that stretches back more generations than I can fathom, but she is devout and honors her vow of silence.
I copy my new friend and sit quietly and still, losing track of time. Anne has probably staggered from the bed, showered and begun to pack, but I know she’ll understand my absence. We came here because of me, because I saw photos of this city and the masterpieces of El Greco in a Spanish class half-a-lifetime ago and, for reasons these two days have affirmed, I knew I needed to walk inside this dream. To reach it and see it at last was satisfying; to soak up its essence was a gift. Go elsewhere in Spain for the food, but come here for the spiritual awakening.
Unless your soul has left you somewhere along the path to this sleepy place atop a river-cradled hill, you’ll find God in Toledo. The Celts worshipped many here before the Romans booted the tribe out and replaced them with their own. The Visigoths filled the void when their imperial masters crumbled in some far-off metropolis to the east, and their God was Christian. The Moors swept up the Iberian peninsula from the south to claim the city as their own, and their God was Muslim. All the while, a Sephardic culture maintained a proud community within these walls, and its God was Jewish.
He has always lived here, and no matter how many faces he had or what name the inhabitants gave him, no matter how many trials and upheavals over the millennia, he has steadily graced the citizens of this cloistered commune cradled by the U-shaped bend of the Tagus River with all the beauty he can muster.
The nun stares ahead toward the heart of the city above the street that has now grown loud with tourists pointing their cameras at everything and anything. The shops are open and I should grab espressos for Anne and I before we hit the road, even if I need the caffeine far less than an hour ago because there are other ways to awaken.
It’s time to seek another night beneath a new sky, even if day has only just begun in Toledo. I know where to find it again when I’m ready to return, in this fixed and firm place it has always been and always belonged.