It was a sunny yet cold morning in the ancient town of Toledo, Spain. I could feel the tourists’ happiness wandering the narrow and colorful streets, delighted to explore a place that offers such a historical and archeological uniqueness. For no other reason, it is referred to as “The City of the Three Cultures,” where Christians, Muslims, and Jews left their mark and legacy in one area.
The city’s iconic center sits on a hill, surrounded by a range of mountains and the Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. Toledo was the capital of Spain during the Gothic period, until 1560 when Madrid became a metropolis. This explains its extraordinary and medieval architecture. Walking through it is like taking a trip back in time and landing in the Middle Ages; a place filled with religious and civil buildings, all with round arches and stained-glass windows.
As I explored the city, I noticed numerous tiny shops that sold antique swords. There, I realized it was a local tradition. Owners stood outside their business, pursuing tourists to buy these feudal armaments. When I was searching for Toledo’s famous cathedral – an impressive Roman Catholic Church built in Gothic style mixed with a French influence – I was approached by a sword-maker, who convinced me to come inside his store in his thick Spanish accent.
Toledo Sword Tradition
The tiny and dark shop was packed with tourists all speaking different languages, eager to learn more about how Toledo became the birthplace of the world’s finest swords. Even though there were numerous kinds, foreigners were most attracted to the knightly-looking sword with bronze and silver edges.
Toledo’s steel was considered one of the best to forge swords that were useful for conquering territories or empires. The sword became most influential during the 16th and 17th centuries when Toledo was an imperial city and part of Spain’s empire, known for its superior weapons that helped fight opponents. In these years, the swordsmiths’ guilds developed, and the Toledo sword was considered the best one in the world; its hardness and flexibility were extraordinary for sword-makers from all over Europe. These manufacturers came to the town of La Mancha to learn the secrets of manufacturing Toledo swords.
Juan Carlos Díaz, the business owner, was introduced to the sword-manufacturing industry after his father’s death at the age of 17. Díaz, who now is 52, was left as a teenager financially in charge of his mother and siblings. Looking for a summer job, he found an opportunity in his native city as a sword manufacturer.
“Slowly, I began to fall in love with the process of making swords and opened my own shop,” he said as he showed me the different kinds. “Swords are one of the items that tourists buy the most in this city because of how extraordinary and peculiar these medieval items are.”
For approximately 2,500 years, Toledo has crafted high-quality swords. These are shaped in two kinds of irons and steel, resulting in a high-caliber weapon appropriate for use in heavily armored armies. Díaz said that making them requires a lengthy process that can take up more than two days each.
Now, crafting them requires an entirely different process because they have become more commercial. “Before they were totally handmade, now there are parts that are not. Some parts must be made to the customer’s specifications,” said Díaz. He then showed me a bundle of swords; some were larger and thicker, while others were shorter with a different color ending on top. “There is no price limit. They range between 30 euros for a medium-size one, up to 3,000, or 5,000 euros for a more sophisticated one,” he said.
While there are over 120 shops in Toledo selling swords to tourists, only a few craftsmen are left that understand the process of manufacturing them. “I would like my children to continue with this tradition and eventually take over my business … this would make me very proud,” he said, smiling with joy.
For Toledo natives like Díaz, sword-manufacturing is not only their passion but also represents the importance of passing down traditions from one generation to the other. “In my case, sword-manufacturing provides my family with a sense of identity and belonging,” said Díaz.
Thru the Eyes of a Local
As the end of my day in such a historic place approached, a city repleted with culture, I slowly crossed The Alcántara Bridge to exit, looking once more at the beauty I was leaving behind. On my way back to Madrid, I sat down on the train and remembered thinking how fortunate I was to discover the history behind the city of Toledo through the eyes of a local. To me, that is what travel is all about, making memorable moments by having the most unexpected experiences.
Written by: Isabella Rolz
Isabella is a freelance bilingual journalist between Guatemala and Washington, D.C. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Univision, Clarin, and several other blogs. She enjoys traveling and exploring new places. Isabella graduated from Columbia University’s Journalism School and is a Maria Moors scholarship recipient.