First, if you are planning to go to Madrid, you should include at least 1 full day in Toledo, an absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, preserved ancient city with layers of civilizations going back to pre-Roman times, as well as a vibrant center recently voted #1 gastronomic capital in Spain, with lots of great shops and neighborhoods to explore.
If you do go, we highly recommend our private tour guide, Diego. His breadth and depth of knowledge of general history, and specifically that of Toledo, his passion for his beloved city, his personal ties to the city (he was constantly bumping into friends and acquaintances; we even met his mother outside a cafe!) not to mention Diego's familial ties to its history which date back to medieval times, his specialized knowledge as a professor of archaeology including his work on current excavations, and his entertaining, enthralling, enthusiastic style of presentation make him unique, and, in our opinion, incomparable.
After taking a 1/2 hour train to Toledo from Madrid's central Atocha station, we met Diego at the Toledo station at 10 am. We jumped into a taxi and he gave us a panorama tour of the city's dramatic vistas, then descended into the city itself for a walking tour which covered the main sites: the cathedral, churches, synagogues, market places, neighborhoods, as well as easily missed markers of the vibrant culture of the middle ages, Enlightenment and more recent history.
Diego emphasized how 3 divergent, yet related cultures were fully integrated, while retaining their own unique personalities and practices. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived, studied and worked together in relative harmony for centuries, defending and protecting each other when threatened, even by the Inquisition. Muslims designed and built synagogues, Christians used Hebrew in the cathedral itself, Jewish scholars worked side-by-side translating ancient texts with Christians and Muslims. During its prime, Toledo was the center of intellectual, religious, civic and cultural life for Spain. A lesson for today, for sure.
We were particularly interested in Jewish culture and history. We visited 2 synagogues, the Sephardic museum, and even ancient mikvahs (ritual baths) not usually open to the public, dating back to Roman times. Diego possessed a profound knowledge of Judaism, its history, traditions, religion, ritual and culture which enriched our experience of the Jewish sites.
There were many surprises, secrets and sites which Diego dramatically brought vividly to life with his stories, historical anecdotes, humor and highlights which we won't give away. Suffice it to say, we came away with admiration for this beautiful ancient city, a still-thriving, vital community, and it's historical importance. Despite the intense heat that day, we loved walking up and down the maze of old cobble-stoned alleyways, discovering new views and vistas at each turn. We were enthralled from the beginning to the end of our visit. Diego is the best ambassador Toledo could possibly have. Don't even think about who to use in Toledo; Diego is your man!
Here is the contact info to Diego's travel agency:
Rodrigo de la Torre
(+34) 655 88 02 77