Saturday, October 2, 2010

Holy Toledo!

Yes, I am still in Spain.

For the most part, I am loving it, though I will be back stateside soon enough (i.e. in roughly two to three days). I'm sure you folks can wait THAT long. Jeez!

While I've had internet access for the last couple-couple, I've been mainly too busy sightseeing or too exhausted (from sightseeing) to bother blogging. Also, it sure would have been smart if I'd bothered to bring a cable for uploading photos from the cam to the blog, 'cause I'm sure I'd have plenty to say when one considers the mishmash of cultures and multi-thousand year history of this incredible country. Pretty f'ing fantastic.

Right now, I'm in the city of Toledo, the main city I wanted to see on our trip (though the Basque country was a lot of fun and Granada and Madrid were nice as well...all right, as I said, everything has been cool. Though I would strongly recommend NOT driving in Granada. No! NOOOoooo!!). Toledo, not to be confused with the city in Ohio that bears its name (they even have a street here named after Toledo, Ohio)...TOLEDO, the REAL Toledo is about 2500 years old, and was the capital of Spain until Phillip the Dos (that's "II") decided he'd rather move the political seat of the country to a little village called Madrid in 1561.

I'm not sure what's more impressive...that Madrid will be celebrating its 450th birthday next year (only about twice as old as the United States) or that the original capital has more than 2000 on THAT. Well, actually, that's a lie...I DO know which is more impressive to moi.

Anyway, MY reasons for wanting to go to Toledo were a little"base" than simply wanting to soak up the beautiful architecture, history, and cultural gumbo (Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism have been peacefully coexisting in Toledo for several centuries). Nope, all that is great, marvelous in fact. But I came here for the swords.

I can remember the first time I handled a replica katana in some Seattle cutlery shop, more than 20 years ago, and naively asking where in Japan it had been made. "Spain," was the reply. I was told there weren't any swords being forged in Japan (at least not for export) and the only real blades still being commercially manufactured THESE days (this would have been the late 80s) were being forged in Spain.

Now, of course, there are plenty of replica artisans all over the world. Ahh, the magic of the internet which allows hack writers like myself to self-publish all over the world...and hobbyist sword-makers to manufacture all sorts of edged goodies for a profit.

But still, there's a difference between buying an "authentic Scottish claymore" hand-forged locally from your neighborhood Renaissance fair, and picking up some real Spanish steel in the world's sword-making capital. Or maybe there ISN'T a difference...except in MY mind.

But you know me...I'm kind of "old school," like that.

So, anyway, Toledo. I heard that swords were big in this town...hell, in the whole country for that matter, and yeah, it appears to be true. Even up North in the Basque region, the wedding we went to featured sword salutes and sword dancing (outside the church) not to mention a big-ass broadsword being used to cut the wedding cake. And yes, there's plenty of sword history in the country (what with the violence of the Reconquista and Crusades). But Toledo?

This town is something else entirely.

Now, of course I should note that Toledo isn't just the "place of swords." It's really the "place of swords and marzipan." You know, that sweet almond-paste candy? Apparently it was invented here. There are nearly as many shops selling marzipan as selling swords...which is a good thing, since my wife is far more interested in the tasty confections than the edged bad-ness. But pretty much EVERY shop, EXCEPT the confectioners sell swords.

Every shop. Like every single window has a prominent rack of blades of all types, styles, designs, and craziness. For a sword enthusiast, this place is hog heaven.

Moreso...I've actually become a bit jaded to the whole experience. The place is also a Mecca (no pun intended) for tourists and history buffs (duh) and the place must sell more swords than...

Well, shit. Than anywhere in the world. I mean supply and demand right? Could these businesses stay in business without moving all this inventory? Come on!

Every time I turn a corner (and like Venice, this place is filled with medieval, winding streets...all old, all stone, though thankfully all marked) I half-expect to see a pair of tourists, duking it out with replica swords like some Highlander-style alley fight. I mean, what else could they be used for? Is there some type of underground, Toledo duelist club (Spain's answer to Fight Club?) that I'm not privy to? If so, they must be doing it somewhere well concealed...the main thing I see cruising the streets at night are young people in tiny cars, blasting loud dance music and looking for a party. That particular scene is no longer my thang, but honest-to-God fencing in the streets of historic Toledo? I have to admit, the idea holds a certain appeal as I find myself approaching middle age.

Too much D&D I suppose.
; )

Anyway, I did buy a sword today...much as I would have liked to forge my own (I've read too many books as well), I did get an excellent piece from a real Toledo sword-smith...a 4th generation hombre who's been forging for 40 years and works out of a shop more than three times that old (we got to tour the looked like your average extremely crowded garage plus forge, work tables, and stacks upon stacks of half-finished pieces). Much as it would have been nice to pick up a cruciform broad sword or bell-guarded rapier, I settled on a tasty small-sword...all hand-crafted, even the quillons (several of his commercial pieces incorporated molded pieces into the hilt as a means of expedience). It's simple and elegant, and the blade is supple enough the espadero could bend it at a 90 degree angle without snapping it, the whole flexing swiftly back into its original position. Ugh! It's so beautiful and so completely impractical (I certainly hope never to poke someone with it!) that I'm really at a loss for words. As with other parts of this trip, the thought of it just fills me with...well...with a lot of feeling.

Fortunately, it was in my price range (it wasn't made with meteoritic iron after all!), and my wife and I both knew there was a very good chance I'd purchase a sword in Toledo (I never did have much of a poker face). Wow...I can only hope it clears customs so I can unwrap it and revel in its shininess...right now, it is boxed and taped and it ain't coming out till we get back to Sea-town. Hopefully, no fat tourist in the midst of a mid-life crisis slaps me with his glove while I'm prowling the city, looking for a churro (the wife is already stocked-up on the marzipan).

However, if some deathwish-craving Yankee DOES hit me up for a duel, I'm sure I'll be able to pop into whatever shop I happen to be browsing, and nip back out, blade in hand. I mean, really, it is THAT easy in Toledo. I kid thee not...every single block. There are enough armas blancas in this town...replica AND arm every single tourist and stage a mass battle scene that would put Nightwatch to shame. Maybe not enough claymores to do Braveheart...but I wasn't a huge fan of that flick anyway.

All right, all right. That's enough for now. I've got another 48 hours or so "in country" and I need to spend some of it sleeping. Adios, amigos! Nos vemos!
: )


  1. Now I'm extremely, yes I said extremely, jealous!

  2. Dude, DO NOT take that thing through the airport!!! Mail it. Glad you are having fun, now get yer asses back here!!! :)


  3. Pitty you didn't pass through Catalonia, we could have met and chitt-chatt for a while! Anyway, Glad you liked Spain. :)

  4. Mariano Zamarano, the fellow who forged my broadsword and my steak knives. Just up the way from the Cathedral. Good guy. Funny too. You can take the sword through airport. Customs and TSA know what it is and understand you won't use it. Leave it in the box though. There is a special way to check it. BTW I live in your hood.

  5. Bah, smallsword is about as practical as they get for a purchase. Easy to carry, relatively short length for things that go bump in the night. We need pictures however!

  6. @ Narmer: And well you should be! Toledo is well worth the time and money for a week's vacation, at least (I got four days) and the rest of Spain is also fantastic.

    @ Doc: You worry too much...just like the State Department! I'm already back...Seattle ETA is, well, soon.
    : )

    @ Quim: I met more than a few cool Spaniards on my trip. Best quote: "Fucking kings and queens, man! I hate that shit! But it's Spain, right? Hey, those people didn't finish their bottle...get that one!" Ahh...the Basque.

    @ Steam: Yep, MZ of the 8 fingers. Apparently he's from one of the older sword-making families in Toledo (and is certainly one of the better known) least, according to my taxi driver. I'll throw up a picture when I get home. Sword nerd!

    Oh...and if you live in my hood, you should know I always travel Europe "through the back door" with a copy of Rick Steves's latest greatest. Mariano gives a 10% discount to anyone who has a copy (apparently they've had a relationship for 15 years since RS first went to Toledo working for National Geographic...Steves has never purchased a sword but Mariano says the recognition has got him quite a bit off business with American tourists).

    @ Grey: What more could you really want? "The pointy end goes in the other man," right? A heavier rapier is good when you're in a fist fight...but Jesus this ain't the 17th century after all! It's tight and the weight was will be coming.

  7. I got on to MZ accidentally, when I picked up a lovely dopplehander someone sold second hand here in Melbourne, Australia.

    I had the great pleasure later of picking up an MZ in Toledo - a swept hilt rapier and main gauche. They are beautiful and have lasted many sessions of swordplay. Getting them through customs was a good fun lesson in learning words for 'sword' in many languages. Morocco was easy, but getting back into Spain, not so much. Bringing them back to Australia was, of course, hardest of all.

  8. @ Simon: Wow...that you found an MZ in Australia is pretty crazy. I wonder if it was by the guy himself, or his father (apparently his father was even more prolific and famous, though I'm not sure if they share the same name). We managed the Customs thing by having Toledo be our last stop before heading back to the States...the train/metro to Madrid and then back to the U.S. turned out to be no problem at all (though there was a bit of a scare when the box didn't show up at SeaTac with the regular checked baggage...turns out the box was in the separate "oversize" package area).
    : )

  9. I'm glad you liked Toledo. It's beautiful. I always recommend it to everyone that comes to Madrid (for work): "You should stay for the weekend and spend at least a day in Toledo".