October 12 is a big day in Spain. Together with the 22 other countries that have Spanish as their official language, we celebrate El Día de la Hispanidad. It's a day to rejoice in hispanic culture and the sisterhood of all Spanish-speaking countries.
But October 12 is also Spain's National Day. It's a holiday in the whole country, with a big military parade in Madrid, and everyone gets off work or school. But it's in the city of Zaragoza where the real fun happens!
The Fiestas de Pilar are an annual festival celebrated in Zaragoza (Northeastern Spain) in honor of the patron saint of the city, the Virgen del Pilar (or Virgin Mary of the Pillar). This week-long festival starts the weekend before October 12 and ends the following Sunday.
A wide variety of events are organized by the City Hall and private organizations, including shows, contests, concerts, one fair, an offering of flowers to the Virgin on October 12, and the two most-beloved traditions: the gigantes y cabezudos (giants and big heads) parade, and lots of jota (Zaragoza's traditional folk dance).
Take a look at the pictures below for examples of this fun festival!
Toledo is a Spanish town located 70 kms (45 miles) south of Madrid. Known as the "Imperial City" or the "City of the Three Cultures", it is situated on top of a hill surrounded by River Tajo (Tagus), that forms a deep, sickle-shaped meander alongside it.
Toledo's history goes back to the Bronze Age, when it was an important urban center of the Carpetani tribe. In 193 BC it was conquered by the Roman general Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, who gave the city the name of Toletum. Although during Roman times, Toledo was never a provincial capital, it started to gain importance in Late Antiquity, specially after the Germanic invasions, when several church councils were held in the city. During the reign of King Leovigildo (Liuvigild), in the sixth century, Toledo became the capital city of the Visigothic Kingdom.
Numerous church councils were held in Toledo. Although technically religious, political affairs were also discussed during these assemblies that were attended by both clergy and nobility. In the late seventh century, Toledo had become the main center of literacy and writing in the Iberian Peninsula. Its importance as a cultural hub was influenced by intellectual figures like Isidoro de Sevilla (Isidore of Seville). By the end of this era, Toledo had become a symbolic center of its powerful monarchy and its bishops had achieved the primacy over all other bishops in the Iberian Peninsula, which meant the political and religious authority of Toledo had no equal in Western Europe, other than Rome.
In 711, Arabic and Berber troops invaded the Peninsula taking advantage of the political instability that followed the death of King Wittiza. Commander Tariq ibn Ziyad captured Toledo and executed the Visigothic nobles, thus destroying much of the Visigothic power structure.
During Arabic rule, the center of administration was placed in southern cities, though Toledo retained some of its importance as an ecclesiastical and cultural center. After two centuries of insurrections and instability, the city experienced the period known as La Convivencia – or coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews, hence its nickname of City of the Three Cultures.
In 1085, Christian forces led by King Alfonso VI of Castile captured Toledo, ending Muslim dominion over the city. Under Castilian rule, Toledo continued to be a major cultural center. Arab libraries were respected and the Escuela de Traductores de Toledo was established in which books in Arabic or Hebrew would be translated into Castilian and Latin, thus letting long-lost knowledge spread once again through Christian Europe.
Toledo was an important center during the Catholic Monarchs reign, played a significant role in the Revolt of the Comuneros, and even served as the capital city of Castile for a while during the 16th century. But after the designation of Madrid as capital city of Spain in 1561, Toledo's importance started to wane. Some argue its economic decline helped preserve the town's cultural and architectural heritage. In 1983, Toledo was selected as the capital of the Castile-La Mancha autonomous community.
Toledo is one of the most touristic cities in Spain. Its narrow streets, passageways and alleys give it a maze-shaped structure that is a direct legacy of the Middle Ages. Few cities are as quaint and eye-catching as Toledo, where every corner seems worthy of a photograph, making it a highly popular destination for visitors and newlyweds alike.
Its rich history gave Toledo numerous monuments with high artistic value. The gothic cathedral, San Juan de los Reyes monastery, Santa María la Blanca and El Tránsito synagogues, Cristo de la Luz mosque, and several gates to the city, such as Puerta de la Luz, are all worth a visit. Toledo was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.
Apart from its historical and artistic significance, Toledo is also well-known for its metallurgical industry and its great tradition in the manufacturing of swords, knives and suits of armor. It has been a steel-working center since 500 BC. The Romans used it as a source of weaponry for their legions, and during the expansion of the Spanish Empire it became well-known in Europe and America for its high-quality blades. Nowadays, many shops offer replicas of historical or film swords and armors.
Almost equally renowned is the art known as damasquinado (damascening), which consists on inlaying different metals—typically gold or silver—into one another on a darkly oxidized steel background to produce intricate patterns. Traditionally a purely handmade process, it is still possible to see artisans at work creating these elaborate and meticulous works of art.
As for cuisine, Toledo is famous for its mazapán, or marzipan, a dessert made of honey and almond meal (ground almonds), sometimes filled in with egg yolt and sugar, and shaped into animal forms. Its origins are in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). Spaniards traditionally consume mazapán for Christmas, along with turrón —another almond-based dessert, but the best-quality one is produced in Toledo, where you can also enjoy it all year around.
Toledo has given their name to six municipalities in the USA, as well as other cities in Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, the Philippines and Uruguay. Only half an hour from Madrid by train, it is a mandatory daytrip for anyone visiting the Spanish capital!