Getting lost in new streets. Discovering new bites. Soaking in breathtaking vistas. While we love every experience that comes with exploring a new place, we believe nothing brings a location to life more than the people you meet along the way. That’s why EF introduces travelers to expert local guides who know their cities and countries inside and out. After all, anyone can you get you to a place like Spain. But by learning from the people who fully know, live, and love the culture every day, you and your students will make the kind of connections that help you truly get Spain.
Speaking of, say “¡Hola!” to Carlos, a local guide who loves helping travelers explore his hometown of Toledo, Spain. This ancient hilltop city and former Spanish capital is known as a place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims once peacefully coexisted, earning Toledo the nickname, “the city of three cultures.” Today, it’s one of Spain’s most well-preserved historical sites, where craftsmen still use traditional methods to make tiles, swords, and jewelry.
We sat down with Carlos to learn more about Toledo, his role in giving the best guided tours of Spain, and his and his family’s deep-rooted connection to the city—which ultimately led him, his brother, his niece, and his daughter to become proud local guides.
I was born in Toledo, and I’ve lived here all my life. I’ll tell you something: At least one member of my family has been living continuously in Toledo since 1512. We have the records in our family.
As for becoming a local guide, well, Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to require guides to get a license in order to make sure we were giving the best guided tours of Spain. So, how difficult is it to get a license? You need a degree—it can be in the humanities, art, history, tourism, whatever—and then you have to choose the city that you’d prefer. You have to pass the tests in that city in three languages. Mine were Spanish, English, Italian, and a bonus fourth language: German. After you get the local license, you need an additional one for the monuments.
Even then, you can’t stop studying, because the city is a never-ending story. For example, just a couple of weeks ago, a Roman swimming pool was discovered buried underground, very close to the cathedral. And about a month before that, a well was discovered in the Jewish Quarter. So you have to keep reading the local newspapers every day.
She was always listening to my stories, and I was always listening to my family’s stories before that. As I told you, my family has been living here for so long, and growing up, we’d always have to remain seated after lunch because my grandma would want to talk about Toledo—its history, everything. And I did the same with my daughter. So perhaps that played a part.
Editor’s note: We were lucky enough to experience one of Alejandra’s tours, so of course, we had to get her take on this question, too. Here’s what she had to say:
When I was in school, my teachers knew my dad was a local guide, so from time to time they would ask him to give us tours. I loved how he could transmit so much wisdom and culture. That inspired me. Also, I decided to do this with my life because it combines three of my favorite subjects: art and history—which we have plenty of in Toledo!—and also, languages.
We are all here thanks to the three cultures that coexisted in Toledo. They shaped us and created the Spanish temperament. I recently took my DNA test, and I’m 91% Iberian. However, I’m 5% Sephardic, and 2% from Northern Africa. That happens with all of us. No one in Spain can say their blood is 100% Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish. So in Spain, something we never ask anyone is, “What’s your faith?” We understand that’s something that goes inside. It’s a feeling.
Travelers can see the influence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in many of Toledo’s buildings, including the Synagogue of St. Mary, pictured here. Originally designed in a Moorish style, it was used as a synagogue and then later converted into a church.
I love showing El Greco’s painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which is located in the church of Santo Tomé. I can always tell by the students’ faces how much they like learning about it. My personal favorite part is the gallery of portraits at the bottom of the painting, because we get to guess who each person is supposed to be. Maybe this person is Cervantes, or another contemporary of El Greco, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
Often cited as El Greco’s most famous painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (above, right) depicts the local legend of Don Gonzalo Ruíz’s funeral, where it is said that saints came down from the heavens to bury this beloved Toledo man.
First of all, I’ll say carcamusas, which is a typical stew from Toledo. It’s a little spicy, and it’s made over a low fire for several hours so that the meat melts in your mouth. Second is partridge, which is only available seasonally. We prepare it here with tons of onion, black pepper, some drops of vinegar, and of course, olive oil—in Spain, there’s always olive oil. Also, gazpacho. This is a type of cold tomato soup that’s very popular here in the summer because it’s so refreshing. And finally, marzipan, a candy made with only almond paste and sugar. We’ve been making marzipan here in Toledo since 1212, when it was originally made by nuns. And it’s still so popular today.