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Richard Frisbie: Toledo
ancient stone bridge leading to the city of Toledo, Spain
View of the ancient stone bridge with gatehouse,
and the walled city of Toledo rising behind it

The Escalators of Toledo,
Spain’s Walled City

Story & Photographs by Richard Frisbie

recently returned from a visit to Spain, the number one tourist destination in the world. As I traveled the Spanish countryside of La Mancha, just outside of Madrid, staying in the government owned Paradores chain of hotels, I kept marveling at how innovative Spain has been in promoting tourism.

One of the elements that insure Spain’s tourism success is the composition of new, modern buildings tied into ancient structures. We are not just speaking of the juxtaposition of modern and old buildings, but their synergy into one functional artistic statement.

view of the ancient walled city of Toledo from a nearby hilltop
View of the ancient walled city of Toledo from the Parador de Toledo on a neighboring hilltop.

In Kingston, New York, we have the Old Dutch Church, which was the first church built between Manhattan and Albany. It has records going back to 1660 even though the current structure dates from the 1800s. Diagonally across the street from it is the glass and steel Ulster County office building. It is an ugly abomination, very '60s modern. We have old and new together, but in more of a utilitarian, rather than a functionally attractive way. Architects in Spain make it look as if we should have tried harder. When they put old and new together it works!

view of one of the escalators running through the ancient walls of Toledo
View of the “old” escalator through the ancient walls of Toledo from below.

There is an excellent example in Spain that combines ancient and modern in a way which would be considered sacrilege here in the US. The walled medieval city of Toledo was a regional government center and an important tourist destination with limited parking and poor access for all those people. The narrow cobbled streets are simply not big enough to accommodate all the pedestrians and vehicles necessary to support the urban center, not to mention how the vibrations and pollution damaged the ancient buildings.

The innovative solution in 2001 was to have the firm Martínez Lapeña - Torres Arquitectos design a series of escalators and covered walkways from an underground garage into and through the ancient walls. Instead of one very long escalator, as was used in Medellin, Columbia, recently to climb a quarter mile into the hillside slums, the architects planned a total of 6 differently angled ones protected from the elements and taking advantage of the views. Their international award-wining project won the Elevator World – Project of the Year Award for 2002/2003.

closeup of the angled escalator at Toledo's ancient walls
Closeup view of the “old” escalator.

To build the escalator meant a section of the centuries-old fortifications had to be bulldozed so the old and new could meld into an unobtrusive and sculptural egress. I cringe at the thought of the initial destruction, their medieval ramparts breached by shiny stainless steel, but the resulting structure is simply astounding! It works! The reconstructed walls look as if no stones were touched, while the escalators sinuously wind their way through and behind them. At peak usage, as many as 40,000 people a day ride those escalators. It is an amazing accomplishment!

entrance to new escalator atop Toledo's ancient walls
Entrance to the “new” escalator from above.

view looking down new escalator from the entrance
Looking down the “new” escalator from above.
In fact, it worked so well, a second “desecration” of the historic walls is underway. On my recent visit to Toledo I entered via the first escalators and left via the partially completed second! That’s right. The first were so effective that they needed another set, on the other side of the city, complete with both above and underground parking, and a “flying escalator “ down to the Tajo riverside below.

At that time the escalators stopped at the bus parking area and underground garage just below the ancient walls. The last stretch wasn’t completed, but from the heights above I looked down on a landing area and parking lot under construction. Soon it will continue all the way down to the plains below the hilltop city center. I hope I can get back to ride it again when it is completed.

view of plains below the hilltop city center where new escalator will land with on-going construction in the right foreground
Where the “new” escalator will land (see construction site in lower right corner.)



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Related Articles:
Alcala Food & Wine Tour; Madrid Tapas; Don Quixote's La Mancha; Memories of Madrid; Madrid and the Art of Armor; Tossa de Mar, Spain; Valencia, Spain; Consuegra's Rose of Saffron Festival

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Let Richard know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Hey Richard - another winning series of words, all put together in your usual brilliant, and very creative format. And hey, love those glorious photos - Wow, what scenery - looks like some sort of paradise. What a super life you lead!!!

--- John Clayton, Palos Verdes CA

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I want to go there!!!!!!! Mmmmm! Yes! Love the photos and your article, Richard! Have read the book, seen the play several times and now dream of seeing these historic places. I've been wanting to go to Spain for some time. Now at 12:30 a.m. I'm heading off to bed with songs from Man of La Mancha ringing in my mind. Thanks!

--- Betsy Tuel, Rosendale, NY

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You are fortunate to have Richard on your staff. Richard is a fantastic writer and a wonderful person. Congratulations to Richard and to you.

--- Denise Dubé, New England

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