Corpus Christi is undoubtedly Toledo’s most important and oldest festival. Formally instigated by Pope Urban IV in 1264, the religious festival is under the guidance of Toledo’s archbishop, the cardinal primate of Spain. The celebration itself falls on the Sunday of the ninth week after Easter, normally around the end of May or the beginning of June. The Corpus Christi celebrations, though, begin in earnest well before that.
A whole five weeks before the day of the iconic procession through the streets that is the culmination of Corpus Christi, the entire route through the city’s historic narrow streets is especially decorated with awnings, lanterns and wreaths. This elaborate procedure, carried out under the guidance of the ‘pertiguero’ or verger, is meticulously carried out so that the Custodia – of which, more later – will remain covered on its journey through the streets.
The day immediately prior to the procession, antique pennants and tapestries, many made during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are draped from windows and balconies along the route. Even the cathedral facade is covered with tapestries – the only time of the year they are exhibited outdoors. Additionally, the streets themselves are strewn with flowers and fragrant herbs – namely rosemary, lavender and thyme – making a glorious aromatic carpet.
The climax of the whole festival starts at around midday, when the procession leaves the cathedral to make a grand tour of the city. The focal point of the procession is the famous ‘Monstrance’, the Custodia de Enrique de Arfe; an extraordinary priceless work of art dating from 1515, made of gold, silver, pearls and other precious gems and weighing in at over 160 kilos – twenty five stone! To the accompaniment of canticles and music and the intense fragrance of burned incense and rose petals being thrown over the Custodia, with its incredible 260 statuettes, the procession passes through the medieval streets to then return to the Cathedral.
As the procession leaves the cathedral, the bells begin to toll and a group of giants – signifying the different continents – lead the cortege, along with a series of orders, guilds, chapters and brotherhoods, all in their own colourful regalia.
Spectators can, by buying tickets in advance from the ticket booth in Plaza de Zocodover just north of the Alcázar, reserve themselves seats along the streets. You’ll also have the opportunity of seeing some of Toledo’s fantastic courtyards and elegant palaces, which are often open to the public at this time. The confined streets of Toledo, crammed with people, can be a little too claustrophobic for some, and if you are likely to be subject to this, there are broader plazas where you can station yourself and feel a little less pressured.
The citizens of Toledo are justifiably proud of their Corpus Christi celebrations – seeing them as a time when religion, culture and tradition all come together in a very special way. Visitors will also have the opportunity of participating in an extensive programme of other events, such as concerts and shows and sporting events.
Toledo, on the very northern boundary of Castilla – La Mancha, might well have been the Spanish capital today, had Philip II not decided to relocate to Madrid. It does, though, remain a medieval joy to wander around. Whilst your there, admire some of the lethal-looking swords and knives or the immaculately produced suits of armour; treat yourself to a box of the famous marzipan and make sure that you queue to go into the Church of Santo Tome and admire El Greco’s most famous painting, El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz, The Burial of the Count de Orgaz.