The Tagus River in Toledo, Spain

Category: Toledo

Are you planning a family vacation or short romantic getaway to the picturesque city of Toledo, the capital city of the Province of Toledo in beautiful central Spain?  Do you need some ideas regarding some of the things to do and see while visiting the city?  The city of Toledo, which is also now the capital of the Autonomous Community of Castile-La Mancha, is one of the most oft-visited cities in Spain.  Its historical significance as a major city during the Roman, Visigoth, Muslim, and Christian eras is reflected in the abundance of commemorative monuments and ancient structures that still dot its breathtaking cityscape, making it a true tourist favorite for those interested in ancient Spanish and European history.  It is also one of the main cultural hubs of Spain, largely due to the confluence of Muslim, Jewish and Christian groups that once resided there in relative tranquility, earning it, in 1986, the designation of “World Heritage Site” by the United Nations commission on history and culture (UNESCO).

While much has been written about Toledo’s historical structures and cultural landmarks (and for good reason), you may be surprised to learn that the city is also quite striking from a natural standpoint, allowing tourists to take a much-needed break from the busy streets of the city’s historical district and relax quietly in its beautiful, albeit lesser-talked-about countryside.

As you arrive in Toledo, one of the first sights you’ll notice is the winding El Rio Tajo, Spanish for the Tagus River, which surrounds the city on three sides—much like a moat would surround an ancient castle.  It is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, and although it winds through parts of Spain and Portugal, Toledo is the largest Spanish city on its banks.  The city depends on the Tagus River for its water and power and as a recreational source, not to mention the added beauty and allure it adds to the city in general.

Along the banks of the Tagus River, where it enters and exits the city, are the upper and lower fertile valleys, known respectively as the Vega Alta and Vega Baja.  The interrelationship between the countryside and the Toledo cityscape create a remarkable landscape, one that has been referred to often in the works of the great Spanish authors Cervantes, Tirso de Molina and many others.  These lush panoramas have also been featured on the canvases of many celebrated painters, including Sorolla, Zuloaga, Beruete, Jose and Enrique Vera, Arredondo and, of course, El Greco, Toledo’s most famous former resident, whose works are featured in many of the city’s churches and museums, including a museum that bears his name.

The natural beauty of the meandering banks of the Tagus, coupled with the important built heritage, has given an enduring character to Toledo’s landscape.  The Vega Alta is home to remains dating back to the Paleolithic, Roman, Muslim and Medieval eras, while the Vega Baja is a valley of great religious significance for both Toledo and Spain—the patron saint of Toledo, Leocadiac, is buried here.  Vega Baja also contains a profusion of archaeological zones, featuring Roman Villas with rich mosaics, a circus dating back to the Roman era, a theater, basilica, and even a Visigoth royal city.

The natural landscape of Toledo was included with the city itself when it was named a World Heritage Site in 1986.  Today, however, with development planned on its riverbanks consisting of 7,000 new housing units and more than 2 million square feet of large-scale facilities, many feel these landscapes are being threatened, further deepening the complex tension between the notions of urban growth and natural, historical and cultural preservation.

The country of Spain is home to some 1,800 rivers, although many of these remain dry for a large part of the year.  The Tagus River is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, flowing year round in parts of Spain and Portugal.  Its source is the Fuente Garcia, located in the Albarracin Mountains of Aragon, Spain.  From there the Tagus flows 626 miles, ultimately ending up at the Atlantic Ocean in Lisbon, Portugal.
The Tagus River is one of four major rivers in Spain, the others being the Duero, Guadalquivir and Ebro Rivers, the latter of which is the largest river in the Iberian Peninsula in terms of water discharge volume. The course of the Tagus takes it through very few cities in Spain, a reflection of the rugged mountainous terrain and arid soil of the areas through which it flows. The river is navigable only on the Portuguese side, where it provides the city of Lisbon with its exceptional natural harbor.
Toledo, Spain, located some 43 miles from Madrid, is the largest city on the banks of the great Tagus River.  Tourists know the river for the beautiful background it supplies for this historic city, but what they may not know is its importance as a water and power source, not merely for Toledo’s 75,000+ residents, but for many other regions as well.

The Metropolises of Greater Madrid and Greater Lisbon, the capitals of Spain and Portugal, respectively, rely heavily on the Tagus River for their water supply, despite the fact that Madrid is not even situated on the river.  Madrid is, however, located on the banks of the Rio Manzanares which, after it flows through the Spanish capital, joins the River Jarama, a tributary of the Tagus.  Both of these rivers have their confluence in the city of Aranjuez.

A number of large dams have been built on the upper Tagus River (also known as the Spanish Tagus), dams that generate hydroelectric power as well as irrigation water.  The largest of these dams are the Alacantra, Valdecanas and Torrejon, all of which create massive reservoirs and help to regulate the flow of the river to the benefit of the Spanish people.

During the late 1960s, under the direction of the dictator, General Franco, a number of water transfer projects were begun in an effort to irrigate the arid Spanish interior.  Sadly, the result of these projects led to insufficient water volumes and a measurable increase in pollution from the transfer plants.  Similar problems occurred downstream and into Portugal, leading to friction between the two countries in the years that followed these projects.  To address this discord, both Spain and Portugal entered into and signed the Albuferia Convention, an agreement designed to endorse cooperation in the regulation of waterways shared by both countries, including the Tagus River.