The shop was all red and chestnut wood. The gold-inlaid jewelry sparked and the intricate steel swords glimmered. One look around and my first thought was, “Where’s the dust?” The shop looked ancient, yet everything glowed as if it was brand new. And new it was.
In the medieval Spanish city of Toledo — the perfect day trip from Madrid — this juxtaposition of ancient and modern is everywhere. Steps from 14th-century fortresses are sleek and modern cafés. Blocks from a synagogue build in the 1300s is a bank opened in the 2000s. And overlooking a plaza filled with shiny new café tables stands the old wooden workbench of Simon the Toledo jewelry maker and sword seller.
Seconds after we stumbled into his shop — simply named “Simon” (Plaza San Vicente, 1) — the plump old artisan shuffled towards us, carefully edging around a propane heater rattling out a small halo of warmth in the otherwise drafty shop. He was almost as round as he was tall and bald except for a wispy ring of grey hair. He had the deeply lined face of a man who’d worked all his life and the kind eyes of a grandfather whose No.1 joy in life was telling stories of times gone by.
“I’ve been selling swords in this shop for 66 years,” he told me proudly after realizing with a relieved sigh that I spoke some Spanish. He ran his weathered fingers over the intricate handles of his swords, pausing at each just long enough to mutter which historical figure or pop culture icon it was designed after. “El Cid, Ferdinand ‘El Rey Catoloico’, Lord of the Rings, the Knights Templar, King Carlos III…”
We careened our necks to examine the elaborate designs and inscriptions on each design, careful not to touch the swords. All day we had walked past souvenir shops with large paper signs warning us “No Tocar!”, or “Don’t Touch!” as if the thick steel swords would crumble under our fingers. Seeing our awkward twisting and turning, Simon chuckled to himself, grabbed a sword off its metal rack and handed it to me. “Take it! Touch it! Grab anyone you want!” he said. This was no ordinary Toledo tourist trap souvenir shop. And Simon was no run-of-the-mill sword salesman.
“This is a great sword,” he cooed, “a very very good sword, designed by King Carlos III! Or this one here, a very good sword, light, beautiful, the traditional sword of Toledo!”
For him, each sword was a story, a small glimpse at history and a window into the personality of Spain’s rulers. The sword of King Ferdinand, who funded Columbus’ trips to America and was arguably one of the most powerful Spanish kings, had a funky handle where one side curved up instead of down. When I asked why, Simon matter-of-factly responded: “He was the king! He could do whatever he wanted! And he wanted his sword to be different, unique, better than all the rest.” Mission accomplished, I thought.
As my friend tested each model of sword, I inspected the cases of elaborately patterned jewelry that lined the walls. There were pendants with minuscule birds woven around blooming flowers, earrings with geometrical stars triangles, scissors inlaid with golden vines and even a golden turtle whose shell was decorated with two golden knights on horseback. Each piece was handmade by Simon.
As I admired his handiwork, he shuffled over with a tall stack of faded postcards. Each one was from one of his past customers. He showed me cards from Japan, Costa Rica and Mexico, telling me about the men and women who had sent them, what they had bought and when they had come to visit his store. Some cards were so old I could hardly make out the picture on the front. Others were brand new, featuring, for example, a photoshopped picture of the Taj Majal reflected in Simon’s shop window (he really got a kick out of that one and apparently had no idea how the guy had “magically” made the Taj Majal appear in a picture of his shop).
After about 30 minutes of browsing and story telling, my friend finally decided on a scaled-down replica of King Carlos III’s sword. It was one of the thinner swords with a cupped handle intended for fencing-style combat and based on the design of the traditional swords of Toledo, which has been the mecca of sword making since Roman times.
After wrapping up the sword, Simon looked up at us and gave us one last piece of old Spanish wisdom before we left his shop. “Men may have the swords,” he said, handing Andrew his newly purchased espada, “but women, they beat us with only their eyes.” Well said, Señor Simon, well said.