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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

The Secret of Toledo
Thursday, January 24, 2013



Although Toledo is a well-known city, few know just how famous and important it used to be a couple of centuries ago. Today Toledo is famous for its art and Damascus gold decoration known as Damascene but before firearms were invented Toledo was the centre of the world for forging metals and more specifically sword making. The fame of the master sword smiths from Toledo lay in their unrivaled skill in tempering steel, a unique art form that no one was able to copy. Steel from Toledo has been considered the most prestigious in the world ever since the V century, mainly due to its characteristic flexibility and strength, which was later employed in fencing. For centuries Toledo lead the world in sword making and for centuries they managed to keep their “trade secrets” within the family. The master sword smiths jealously guarding their “Secret of Temper”, only passing it on to their children, who in turn guarded the secret and passed it on from generation to generation, making Toledo steel the most sought after steel for centuries. It was later discovered that the master sword smiths each had their own very characteristic formula. These formulas were the secrets of their trade and were never written down. Instead each master converted his “secret” into a series of songs or prayers, and the rhythm of the song or the speed of the prayer and its repetitions marked a specific time frame which enabled them to accurately measure how long the sword should be immersed in water to reach an optimum “temper”. The songs, verses and prayers which marked each stage of the process were either hummed or sung in silence so no one would be able to steal their secret. But at the same time they were easy to recite in exactly the same way every time they produced a sword, leaving no margin for error.



The Toledo sword is one of Spain’s oldest traditions. Back in the V Century, the Iberian Sword Smiths forged swords know as ‘Falcatas’ which had a special sheet of iron forged into its interior and a special design that increased its strength and made it easier for the swordsman to use his sword in fast swift actions. The fame of these swords was widespread and were even chosen by Hannibal for all of his army and when discovered by the Romans they armed all their legions with these unique swords. As time moved on they further improved their techniques and the art form developed. Later in the X Century, even the Muslim soldiers feared the Toledo sword after being defeated by El Cid Campeador and when they discovered that these swords originated from Toledo they didn’t waste any time and stole some of their techniques to make their very own two edged swords known as ‘Scimitars’. As time moved on the sword smiths from Toledo also manufactured the famous ‘Rapiers’, so well popularised by the French Musketeers.




 El Cid's Sword






The internal structure of the blade and their mysterious technique of forging at the same time hard steel, at very high temperatures, with softer steel which had a high proportion of carbon, enabled them to produce a unique sword that was unparalleled in strength and maneuverability. Kings and noblemen from all over the world commissioned swords and sables from Toledo. Even well known Japanese Samurais who discovered this technique through the Spanish merchants were known to travel to Toledo so they would forge their Katanas and Wakizashis for them as Japan was in a constant state of civil war. Unfortunately today this art form has practically disappeared. The correct choice of materials, in the correct proportion and working at a temperature of 1454ºF for exact intervals of time delivered what is still believed to be the most perfect sword ever made. Artisans from all over the world have tried to imitate this quality but to this day no one has achieved it.


However one person did recognise the importance of keeping alive this tradition and when the predominance of firearms came around in the XVII Century initiating the decline of this treasured craft, King Carlos III of Spain decided to create the so-called "Sword Factory" in Toledo in 1761. The birth of this factory was to guarantee the survival of the Toledo sword smiths as its first and most important customer was to be the Royal Artillery. From that point on all swords were marked with the inscription "Artillery Factory of Toledo".


What distinguishes swords made in Toledo is that the blades are not made of pure steel, but rather composed of an interior core of iron, completely covered in steel. With this process, the steel is given more elasticity and hardness plus the ductility of iron. Before a blade was approved, it was subjected to a large number of tests, the most important ones were known as ‘the cane’, ‘the test of iron’ and the "S test". Luxury arms, as well as having the mark of the sword smith or factory, were also decorated using different systems such as damascened finishes, gold or silver-plating, enameling and engraving. The oldest technique is enameling. In the different workshops in Toledo one can admire magnificent reproductions of swords and sables as famous as those of: Alfonso VI, Boabdil (Mohammed XII), El Cid, Napoleon, Carlos V. Despite having ceased sword-making activity in the ‘Arms Factory’, Toledo workshops continue to produce sables for the Spanish army and some foreign ones too.


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2013? Popular Superstitions in Spain
Friday, January 11, 2013

Nothing worse than being superstitious and working in a mirror factory, an umbrella shop ... or at Deloitte Touche. The 11-S attacks destroyed the Twin Towers and with them, the company’s New York headquarters. On 12 February 05, an inferno consumed, with the rest of the Windsor building, its headquarters in Madrid too. Was it coincidence or was the giant auditor jinxed for a while?. Now we have just entered 2013 talks of superstitions are on the daily agenda. Experts agree that in today's Spain, and especially this year, superstitions are on the rise. So I thought I would detail, along with their origins, some of the most popular superstitions in Spain (even though many are common in other countries) to stand you all in good stead for 2013. Good Luck to everyone!

Tuesday and the Number 13
BAD LUCK: The Curse of the number thirteen is rooted in the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the twelve Apostles, when he was betrayed. It is believed that if thirteen people sit down to eat at the same table, one of them will die within a year.
The day of the week varies: in Spain, Mexico and Greece it is Tuesday and thirteen,In the UK and other countries it is Friday the thirteenth, because Jesus was crucified on a Friday.

Starting the day on your left foot
BAD LUCK: Petronius  in the 'Satyricon' alluded that “misfortune” entered a room or a place with its left foot. In Spain, it may have originated from a  Celtic tradition and the solar motion, which always moved towards the right. To counter-act it one must do  the sign of the cross three times.

Throwing rice at a wedding 
GOOD LUCK: Before, everyone threw pieces of sweets at the bride and groom, symbolizing happiness and fertility. But in lean times they threw wheat or rice, as it was much cheaper, to this day in Spain, they throw rice.

Feeling a buzz in your ear
GOOD LUCK: When you hear or feel a whistle like buzz in your ear ask someone to give you a number. The letter of the alphabet that corresponds to that number will be the first letter of the name of the person you expect to marry. "The Left ear is for love and right for spite." If you pinch the right ear immediately when you hear the whistle, the person who is criticizing you will bite their tongue!

Somebody casts an “evil eye” (spell - mal de ojo)
BAD LUCK: It is traditionally believed that if we are completely reflected in the pupil of an eye, we could be trapped by it. Therefore, from ancient Rome to the Middle Ages, those who had cataracts or other visual defects were often sacrificed at the stake. In Greece, Turkey and Egypt is widely believed that there are people with evil powers in their eyes, even unconsciously, one with these powers could cause harm just by casting their eyes over something. For protection one needs to carry garlic, gold and silver, blue glass eyes and horseshoes.

Spilling salt

BAD LUCK: Its origin dates back to 3500 B.C. Then, they believed that salt was incorruptible, which is why it became a symbol of friendship. Hence the belief that if you spill it, the friendship would break. To counteract this effect, one would take a pinch of the spilt salt and throw it over one’s left shoulder.

Saying "Jesus" or "bless you" when someone sneezes

GOOD LUCK: It was because sneezing was the beginning of many different diseases and so one asked God to drive away the danger of infection.
 It is also said that it was to keep the devil from entering through the mouth.

Spilling wine

BAD LUCK: When you spill wine on the table, you should immediately put a little of it on your forehead for good luck and if it was champagne then you have to touch it with the tip of your fingers and put it on the earlobe to achieve eternal happiness. The origin of this belief is thought to be related to the fetus as it begins life with the earlobe. For this reason, when you soak it in champagne you’re wishing that your life will be surrounded by all kinds of happiness and joy. 

Bringing a used broom to a new house
BAD LUCK: You mustn’t take a used broom with you when you move house, as doing so, will bring bad luck and all the misfortune from the previous home.

Breaking a mirror
BAD LUCK:It is said to curse you with seven years bad luck. The mirror was a magical element of divination, so if it broke, it was so that it couldn’t show the frightening future ahead. Seven years is due to the belief that the body renews itself every seven years.

Placing bread upside down on the table or dropping it on the ground
BAD LUCK: Bread is a staple food. Therefore there have been several superstitions that have arisen related to making it, cutting it, eating it and offering it to others. Placing it upside down is supposed to bring bad luck because it's treated as an insult to the body of Christ, also, when it falls to the ground it is custom to kiss it  and do the sign of the cross three times  to ward off misfortune.

GOOD LUCK: In Ancient Greece parsley was considered a sacred plant that symbolized  triumph and resurrection. Driven by this belief, the Greeks adorned graves with wreaths of parsley.

Putting a hat on the bed
BAD LUCK: Putting a hat on the bed is an omen, in Spain and Italy, that means something bad will happen. This superstition has another meaning: that your mind will go blank. This belief probably comes from the symbolism of the hat, which represents the head and thoughts and is a symbol of identity.

An off-centered picture hanging on the wall or falling from the wall where it was hung.
BAD LUCK: This idea has its origins in ancient Greece, where it was believed that if the portrait of a monarch or a celebrity fell to the ground suffering serious damage it meant that they would soon die.

Putting a cactus on the windowsill
GOOD LUCK: A popular belief says that this plant wards away the evil of the house. It’s great ability to absorb moisture from the atmosphere makes it a powerful protector against evil spirits, that need moisture to grow. The custom of placing a cactus by doors and windows, observed in all the Mediterranean comes from the belief that if spirits find water along the way, they could drown crossing it and be trapped there forever.

Sweeping the feet of a single women or a widow
BAD LUCK: This meant that they would never marry. Related to witches.

A falling eyelash
GOOD LUCK: The Devil collects eyelashes and, according to tradition, losing one meant running all kinds of dangers. So if one falls, put it on the back of your hand and throw it over your shoulder or place it on the tip of your nose, blow it upwards and make a wish.

Throwing coins into a well or fountain
GOOD LUCK: It comes from ancient divination, the ritual of throwing stones or hair pins down a well, in order to know whether a fact would be fulfilled or not. If bubbles rose to the water surface it meant that they would be fulfilled.

A black cat walking towards you or which crosses your path 
BAD LUCK: Although in Egypt it was believed that the cats were the reincarnation of the gods, centuries later, the Catholic Church regarded them  as the reincarnation of the devil, so they were burned. Black was identified with the devil being the color of night. In most of Europe and North America it is believed that a black cat brings bad luck if it move away from you, but good luck if it walks towards you. In Spain it pretty much in any direction, but its always bad luck!

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