La Mancha - In
Search of Don Quijote
La Mancha is inextricably connected to Don Quijote; mention the name and it immediately produces images of two solitary figures on horseback, silhouetted against the arid plains of a tableland punctuated not by trees, but by rotund white windmills. Yes, Miguel de Cervantes’ masterful literary creation not only captured the soul of 16th century Spain, it also forever cast the image of Spain’s dry and desolate central tablelands.
And yet there is another side to this famous but little-visited part of Spain that occupies a large area in the heart of the Iberian peninsula. The present-day Autonomous Region of Castilla-La Mancha is made up of the old domains of Castilla la Nueva (New Castile) and Cuenca. Huge and thinly populated, it acts as a buffer between Spain’s tourist-laden Costas and the more industrial cities of the North. The land immortalised by Cervantes still exists. Corresponding roughly to the old Castilla la Vieja, it occupies the dry central Meseta (plateau), which extends between Madrid and the mountains that ring Andalucía and protect it from the aridity and temperature extremes of the interior. Here, along the dusty plains that stretch out into eternity from Ciudad Real, you can still follow Don Quijote’s trail, where the tragicomical, melancholy knight and his wily peasant servant, Sancho Panza, roamed about aimlessly, mistaking windmills for ‘giants’ and searching for a way to bring back the chivalric ideals of a lost age. Stare at those famous windmills glistening white in the bright sun and you will know what the quixotic knight was up against; the windmills still stand unmoveable—like everything else around here.
La Mancha may be a dry, treeless land where the scorching sun beats down unforgivingly on the few moving creatures and even the soil is cracked and sun-baked, but it is in the sleepy, unassuming little villages and hamlets of this desolate region that the ‘real Spain’ still lives on. A famous icon of Spain, yet relatively untouched by either foreign visitors or industrialisation, this region acts as a sanctuary of Spanish culture and tradition. Life here has always been hard; drought, unrelenting heat in summer, chilling winds in winter and a thin layer of infertile soil have kept population sparse and restricted to isolated white-washed hamlets where close communities retain much of their old ways. The daytime atmosphere is markedly heavy and slow, like in a good Western movie, but come the festivals and religious ceremonies, and the populace explodes into celebration with the kind of enthusiasm and exuberance no longer seen in most other parts of Spain.
Many of the scarce hills and rises of La Mancha are dominated by castles. Relics of former conflicts, their turrets and ruins add to the desolate atmosphere of the region, reminding one that this was long a no-man’s-land frontier zone, where the boundary between Christians and Moors was in constant flux. After centuries of bloody, dynamic equilibrium, the region finally fell to the Castilians, who regarded it as an extension of their own territories and settled it with people from northern Spain. The new arrivals had relatively little to work with, but in time their sheep rearing industry produced valuable wool and Manchego—Spain’s best cheese, made from sheep’s milk. La Mancha will probably always remain somewhat out of the way, but in recent times a booming viticulture industry has broadened the economic base and brought much-needed prosperity to the region. Spreading out from Valdepeñas, several million acres of vines now transform central-eastern La Mancha into the largest wine-growing region in Spain. Originally focusing on the cultivation of affordable red table wines, the local vineyards have already started producing some vintages of exceptional quality. Much more traditional is the cultivation of saffron, the spice that gives paella its famous golden colour and taste. First introduced by the Arabs over 1000 years ago, the spice itself is obtained from the stamen of crocuses, whose purple flowers long turned the region of Cuenca into the world’s saffron capital. As the patience and hospitality of the locals has not been quite as heavily tested as in more ‘touristy’ parts of Spain, you will find that the easy-going folk, from farmers and wine growers to villagers and hoteliers, are still happy to take time out to welcome you and show you around.
Just as famous as Quijote’s windmills but less closely associated with La Mancha is Toledo. Although this ancient city on the Tajo river lies a mere 70 kilometres south of Madrid, it is the capital of the Castilla-La Mancha region. Still dominated by its fortifications, which have been destroyed and rebuilt in a long succession of conflicts but originate from Roman barracks, Toledo retains the aspect of a classical city draped along the banks of a meandering river. Indeed, standing on the far bank of the Tajo the town still looks pretty much like it did when El Greco painted it in the 16th century. An enclave of culture, sophistication and history, Toledo is the proud jewel of Castilla-La Mancha, a city of medieval beauty and charm whose rich and diverse past lives on in its ancient cathedral, fine Mudéjar synagogues and impressive Alcazar.
Prominent among these is the Cristo de la Luz, a charming little 10th century structure that made the transition from church to mosque and back again. According to a curious local legend, Christians put a small statue of Christ and a candle in a niche and bricked up the wall to hide the statue from the invading Muslims. A century or more later, when Alfonso VI recaptured the city, his horse allegedly knelt down and refused to budge until somebody broke open the wall. The statue was in perfect condition and the candle, according to the legend, was still burning. A white stone in the street still marks the spot where Alfonso’s horse knelt—a monument to the fervent faith of a city that was first the capital of Visigoth Spain and centuries later of a united Spanish Kingdom, before that honour was transferred to Madrid. Beneath the sea of undulating red-tiled roofs lies a labyrinth of cobbled streets that lead to quarters where ancient guilds of artisans still produce leatherwork, lace products and the damascene swords that the city is famous for. Whether you find yourself in the midst of it or stand in awe as the changing light bathes the city in different tones, Toledo is above all a city with a spell-binding atmosphere.
The province of Cuenca, east of Madrid, makes up a significant part of Castilla-La Mancha, but with its spectacular forests, waterfalls and mountain ranges, it is also the least typical. The natural splendour of the Serranía de Cuenca offers the kind of hiking, camping and rafting activities not usually associated with La Mancha, but the region has yet another trump up its sleeve. Teetering on a high promontory, at the junction of two river canyons, the town of Cuenca spills dramatically over sheer cliffs. Its crowded, medieval houses—the outer ones of which precariously overhang the 200-metre abyss—create the curious impression of a town shaped "…like the prow of a ship, sailing into space." It was descriptions such as these by the town’s abstract artist, Fernando Zóbel, that made Cuenca the fitting capital of many of Spain’s foremost modern artists. A mere glance over this fairytale town and its Casas Colgadas (hanging houses) is enough to understand why they chose this surreal town in Spain’s most naturally surrealistic region, as their source of inspiration.
Copyright © 2002 Michel Cruz
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